White Noise - An Electric Storm

White Noise
An Electric Storm

Released 1969 on Island Records
Reviewed by Mrs Ahab, 14/07/2004ce


This is the introduction on the sleeve to what I can only describe as one of the freakiest, most frightening, far out and forward thinking albums you may ever get to hear. This is no ordinary album. An Electric Storm will take you to outer space, into the future, tear your brain apart and then give it back; stimulants should be taken with caution guys. It’s electronic and psychedelic yet stills slots in nicely into any psyche, kraut or space rock fans collection. This gorgeous heavy black hunk of celluloid is 35 years old and it still sounds totally far out. I don’t know a whole lot about electronic music, but I know it started here, there was nothing like it at the time, it was ahead of it’s time. This could be why this record never gets mentioned and is in severe danger of being lost, save for a few champions. It’s one of those you’ll never hear about it until someone lets you in on the secret, and once you’ve been initiated, there is no return. I guarantee once you hear this record you will never forget it.

White Noise is the brain child of American born David Vorhaus who studied both classical music and electronics and Brit Delia Derbyshire. Their desire to create a new style by combining music with science lead them to become some of the earliest pioneers of electronic music. An Electric Storm was collaboration between Vorhaus, holding the title “Production Coordinator” (I like the way he is just plain old boring David Vorhaus for this credit yet when he’s in charge of “Special Stereo effects” he becomes David Vorhaus B.Sc, Dip. Elec!! Just so you know he’s qualified for the job) along with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson responsible for “Electronic Sound Realisation”. Derbyshire was a seriously right on woman who studied maths and music and then in 1959 she approached Decca for a position only to be was told they did not employ women in their recording studios. She then went to Geneva to work for the UN and then later in 1960 became a trainee studio manager for the BBC. The BBC’s new radiophonic workshop came under the same department so Delia asked for an attachment there. This became a permanent “temporary” arrangement. Apparently there were no permanent attachments due to fears that working for too long with electronic sounds could cause brain damage. Delia was in her element and quickly began experimenting with her ideas on the theories and perception of sounds, and ways of communicating moods using only electronic means. Before long she had created a recording which would endure as being one of the most famous pieces of music to sum up the era and genre, the theme to Dr Who.

Delia at work

At the BBC Delia was already working with Brian Hodgson but they were also working together musically as the group Unit Delta Plus; formed in 1966. Along with Peter Zinovieff (in whose home their studio was based) Unit Delta plus was an organisation designed to create and promote the use of electronic music in film, television and advertising. These are the days before computers, before the synthesizer; this is the beginning of tape and all it’s new found possibilities; reels and intricate splicing, loops, homemade instruments, clanging lampshades and some serious manipulation. This was an unchartered territory where anything was feasible.

I wanted to include this except from a program produced for one of the Unit Delta Plus lectures because I think it gives a lovely insight to just how cutting edge this technology, which seems so obvious to us now, really was at the time.
Electronic music is made by recording onto magnetic tape. Electronically produced oscillations, which, when played from the tape, are heard through a load speaker as sounds. Part of the equipment from which these oscillations originate is shown in the photograph. There is complete control over all musical parameters such as pitch, timbre (harmonic content), loudness, duration, echo, musical scale, if any, and so on. Even after these choices are made there is control over the filtering, switching, and even over the probability (in a mathematical sense) of any or all of these parameters occurring. At times voices or other naturally occurring sounds are used in conjunction with electronic ones. The end product is a tape which is played on a tape recorder (or several tapes and tape recorders) the sounds are heard from load speakers. This is the performance and there is never an earlier stage when the competed work is heard live. In this way there is a radical difference between a concert of electronic music and a performance given by live musicians.

It was after Vorhaus attended one such lecture that his desire to create his own music really began. Derbyshire and Hodgson were persuaded to combine forces with Vorhaus whilst continuing their work at the BBC. As White Noise they recorded two tracks when by chance Vorhaus met up with Island Records founder Chris Blackwell who refused their request for a deal on a single and demanded an album with an immediate cheque for £3000. They set up their sonic temple with homemade gadgets and scientific equipment and embarked on their electro labour of love. After a year, island still had not heard a finished recording and insisted they complete album within a matter of days. An Electric Storm was released in 1969 with no gigs or interviews at all.

They were all boffins. It blows me away, I listen to this music and I don’t know how it is made, what is a frequency shifter, a signal generator, an azimuth co-ordinator or EMS VCS3? I don’t know but it sounds fucked up and I love it. If you know what these things are then perhaps that will interest you, if like me they sound more like weapons of The Daleks, it matters not. Vocalists on the album are John Whitmann, Annie Bird and Val Shaw. The Cover also has the moniker “A Kaleidophon Production” the name of their studio.

