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The Telescopes - Altered Perception

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Artist: The Telescopes

Album: Altered Perception

Label: Space Age Recordings

Review date: Oct. 6, 2004

The first time I heard the music of the Telescopes was in late 1989, while holidaying with family in Melbourne. I was age 12 and one family member had made the wise decision of importing the NME/CND video Carry on Disarming to catch up on some latest trend in English indie music, the precise co-ordinates of which would doubtless send the Stud Brothers into a fit of alcoholic pique. Ingesting said vision at such an early, malleable age was somehow detrimental to any projected parental-focus career path foisted on me by said presences (insert cliché about schooling being rendered a void.) In the midst of it all was the video for the Telescopes’ “7th# Disaster”, still burnt onto/into my retina/memory - Stephen Lawrie absorbing the whole of the screen while colours flicker with the same vicious, careening catharsis of the spark-from-magnesium wall of sound blistering out of tinny television speakers. I filed it away for future reference (after all, this same video exposed me to My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, and AR Kane) - explore later.

Fifteen years later, in fact, and “7th# Disaster” is still a blip outside of my record collection, and the band hasn’t deigned to include said track on Altered Perception. But the chronological structure of this compilation dictates that its opening shots are peeled from the same aesthetic zone: late 80s Telescopes, sounding like some rabid, distortion-drenched rock outfit, the next in the evolutionary line from the Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Loop. There were whispers about Telescopes members taking notes down the front of Spacemen 3 gigs, but to these ears the Telescopes had a more primal and less exotic remit than Sonic Boom and co. (If Spacemen 3 were the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, then the Telescopes were the Third Bardo ratcheted through Blue Cheer’s stacks.) Telescopes music of this time conflated popular/pertinent obsessions - drugs, drugs-as-metaphor-for-romantic-(inter)dependence, the ‘endless end’ of flinging yourself headlong into the void - and spilt it like so much stage blood. Stealing tracks from rare singles and their epochal Taste album, the first half of Altered Perception serves notice to those who wrote the Telescopes off as second-division: the sound here is as devastating as their peers, just as monolithic and glorious, a kind of transcendence-through-abreaction.

The Telescopes were never myopic artists: for every “Perfect Needle” (probably the pinnacle of their work from this era) there was an infinite plain of bliss like “And Let Me Drift Away” (the perfect title.) When The Telescopes signed to Creation in 1990, they released one more single of post-Stooges distorto-rock (“Precious Little”) before firing themselves headlong into psychedelia - their triumvirate of singles from 90/91, “Everso”, “Celeste” and “Flying”, are all drenched in a kind of ‘ambivalent pleasure’, floated out on waves of smoke-screened sound, lagoons of acoustic guitar and tremolo-flare floating in reverb. For this they were accused of jumping on the shoegazer bandwagon. Listening back, these records sound almost nothing like their supposed contemporaries - the distance between “Celeste” and, say, the Pale Saints is a huge, almost impassable chasm. Altered Perception could have been more representative of this era - as it stands, we get three b-sides (“Wish of You”, “All A Dreams” and “Soul Full of Tears”) and a small clutch of previously unreleased tracks, all mesmerising and opaque. But the best thing about this era of the Telescopes is how they inveigled pop music into skull-cracked psychedelia, how they gathered sheets of blissful noise and wrapped them around mantric pop motifs.

And so, out into the light: only two tracks culled from their self-titled 1992 album. The Telescopes still sounds like the band’s bravest music: it sounds washed-out, but giddily so, flickering like a film projector clattering moulded old home movies onto an old, ruffled screen. The band lost their rock footings and bathed in an aquatic calm, etching their songs in with mottled acoustics, muffled piano, polyglot percussion. “You Set My Soul” was the record’s centerpiece, a pellucid devotional snake-charmed out of its shell by Ed Ball’s flickers of cocktail piano, and it sounds great here, a beautiful denouement, the culmination of the band’s first phase. The compilation ends with “And”, a song so bleary-eyed and narcotic it trails off mid-sentence.

The Telescopes re-appeared a few years ago with their Third Wave album; in the elapsed time, Stephen Lawrie and Jo Doran had spent a few years in pop band Unisex, and Lawrie collaborated with space-rock outfit Fuxa. But Altered Perception sums up the first five or six years of the band’s music, a near-mercurial set of rock devotionals that trace the arc of the band, from interventionist noise tactics to engorged, flooded psychedelia, and the liquid refractions of their comedown album. It’s a compilation that helps rewrite the band’s position in English rock music.

By Jon Dale

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