Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Belbury Poly - The Willows

Belbury Poly
The Willows

Released 2004 on Ghost Box
Reviewed by Fatalist, 04/04/2010ce

Belbury Poly is the name under which Jim Jupp creates a unique and very British strand of electronica infused with elements of folksongs, found sounds and library music. Yes, others have trodden a similar path before, but crucially, there’s nothing self-consciously quirky or ironic about Belbury Poly. It’s not tokenistic either – this is a commited and fully thought-out concept that makes all three of their albums (so far) consistently engaging and enjoyable.

Certainly, Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin - two of the most popular exponents of this type of headphone electronica – are definite touchstones. But whereas BoC produce music that mimics the hypnogogic slippage between consiousness and sleep, the effect of Belbury Poly’s soundworld is to evoke a magical sense of déjà vu, locating a pleasure zone somewhere between memory and imagination. And while Aphex Twin can be spiky and confrontational, Belbury Poly is positively jaunty, beckoning the listener to take the scenic route and admire the view.

That’s not to say that the music is bland or saccharine – as well as putting a smile on your face, Belbury Poly can also be disquieting and uncanny. In fact, the best analogy I can come up with is the curious tonal juxtapositions that would occur on kids TV during the 70s, where a jolly radiophonic theme tune might rub up against a nightmarish public information film featuring a hooded spectre warning children to stay away from lonely stretches of water.

Which brings us onto the ‘hauntology’ thing. Belbury Poly are often cited as being a key hauntological player, what with their label (of which Jim Jupp is co-founder) being called Ghost Box and a love of classic scary TV such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape openly acknowledged. And yes, hauntology is more than just spooky sounds… But I worry that this willingness to view Belbury Poly as (literally) an outpost of Wire-esque sonic academia obscures the fact that their music is first and foremost very accessible, being packed with lovely melodies and clever arrangements.

The Willows is Belbury Poly’s debut album, but the whole package is there right from the start: warm yet slightly off-kilter electronics, textural sampling of acoustic and orchestral instruments, and the evocation of a techno-arcadian idyll encroached upon by ancient shadows. In fact, the album sleeve sums it up best: a molecular model with a green man superimposed on one of the atoms.

‘Wildspot’ opens proceedings, a bubbly piece of analogue eccentricity that might once have soundtracked a schools programme physics experiment. It quickly leads into the title track, wonky electronica that’s as joyful and unnerving as a moonlit walk along a tree-lined country lane.

Perhaps the best example of the light and dark elements that run through Belbury Poly’s music is the pairing of the tracks ‘A Thin Place’ and ‘Farmer’s Angle’, the former built around a sinister arpeggio with Mellotronic flute weaving through it like marsh gas while the latter sounds like a perky alternate theme to Countryfile.

‘Insect Prospectus’ is perhaps my favourite track on the album, a bracing mash-up of marching timpani and woodwind, Shostakovich reimagined as a ramble across the moors under a lowering sky. ‘The Absolute Elsewhere’ is apparitional dub, the wind and rain blowing through the broken windows of an abandoned village, while album closer ‘Far Off Things’ is a glorious burst of synth-string sunlight breaking through clouds as church bells chime in the distance.

It’s rare to come across something in modern British music that’s as lovingly detailed and executed as Belbury Poly, and to my mind, Jim Jupp’s sonic palette and vision rivals that of Eno’s classic 70s albums. And frankly, I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

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