Thursday, May 13, 2010
White Noise, AN ELECTRIC STORM
Island, 1969; available
7 tracks, 36:22
What do you get when you combine an expat American double bassist (with an interest in electronics) and two audio wizards from the BBC? Answer: This gem of an album! While future White Noise albums were mostly David Vorhaus (the expat) alone, this album also featured the legendary Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Derbyshire is most famous for her electronic DOCTOR WHO theme, while Hodgson created the enduring sound effects associated with the Daleks and the TARDIS. Those sci-fi credentials give you a hint of what this album is about, but nothing more. Painstakingly assembled the old-fashioned way from tape snippets, this is a masterpiece of pop concrete. For the first five tracks (the A-side, or "Phase-In" as they put it), the group delivers grade-A psychedelic pop. Maybe "pop" isn't quite right; there's no way they could have expected the cheeky "My Game Of Loving" to get any airplay with its combination of densely arranged blips and bleeps, Beach Boy-esque vocals, and apparently authentic orgy sounds! That lapse of taste aside*, the other tracks are just catchy enough to be better known while being just too bizarre for the mainstream. The vocals (courtesy John Whitman, Annie Bird, and Val Shaw) aren't always great, but they serve their purpose well enough. "Love Without Sound" predicts future trends like illbient and trip-hop with its slow smoky atmosphere and rolling drum track, while "Here Come The Fleas" is a short novelty track that thankfully stops just before it gets irritating (even if it does have a nifty distorted guitar in the mix). Side two ("Phase-Out"), on the other hand, is another story! The obvious highlight is the eleven-plus minute "The Visitation", a goofy-but-eerie epic with plenty of creepy whirring noises and a gloomy plot involving a deceased biker trying to talk to his grieving girlfriend.... and failing. It's somewhat like listening to an EC comic story as performed by Kraftwerk! It just so happened that this track took a while to make, and Island started to get impatient. After a year, the label demanded the finished album; under threat of a lawsuit, the band produced the final track in one night, with assistance from jazz drummer Paul Lytton (you might remember that name from my review of Area's EVENT '76). The resulting jam was called "Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell", a fitting title if there ever was one! It begins with ominous (though hokey) group chanting, leading right into Lytton's furious and free drumming. Lytton is accompanied by a droning tape loop, punctuated with random screams and bursts of noise. "Black Mass" is VERY out of place, but surprisingly it's one of the highlights and a worthy conclusion. The whole collection is an early electronic masterpiece that still sounds remarkably fresh. Derbyshire and Hodgson left White Noise after AN ELECTRIC STORM, while Vorhaus sporadically revives the name. Subeqent White Noise albums have their moments, but AN ELECTRIC STORM will always be the crowning achievement under that name. All other works by Derbyshire** and Hodgson are absolutely recommended, but unfortunately their works aren't easy to find outside of DOCTOR WHO-related compilations.
*While I'm not a prude by any stretch, this is one of THE goofiest attempts at sexiness I have ever heard. No kidding!
**The extremely rare ELECTRO-SONIC is one of Derbyshire's best works; if you can find it, it makes a great companion to AN ELECTRIC STORM.