The Quietus

May 2013

The Elektrik Karousel by The Focus Group


A carousel scene from a black and white movie has been at the edge of my mind as I listen to the new Focus Group album. At first I thought it was from Bunny Lake Is Missing, but then I realized there is no carousel scene in that film, in one of those slippages of televisual memory explored to such great effect by Ghost Box artists in recent years. No, it was Hitchock's Strangers on a Train I was thinking of. There is a scene at a theme park where the two main characters duke it out among the wooden horses on a rapidly accelerating merry-go-round. One of them has shot the operator of the ride, so the whole thing is spinning wildly out of control. Meanwhile, a little boy is happily clinging to his horse, oblivious to the mayhem. He even gets in a few punches on the bad guy.

The demented fun that kid having is a lot like the fun of listening to The Elektrik Karousel. The imaginary carny ride we are taken through joyously and deliberately spins off its axis at times. With its off-piste rhythms and telescoped half melodies, this magpie music appears to fall apart and come together all at once, a quality Focus Group's Julian House has described as being a key element of Ennio Morricone's little-known free noise experiment Il Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. The other, more obscure scene coming to mind is from a Czech film called Romance pro krÝdlovku (or "Romance for Bugle"). In the frame narrative, a man remembers falling in love with the beautiful carousel girl in a traveling circus. As the frame dissolves and we enter into his teenage memory, we see a close-up of something spinning, something that initially looks like a twirling film reel but gradually reveals itself to be the decorated surfaces of the carousel itself. That connection between memory and merry-go-round, with the merry-go-round as a technological point of access to other times and places, also seems operative in The Elektrik Karousel. In the best Ghost Box tradition, it's hard to locate not just where we are but when we are as we listen to these sounds. The vinyl record as magical or memory-evoking spinning object (here housed in a glorious gatefold sleeve doubling as pop-art board game) gives the title a further layer of meaning.

If I had to hazard a guess, though, it's 60s Britain where we ultimately end up. The Focus Group's clockwork bird melodies and hobbyhorse percussion aren't the usual instruments of psychedelic music, but the spirit of a certain experimental, baroque psychedelia is alive in every one of these nearly 30 tunes. It is this musical tradition, rather than some engineered roster of "hauntological" artists, to which House and frequent collaborators Broadcast truly belong. For House "psych" isn't fuzz and wah; it's an inclination, a turn of phrase, the way the chords fit and don't quite fit.

Benjamin Graves