The lightening design cover was taken from a screen-print by an unknown art student; the band asked Island to print it with glow in the dark ink, but they refused to their shame as that would have been perfect.

An Electric Storm is roughly thirty five minutes long, a mere snip by today’s standards which just makes it all the more loveable for me. The length of time and energy spent compared to the listening time just serves as a reminder of how complicated this project was and the dedication involved. It forces you to feel it, happiness, passion, lust and sadness and terror; this album is a trip in every sense of the word. Split into two parts, side one being “Phase In” the hippy dreamy side, comprising of five short songs and “Phase Out” – side two, holding only two tracks, which is a venture into their heavy stereo underworld.

Side one begins with Love Without Sound; written by Vorhaus and Derbyshire this was the first track they recorded for island. A voice echoes from the other side of space. “Sound……..Without Sound……… Love without sound” John Whitman sings with dreamlike clarity amidst the bloops and clicks of could be wind up toys and kitchen timers. It has no gravity and floats around with all the right accents of twinkling stars and space debris. It speeds up and slows down and surreally drips off the vinyl like some dali-esque painting. It has an unreality to it as it flicks between wistful vocals and abstract tension. The melody has a timeless melancholy feel and the lyrics are quite hard to grasp but my interpretation is that it’s about a kinky sex act gone horribly wrong. It bounces around and drifts into a section of heartbeats over laden with gasps, gagging sounds, exited groans and flirty laughter. It’s unsettling at times with very sinister undercurrents. Vorhaus can be heard on double bass at various different speeds and pitches, sounding like which ever stringed instrument is required which holds the song together neatly.

My Game of Loving is sung by Annie Bird, who has a strange voice. Parts of the song are sung in French and German (not sure what they say) and her voice has that Nico-ish hardness about it. The character relishes in the fact that she is a bitch, love can only be pretend and a game, where she is in control. Getting what ever pleasure she needs, she moves on, and then someone else will take her place to use you up instead. You get the picture, a leather clad dominatrix type. The drums are soft and brushy and the slappy bass line reminds me of 70’s detective or porno music. It is brassy, sultry and utterly sensuous, the highlight being the unforgettable electro orgy. Vorhaus created both an electronic sound of an orgy and recorded a real live one (what a bore), combining the sounds they repeat and speed up as the song climaxes into a sexual frenzy echoed by a riot of clattering drums. Listen carefully and you can make out the sound of whips and the mixture of pain and delight felt by the receiver. And after all that excitement it ends appropriately with the sound of snoring.

Here Come The Fleas is the shortest track at just over two minutes long and is literally hopping mad. It’s full of whiz, bang, boing, pop, slap and whack, it’s a humorous rant about this dirty bum, the state of his place and his personal hygiene. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album as it is more of a novelty track but it’s absolutely enjoyable for that reason. It enters with synthy flea noises, loads of horns beeping and jazzy percussion from Paul Lytton. It’s totally random and off the head as the melody hops up and down the scale like fleas in a jam jar. It is sung from the perspective of a girl disgusted and despairing of this guy, she lectures him as he tells her to shut up. The whole song will get you scratchin’. It’s got great a fuzzy synth/guitar solo (who knows, it could be anything) layered over with domestic fighting and a knock on the door where Hodgson plays the part of a Caribbean man arksing (sic) “Would you mind being quiet in there, a man can’t even hear his own steal band”. Dogs bark, saucepans clang, sirens wail and the track speeds up until the vocals sounds like a chorus of fleas singing. This track has so many tape splices in it, it is insanely fun and after all the bitching she adds “go get a job, stop being a slob, go earn a few bob” then in a Marilyn Monroe style voice “and I’ll give you a Kiss” SCHMACK!

Firebird is beautiful (the second of the two original tracks recorded) is another co write between Derbyshire and Vorhaus. It’s probably my favourite track on this side with a great anthemic hippy chorus “firebird fly high fly free, I can’t hold you down your too wild for me”. Amid the maudlin barber shop boo boo boo’s there is someone doing a very good impression of the school recorder section. It’s a psychedelic masterpiece one of my favourite lyrics being “I’m just as high on a rock looking up as I was on a cloud looking down”. It’s very sweet and mellow, Whitman has a child like naivety to his voice when singing at the upper end of his range and this song is the best example. It has all the right spacey echoes and a lovely simple folky tune.

