Various Artists ‘Intermission’ (Ghost Box)

Box of Delights

It’s a curious musical dilemma, possibly unique to the collective talents behind Ghost Box Records. When your label exists in a perfectly-formed parallel universe of your own devising, how much of the real world do you allow to intrude? Even in times of international crisis?

“A response to the situation” was the brief that Ghost Box co-founder Jim Jupp gave to the roster of artists involved in this superlative collection of new material, “but in no way about the situation”. And the idea of an “intermission” informs proceedings from the off, with Pittsburgh writer Justin Hopper impeccably channelling Rod Serling’s introductions to 1960s episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’. “Let’s take a moment to forget all of the actions and events of our lives” he deadpans, in the album’s spoken prelude. “And gather up, instead, all of the gaps. String them together into one long memory of intermissions…”.

The implication is clear: this crisis is temporary. After the loss, the pain, the disruption, something at least approximating normal service will be resumed. This is a gap. Indeed, an intermission. And one that Ghost Box have attempted to fill in the only way they know how: with music that transports.

With every Ghost Box A-lister present and correct, it’s a veritable Showbiz XI of reassuring, immaculate musicality. Jon Books, in his Advisory Circle persona, offers ‘Airflow’ and ‘Forward Motion’, a brace of wistfully soothing instrumentals. The revitalised Plone combine the peppy ‘Running And Jumping’ with the comforting ‘When Everyone’s Asleep’, losing none of the heart-bursting momentum of April’s comeback album ‘Puzzlewood’. And the spectral beats of Pye Corner Audio, the perfect soundtrack for the country’s deserted, cobweb-coated dancefloors, are also present and very much correct.

Ghost Box co-founder Julian House brings his wonderfully fractured Focus Group, of course; alongside Jupp’s own prog-tinged Belbury Poly, arriving like a gentle cavalry charge at the album’s conclusion. It’s a touching show of uniform solidarity from a label whose work has nestled firmly in the hearts of so many. 

Born from the collective British memory of Public Information Filmsand fuzzy test cards on rainy Tuesday afternoons, Ghost Box has long since sought to transcend the boundaries of its own origins. The mellifluous trans-Atlantic tones of Hopper are the perfect embodiment of the label’s increasingly international feel, and elsewhere the spiky playfulness of Germany’s ToiToiToi provides the perfect counterpoint to the psychedelic tropicália of Portugal’s Beautify Junkyards. All three of these offerings broaden the label’s musical palette in the most invigorating fashion. 

Sharron Kraus – whose 2019 Ghost Box album ‘Chanctonbury Rings’ was a moving collaboration with Hopper – brings a folk sensibility too, with the wistful, recorder-laden ‘Tell Me Why’. And Frances Castle, guiding light of spiritual sister label Clay Pipe, assumes the form of The Hardy Tree, offering the bucolic charm of ‘Woodberry Vale’. 

But the greatest surprise? Hang out the bunting, it’s the return of Roj. Missing in action since 2009’s acclaimed ‘The Transactional Dharma Of Roj’, one-time Broadcast keyboardist Roj Stevens re-emerges from the etherwith ‘The Animal Door’, a delightfully juddering concoction of David Cain-style radiophonics and wonky, offbeat guitars. It’s the gleeful trump card of an album whose very existence came as a surprise to many, appearing without advance warning one sunny Friday at the height of communal lockdown misery. An unexpected postcard from that strange, parallel universe, with wisps of exotic smoke still curling from the stamp.

And while the nature of the Ghost Box universe may be constantly evolving, its essence remains consistent. The label still provides a haven for those of us whose early years were defined by battered John Wyndham paperbacks and ‘Children Of The Stones’, but – in parallel to its exploration of what early journalistic champion Mark Fisher once defined as “lost futures” – it is also perhaps now gently picking at the seams of “lost” childhoods. A world of old documentaries, forgotten jazz poetry and unsettling central European animation that barely impinged upon the psyche of three-channel British children, but which now seems like an impossibly exotic alternative to our own cloistered upbringings. 

‘Intermission’ stands as testament to Jupp and House’s musical and cultural curiosity. Always the most forward-thinking of retro obsessives, they have ensured that Ghost Box’s output, in the label’s 17th year, sounds as fresh and exciting as ever. “Maybe the gaps are where memory comes into its own” concludes Hopper, in the album’s thoughtful coda, ‘Intermission Conclusion’. “Maybe is it at its most accurate when it joins us here… in the intermission”.

The real world may have rudely intruded, but Ghost Box’s universe will always be our refuge. 

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