Album review: Belbury Poly – The Gone Away

Album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

Ghost Box is a label that has become synonymous with a certain sound and aesthetic; when we think of acts such as The Advisory Circle, Belbury Poly or The Focus Group the tinted, 70’s hued sleeve art of in-house artist Julian House immediately springs to mind, as does an aural image of vintage electronica, snippets of unsettling 70’s and 80’s public information films and a spectral sheen reminiscent of such eerie children’s television shows as ‘Children of the Stones’ or ‘The Owl Service’. Not unlike a hauntological version of 4AD Records, Ghost Box releases are instantly recognisable and cohesive, as well as equally likely to appeal to fans of the different artists on the label. Yet there is much more to Ghost Box and its roster than this; each of the afore mentioned artists offer a quite radically different take on analogue electronics and the label’s discography also includes such variety as the lush Portuguese psychedelia of Beautify Junkyards, spoken word psychogeographical excursions with folk musician Sharron Kraus and author Justin Hopper and, more recently, a 7” single with mod stalwart Paul Weller.

Belbury Poly, Ghost Box’s ‘house band’ (and essentially Jim Jupp, the label’s co-founder and owner alongside Julian House) has also conducted its own ramblings around a number of different facets of electronic music, alternately revelling in space age Quatermass cosmiche (‘From An Ancient Star’), flirting with Wicker Man-like bucolic, synthesised folk (The ‘Owl’s Map’ and ‘The Willows’) and lurking amongst BBC Radiophonic style analogue horror (‘The Belbury Tales’). With new release, ‘The Gone Away’, there is a sense of a number of these strands coming together, which befits an album based upon fairy folklore and of unearthly things occasionally glimpsed out the corner of one’s eye that may just be travelling through…Jupp describes the appeal of the subject matter and its allure, remarking that ‘there’s a wealth of folk tales and even contemporary accounts of the subject, but unlike ghosts, aliens and half-baked new age spirituality, it’s usually only spoken of in the context of childhood or mental health issues. Look at it directly and it’s not there at all, but the stories persist.’ With their back catalogue already rich with folkloric and supernatural references and inspirations, Belbury Poly and the Fairy Folk make for an appropriate partnership.

The album begins with the Paddy Kingsland-style electronic harmonies of ‘Root and Branch’, pensive keyboards and strummed acoustic guitar recalling the gentle, doomsday electronics of the theme music to the apocalyptic children’s TV show ‘The Changes’. It’s at once hauntingly beautiful and disquieting, waves of strings washing over a plaintive and addictive reoccurring melody and motif. Belbury Poly are in their element here, their innate sense of nostalgia and hazy snapshots of memories half recalled is a perfect match for mirroring the half seen world of the Little Folk. ‘Ffarisees’ opens with evocative sampled dialogue exclaiming ‘my eyes are doors, the moon walks through them’, framing the lunar lullaby that follows; disorientating electronic pulses, swoops of woodwind and shadowy percussion combining to conjure an element of genuine otherworldliness. The album’s haunting title track is next; flanged synths and delicate modular harmonies overlaid with voices that sound as if they are passing through a veil, half heard utterances from Fairyland. This is a darker Belbury Poly, a more twilight version, hinting at things hidden and unseen, with a melancholy beauty that softens the more ominous edges. ‘Fol-del-rol’ by turn is a jauntier, nursery rhyme of a track, its percussive electronics performing a whirling folk reel or jig, as jubilant notes ring out; a more earthy soundscape than its previous, enchanted and mysterious bedfellows. ‘Corner of the Eye’ returns us to the Arthur Machen-esque landscapes of sinister rolling hills and soft places where something ancient and other resides, the song’s  chimes and harpsichord shimmering atop swells of synths and crooked , earthen melodies.

Belbury Poly

Belbury Poly are hugely adept at evoking a certain mood or sense with the most minimal of sounds (although these sounds are expertly layered, built and utilised) and here they provide a filmic soundtrack to another dimension or existence with apparent ease, with all the attendant uncanniness, magic, wonder and creeping edge. ‘Magpie Lane’ owns these attributes, and more. Whilst this could easily be found chronicling and providing the soundtrack to a dystopian 70’s TV show such as ‘Sky’ or ‘Survivors’, the track is also is a thing of beauty in its own right. A mournful motif runs through a fragile cobweb of clockwork percussion and choral electronics, evocative of yesteryear and of another age, but curiously prescient and vital today also, reminding us that the past is always here with us, informing our present. 

‘Sticks and Stones’ takes us back into Paddy Kingsland/BBC Radiophonic territory again, its rubber band synths illustrating a universe where the edges have become stretched and moveable.  Tense bass notes signal a finale of singing strings and synthetic pizzicato notes that reach a stirringly triumphant ending. ‘Look Again’ is a forest waltz filled with uncanny sounds and whirring beats , both graceful and off kilter, whilst ‘Star Jelly’s lolloping beat and keyboard brass takes us to a fairy hill via the unexpected sounds of early 90s’s bliss out ambience, as if in the company of Alex Patterson and The Orb. Penultimate track, ‘Copse’, is a perfectly pitched slice of electronic folk horror, woodwinds and crumhorn extolling a sense of dread and droll as synth blasts rattle between the trees. Akin to Delia Derbyshire soundtracking ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ (which, upon writing this, sounds like the best thing ever), this creeping , stalking track paints a disturbing and bewitching picture of something moving around the woods; something decidedly not human. These are not the post Victorian ‘Disney’ fairies of movies or cartoons; these are ancient and unnerving creatures that one should be wary of. Finally ‘They Left On A Morning Like This’ is a gorgeously adorned and starry hymnal, a sense of hope creeping through on the glacial synth sweeps and glistening notes, not unlike catching sunlight bursting through the leaves of the trees. The sound of a motorway drops us back in the human world, back in our own more humdrum existence, and there is a real sense of having been on some kind of bewitchment or half remembered journey into something more super or preternatural, of having been enchanted, pixie led.

For Belbury Poly aficionados ‘The Gone Away’ will already be essential listening, for the uninitiated it is a perfect starting point; all of Belbury’s personalities and reference points are here, presented in these beautiful vignettes. Follow the willow the wisps, hear the distant music and be led on a journey that is at once frightening, spellbinding and addictive. You might not return.

‘The Gone Away’ is available on download, vinyl and CD from Ghost Box and most retailers.

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