Album review: The Advisory Circle – Full Circle

Words by Grey Malkin

The Advisory Circle, AKA Cate Brooks, has been releasing beautiful, sepia-tinted electronic missives for seventeen years now, starting with the influential Mind How You Go EP and progressing onwards via the eerie loveliness of As The Crow Flies to 2018’s multi-layered and cinematic Ways of Seeing. Often utilising or referencing the more haunted end of 70’s and 80’s television and library music (as well as cultural oddities such as Public Information Films or PIFS, the Government produced safety adverts of yesteryear which warned against falling under the wheels of tractors, throwing frisbees into electric pylons and getting smooshed by trains), Brooks has described The Advisory Circle’s warm but unsettling atmospheres as “everything’s fine, but there is something not quite right about it.” With her new release Full Circle, Brooks expands and further finesses her electronic palette, whilst maintaining the familiar shimmering aesthetics and aural magick of previous work. It makes perfect sense that Brooks is an avowed synaesthesiac, the moods and emotive colours that are conjured by these tracks seamlessly coalesce both sound and feeling. Indeed, The Advisory Circle’s music is in no way cold, synthetic or impassive, but instead is a living, breathing and evocative work.

Opening with the strident ‘Tomorrow’s World’ futurism of the title track, all gleaming optimism and sharp lines, there is a pervading sense of melancholia and loss that subtlety underlies the banks of analogue synths; perhaps, given the state of our current era, this melancholy for the past hopes we had for our shared future is all the more magnified. However, there has always been a dark hue or hinted sadness to The Advisory Circle, their tapping into the greys and browns of the 1970s and 80s seems to evoke a certain, peculiar form of bleakness, an unease that clings to those decades. This is exemplified by ‘Wait Hear Now’, which follows with pensive fingerpicked guitar overlaid by desolate washes of synth and modular mystery, the ghost of Paddy Kingsland fully present and approving. Back in 2005 there were very few travellers in this particular field or strain of electronica; indeed, label mates Belbury Poly and The Focus Group were Brook’s main accomplices or contemporaries. An entire genre has since evolved, with labels or descriptors such as ‘hauntology’ regularly thrown around, and artists deliberately replicating the sounds of 70’s synths and the electronic experimentation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And yet Brooks still feels very much her own genre (as do her Ghost Box compatriots); there is something of The Advisory Circle that is compellingly genuine, without contrivance and of the heart; that this is the music Brooks would make regardless of era, fashions, genres or influences. 

Moving on, ‘Time Immemorial’s pulsating sequencer intro leads into a widescreen and truly dynamic slice of electronics, both bold and curiously vulnerable in its wide-eyed observations of the world to come. ‘Autres Voix’, by comparison, is a haunted doll’s house of backwards piano and found voices, and ‘Russian Doll’ an ominous no-man’s land of tense electronica that manages to be both utterly beautiful and unnerving (which is something of The Advisory Circle’s ‘modus operandi’). ‘Recovery Process’ is reminiscent of the sleek and minimalistic early work of Jean Michel Jarre, with slowly layering melodies blending alongside sequenced arpeggios and automotive beats to construct a filmic and scenic landscape. The songs here may occasionally begin starkly, or skeletally, but any sense of musical simplicity is deceiving; there are so many fine details and such a deft web and weave of sounds that the album could accurately be described as chamber electronics. To illustrate just this, the gentle, spooked descending notes of ‘Just A Dream’ lead us into the throbbing bass notes and wistful, complex drama of ‘Fit for Purpose’, which hits a propellent motorik beat around the midway point with real emotional power. ‘Away Days’ provides a warm, comforting familiarity to anyone of the age that they grew up with the soundtracks to such television shows as Sky, The Changes or The Tripods, with sounds that transport you directly back to that time and place (yet which is seen through a viewpoint or the eyes of today, with an accompanying degree of yearning and sense of the years passed). ‘Inner Activity’s carefully constructed electric symphony is all encompassing and a balm for the soul with its gentle flashes of strings and assuring raindrop arpeggios, whilst ‘The Architecture’ is more ghost filled, the sound of echoed and reverberating drumbeats punctuating a processionary and funereal electronic mass. The album finishes (as The Advisory Circle albums often do) with a short logotone, but just prior to this ‘The Luxury Spectrum’ is a hazily effective soundtrack of languid, almost trip-hop beats, replete with synthetic harp flourishes and orchestral strings, effectively showing the range that The Advisory Circle can ably cover. Haunted loungecore anyone?

In an age when there is a vast amount of retro designed electronic music appearing almost left, right  and centre, The Advisory Circle continue to stand out and pursue their own identifiable and unique path; one that is, if anything, more beautifully and fully realised from each album to album. Full Circle does take us back to the elements of Brook’s work that are familiar and loved, but also throws up new and fascinating weird corners and shadows to get lost in. Much recommended, the album is available on 10” double vinyl, CD and download from  the 30th September on Ghost Box Records, complete with splendidly designed packaging courtesy of Julian House.

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