Your Hidden Dreams (sung by Val Shaw) is the final and longest track on this side. At almost five minutes long it’s an introduction to the heavier darker sounds that are to come on side two. The lyrics to this and one other song are printed on the sleeve as apparently they were considered inaudible, but I wouldn’t entirely agree with that. You can tell where the classical training comes in on this track, although electronic it has a very orchestral arrangement, more traditional instruments can be heard on this track than in the previous ones. It has a much later 70’s feel at times with great build ups, fan fares, intricate drum fills and pounding piano’s which all wind there seductive way through a hypnotic, electronic chaos. You get the feeling your in ancient Greece or somewhere. As with all their tracks, the music, vocal style and lyrics all convey the same emotion and feeling. The singer takes the guise of a siren, who persuades you to follow your darker desires “in every sin there must be pride, your hidden dreams can’t be denied”. The acropolis could be coming down around you and you wouldn’t give a shit, she’d still seduce you. She sees that your heart says yes and your head says no and urges you to forget your fears. She knows your secrets and there will be no tuning back “take me and you’ll begin to understand”. As if anyone needed any encouragement in sixty nine!

Side two –“Phase Out” only has two tracks and HAS to be listened to on headphones. That is an order O.K.

The opener - The Visitation is the main trip of the album and took three months to record. The sounds really bounce around in the cans with an ethereal quality as stereo is used to its full potential. It could have been recorded in a cathedral the ambience is so massive. With its sad organy sound they really clinch the sombre mood; it’s very cinematic. The track begins with a whirring sound and whispering eerie voices panning around the outskirts of your hearing, begging you to understand them as you grasp at any intelligible snatch, until they merge into an electro scream. This is the story of two lovers who meet in secret, only the boy dies in a motorbike accident on his way to meet his date. The girl cries as the music dies out, the engine revs as we hear him speed off on his motorbike. This part is probably my favourite moment of the whole album, the peril builds as he whizzes past your ears one way and then the other, faster and faster, again and again, until he crashes and the girl shrieks out. The story continues as the narrator tells us of the girls anguish and then the echoing voice of her dead lover speaks to her in a ghostly hammer way. His voice is dead sexy and he must have been completely gorgeous and of course wore leathers I’m sure. He reassures her that his death was painless and that he is still with her and her sad voice reverberates begging him not to go. Their two voices intermingle and wander in a timeless void. It is spooky and sad with so much crying and sobbing that I always feel a sense of relief when it’s over, not because I don’t enjoy it, but because grabs hold of your emotions so strongly. It’s seriously intense but a totally wonderful eleven minute cacophony of sound.

The last track Black Mass; Electric Strom in Hell was jammed as a live performance to finish the album quickly when Island were begging for the goods. This is so dark and scary I can’t always make it to the end. It starts with Gregorian chants before moving onto a drum solo that continues throughout. Imagine this, the biggest mother of a kit you ever saw has been set up in a circle around your head, this is what it sounds like. After a while it feels like a boulder rolling around and around in a trash can, it’s pan-tastic (sorry) and gets pretty weird in there. Piercing screams cry out as lost souls implode and lasers blast as we witness the destruction of all space and life. It is what it says on the packet “An Electric Storm in Hell” and you better hope you never go there! When the liner notes say “Storm Stereo” this is what they mean, when they say “Emotional Intensity is at a Maximum” this is on number 11, it’s no easy ride.

Switch the stereo off and relax.

You gotta be a lover of the odd and strange to really appreciate this album but if you’re into electronica or psychedelia you gotta get it and if you also like your music to be a freaked out white knuckle ride then you’ve found the ultimate thrill. However for those of you who like to take hallucinogenics, don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

An Electric Storm was relatively hard to come by at one time, but it was repressed onto CD a few years back and although it was swiftly deleted can be found in the usual places. Island don’t seem very interested in this record but it’s still banding about. The original vinyl pressings with the pink island centre sell for a packet but I‘ve seen the later pressing with the regular label from time to time for a reasonable price.

A friend passed a copy on to me a few years back and I’ll always remember the story of how he acquired it. This album had been the only album owned by the previous holder. This amused me, what sort of person has just one record; and presumably a record player on which to play their one record? More curiously why would they choose this? The sleeve warns you “MANY SOUNDS HAVE NEVER BEEN HEARD – BY HUMANS: SOME SOUND WAVES YOU DON’T HEAR – BUT THEY REACH YOU” This recording could do strange and untold things to your health if you over exposed yourself. Whether this record came into the hands of my pal by honest means or not I don’t know, but perhaps he done this guy a favour, who knows what a poor dribbling freak he may have become if he had been left in the sonic cataclysm of An Electric Storm forever. So if you never get to hear it, or that was your copy, it could be a blessing. Personally though, I’d like to find out what kind of dribbling freak I might turn into and I’d urge you to do the same, if you dare.

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