Broadcast and The Focus Group - "The Be Colony" (Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age)
Like those evil wizards that guard the palaces in the Legend of Zelda games, Broadcast seem to enjoy staying invisible most of the time, popping up every so often just long enough to shoot psychedelic rays at you. They also change form, evolving from the spectral electronica of their early singles to the Phil Spector-in-hyperspace pop of their early-naughties albums. But their last appearance (2005’s Tender Buttons) marked a real sea-change: the once-mighty quintet transformed into an intimate duo, with the usually-reticent vocals of Trish Keenan emerging surprisingly sensual, cooing lovely lullabies over a chaotic clash of synths and drum machines.
Now after four years of hiatus, Broadcast have broken the silence with the release of a "mini-album" entitled Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age, a collaboration with the band’s long-time tour DJ and graphic artist Julian House (The Focus Group). I put "mini-album" in quotes because Witch Cults is, in fact, a 23-track, 48-minute conceptual opus of a kind that would be considered indulgent coming from almost any other band. Broadcast, however, have always approached their music with an archivist’s eye, and Witch Cults plays as a realization of the band’s long-standing affection for library records, occult film scores and out-sound psychedelia: a sound collage incorporating elements as disparate as oboes and recorders, church bells and choir singing, nature sounds and antiquated electronics, punctuated by English folk melodies and enchantingly narrated by Keenan.
Casual fans should be warned: There aren’t too many fully-formed songs in this set. But a few here easily the match Broadcast’s “classics”: the lilting, circular melody of the main theme "The Be Colony,” whose motifs are repeated throughout the album; the baroque and beautiful "I See, So I See So,” reminiscent of the previous album’s "Tears in the Typing Pool"; and "Libra, The Mirror’s Minor Self,” a trance-like number musically and lyrically referencing the ’60s cult spoken-word album Zodiac Cosmic Sounds. As the record progresses, Keenan’s vocal appearances grow less distinct from the instrumental interludes (the aphasiac "Make My Sleep His Song" sounds more sampled than sung) before reprising "The Be Colony" over a Stereolab groove that feels like waking up during the end credits of a particularly escapist movie.
As a paean to paganism, it works. Witch Cults is a carnivalesque collage, dark without sounding deliberate, ethereal without stooping to new-age trappings. In combining antiquated influences with their own postmodern sensibilities, Broadcast and the Focus Group have together created an evocative and imaginative work that is in many ways more challenging and rewarding than the former’s own proper albums. With an overdue full-length purportedly out next year, it will be interesting to see what spells Broadcast conjure next.