At the beginning of the fourth track on this fourth album
from Belbury Poly, an erudite professor type proffers a few
words that feel central to its core: "The geography of
peace." The sound of The Belbury Tales lies equidistant
between those two poles, with the familiar smell of dusty
old textbooks and public information films mixed in with a
loose, quietly psychedelic feeling. This opening up of the
Belbury Poly sound can partly be attributed to founder Jim
Jupp welcoming in a couple of guest players on a number of
tracks-- Jim Musgrave on drums and Christopher Budd on bass
and electric guitar. It feels like a strand picked up from
the fissure Jupp sliced open on "Scarlet Ceremony" from
2006's The Owl's Map, where a faint sense of groove was
breathed into the astringent Belbury Poly template.
It's a similar action to the overhaul Stereolab took on
Emperor Tomato Ketchup, bringing space and depth into their
sound through the muted funk of "Metronomic Underground".
Here, it helps widen the scope of an act that felt like it
was getting backed into a corner on From an Ancient Star in
2009, which was a pleasing but somewhat pro forma exercise
in the kind of work we had come to expect from Belbury Poly.
Many of the central tenets of the sound remain intact, with
Jupp's impressively fussy arrangements the foundation on
which he hangs a series of loopy and fascinating musical
notions. It's often about finding an unusual sort of
proximity in styles, such as the startling introduction of a
child’s off-kilter vocal in the standout track "Green Grass
Grows", which floats like a spectral presence over analog
synth runs that pay tribute to old 1970s station idents.
Naturally, that kind of feeling is something anyone
acquainted with Jupp and Julian House's Ghost Box label have
come to expect. But most of The Belbury Tales falls shy of
creating musical phantasms. Instead, shades of folk-tinged
prog acts emerge, particularly those from the Canterbury
scene that Jupp confessed to be a fan of in a recent FACT
interview. But it's a Belbury-ized interpretation of those
works, delivered through a filter of antiquated synths,
creepy 1970s horror features, and esoteric library music.
The prog influence can be heard seeping through the cracks
in "A Pilgrim's Path", which feels like it's one or two
chords away from toppling over into the excesses of that
genre. But Jupp has a headmasterly way with his music,
quickly reining in any signs of disobedience via carefully
plotted structures and neatly clipped synth lines, which
form like a plume of chalk dust rising from a blackboard
eraser slammed hard on an old wooden desk.
That type of reserve Jupp utilizes in Belbury Poly aligns
him with a number of English acts well versed in rock
history but with a distinctly un-rock approach to the art,
who sometimes work in pop or on the fringes of it. Bands
that listen to mountains of old psych 7"'s with yellowing
sleeves then distill the feeling from them while shearing
out all the fatty excess-- the long hair, the flowing
tie-dye ponchos, the hoary old guitar solos. Bands like
Saint Etienne or House's former collaborators in Broadcast.
So on "Now Then", the wildly distorted guitar passages come
with a muzzle attached, pushed into the background over
loops of the most un-rock instrument of all-- the panpipes.
"Chapel Perilous" and "Goat Foot" even threaten to boil over
into solid rock grooves, only for Jupp to skillfully pull
back by smothering them in great whirls of electronics and
processed sound, comfortably anchoring it in Belbury land.
One of the crucial aspects of Belbury Poly is the notion of
"building worlds," as Jupp put it in a recent interview with
the Wire. But there's always something held back, something
not clearly defined, making the listener do the work to fill
in the gaps. The Belbury Tales is stranded somewhere between
the abstract work of Jupp's past and the fuller sound of the
live instrumentation he is applying, making this feel like
his most pleasingly open-ended release so far. There's
fantastic detail in the packaging, as we've come to expect
from Ghost Box, with a short story from Electric Eden author
Rob Young decorating the pages of the CD booklet. Even the
variations in paper in that booklet-- sleek and soft on the
outside, coarse and craggy on the inside-- feels like an
aesthetic choice that was labored over for days. That's the
world of Belbury Poly, like a meticulous sketch of an old
town plan that never got finished, leaving plenty of scope
for its creator to pencil in the blanks.