Broadcast vocalist Trish Keenan died of pneumonia less than two years after the British band released its foremost album, 2009’s Broadcast And The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age. Keenan and James Cargill’s collaborative project with The Focus Group (the solo alias used by electronic musician Julian House) was such a significant departure from Broadcast’s previous albums that it was impossible to consider it anything less than a new beginning for the band. Ambience, cut-up techniques, noise, and sampling were employed on previous albums like 2003’s Haha Sound and 2005’s Tender Buttons, but these elements were firmly grounded within recognizable pop structures. On Radio Age, Broadcast abandoned those previous parameters to create a jarring collage of drifting, phantasmal, wondrous sound. Some of the longer pieces resemble familiar psych-pop shapes, but the others are otherworldly snippets of cryptic, cultic sounds that appear only to disappear seconds later. Radio Age is one of the most experimental pop albums in recent memory, showing Broadcast charging in an exciting new creative direction. The group’s momentum made the news of Keenan’s passing even more devastating.
Finished before Keenan’s death, Broadcast’s soundtrack for the Warp Films thriller Berberian Sound Studio is the group’s first release since Radio Age. Written and directed by Peter Strickland, the film is about a British sound engineer in the 1970s who’s hired to score an Italian horror film called The Equestrian Vortex. As he becomes consumed by the task of sonically capturing the blood and violence of the movie, his own psychological stability deteriorates. Initially, Broadcast was asked to provide music only for the film-within-a-film, but it was ultimately decided that it should soundtrack the entire movie.
Considering the haunted path the band took with Radio Age, Broadcast was a fitting choice to score the project. But the soundtrack works as an album apart from the film. Opening song “A Breeze Through The Burford Spur,” which begins with a variation on the same melodic line that commenced Tender Buttons and Radio Age, is a 40-second-long fragment of sharp static, demonic wind, and clanking film equipment. “The Equestrian Vortex,” one of the few pieces with a beat, is guided by an eerie organ across a grotesque landscape of humming ghosts and basement screams. A foggy organ lingers behind the terrified whispers of “Malleus Maleficarum,” collapsing with a bloodcurdling shriek into the pure hell of “Mark Of The Devil.” “The Fifth Claw” and “A Goblin” feature chaotic, demonic gibberish sampled from the film, and both “Found Scalded, Found Drowned” and “The Game’s Up” are fast blasts of raw noise and clamoring chains. The mood isn’t completely morose: “The North Downs Dimension” and “Such Tender Things” are pensive pieces with colorful flutes and gentle field recordings. But such serene moments are rare.
Berberian Sound Studio successfully builds on the spectral philosophy of Radio Age, and is even more of a radically disjointed tapestry of occult and funereal sound than that album was. This is partly due to its status as a soundtrack: Of its 39 songs, only 14 are longer than one minute, thus pushing the practice and impression of fragmentation even further. The integration of dialogue, mysterious witching murmurs, and piercing screams from the film, as well as some recurring melodies, provides something of a narrative push to the album, but it’s distinctly vague. Keenan’s voice appears rarely, providing gorgeous, layered melodic exchanges on “Teresa, Lark Of Ascension,” one of the other ruminative pieces on the album, and also one of the most beautiful and coherent. Berberian Sound Studio is alive with vibrations of things from beyond the grave that are incapable of speaking in a way that we can understand. And, once again, Broadcast has managed to unite the ephemeral and the eternal, and to celebrate the traces of those things that we mistakenly think are no longer with us.