The Spirited Music of Britain

Before you settle in to read this post, hit play on this track called The Hidden Door by Belbury Poly, otherwise known as Eric Zann, otherwise known as Jim Jupp. It won’t surprise you that Jupp’s alias Eric Zann is an homage to an HP Lovecraft and that Jupp’s various incarnations often reference “crows,church bells, magic spells and other horror signifiers” like old Hammer soundtracks and library music. This is what nostalgia sounds like today. For those of us born in later decades of the 20th century, fantasy, horror and sci-fi was king. The synthy, lo-fi sound of 80s pop culture warms the cockles in a time where it feels as if we’ve unearthed all the truths and discovered all the mysteries of the universe, and it’s nice to think about magic and ghosts, glorified yesterdays and imagined tomorrows.

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Belbury Poly is one of a group of musicians and labels that are releasing music known as hauntology. A concept seeded by Karl Marx and developed by postmodern critical theorist Jacques Derrida, hauntology also describes a micro-genre of the British music scene, as Mark Pilkington explains in his article ‘Hauntologists mine the past for music’s future’ on Boing Boing. This genre is intensifying and filtering out into ever-wider circles of influence in the British music scene, using sonic fragments, tropes and filters to show how our past continues to haunt our present and our futures. But this is not something new for the British people. In Victorian England, science and technology were making frightening strides and culturally, people were becoming more and more enchanted with the mysteries of life as opposed to the certainties, the melancholy of the gothic instead of jubilant anticipation of better days. While they might have been looking forward, they were doing so with trepidation, with the comforting buttress of the past, dreaming of romance, magic and horror.

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I’ve been wanting to write about John Hanson’s work for some time now, and I will dedicate a review to the Low Fantasy EP, but for this post, his work as The Resource Centre is part of a bigger story. There’s a tale of mystery and enchantment being told by a small group of labels that have sprung up in recent years that champion a uniquely British species of hauntology which is bound with spatial experience. It’s inextricably linked to landscapes both urban and rural.  Julian House and Jim Jupp’s Ghost Box Music explores “the musical history of a parallel world“. The two school friends began their enterprise with a manifesto of influences including “music for schools, cosmic horror stories, library music, English surrealism, and the dark side of psychedelia”. The Geography Trip , the label who released The Resource Centre’s Low Fantasy EP, is “dedicated to the weird vortices of the British countryside and beyond“. And more recently, illustrator Francis Castle has created Claypipe Music which “specialises in releasing atmospheric music, with a strong theme or sense of place”; her most recent release of Jon Brooks’ (aka Cafe Kaput) album 52, while a shining example of the genre, remains authentic and idiosyncratic. Not coincidentally, these three labels share a passion for that special bond between mind and place known as psychogeography. The connection between the landscape and the psyche was not exclusive to the flâneurs of the Situationist movement, but rather a construct pioneered by gothic hero Arthur Machen, agreed by many as the godfather of horror and a connective chapter in the story of spirited Britain. These three labels are releasing fine examples of a genre of instrumental music that has been weaving it’s way into the mainstream.

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Don’t be fooled though, into thinking that the music of these modern spiritualists is merely nostalgic sentiment or just more postmodern mash-ups. There’s something deeper that musical mystics like Jim Jupp and John Hanson are tapping into, a spiritual vein that runs long and deep and belongs firmly in this place. It lives under the bridges of secret streams,  presides over majestic fields, sticks to the soles of urban ramblers and inhabits every body that has ever lived on this peculiar island of ravaged shorelines, valleys enshrined in fog and crumbling cities. By its very nature, this spirit is tied to the landscape, organic and material, and because of this, it has been woven into the lives of the British for centuries, surviving religious institutions and political shifts. The ancient spirituality of Britain was and still is informed of multitudes anchored not in time, but in place. As an outsider I could feel the ghosts of Britain as soon as I arrived. It’s not something I can explain or understand, but I can feel the past here like a warm and heavy blanket and it’s why this genre of music resonates with me so strongly.

Follow the digital paths and you’ll unearth a growing network of artists, creators, writers and dreamers who are digging the earth for clues and climbing the trees for clearer vision. Some good places to start are; www.unofficialbritain.co.ukwww.caughtbytheriver.net, Strange Attractor Pressancienttofuture.comThe Hauntological Society, Berberian Sound Studio

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