Children of Alice have been quietly producing amorphous and intoxicating soundscapes as part of the Folklore Tapes collective for a number of years now, beginning in 2013 with Harbinger of Spring on the shared Ornithology release. This poetic conjuration of rebirth and new growth was the first unfurling of post-Broadcast creation from James Cargill, one half of the personal and artistic relationship at the heart of that epochal and increasingly feted band. The name Children of Alice was chosen as an act of tribute to the late Trish Keenan, for whom Alice in Wonderland and in particular Jonathan Miller’s summerhazy 60s idyll of an adaptation, was a presiding inspiration. The name invokes her abiding spirit and also creates a sense of continuity with the evolving Broadcast soundworld, which became more concentrated and individual as it refined itself and adapted to new configurations. The group (or perhaps we should call them a collaborative triad, since they occupy island territory far removed from the familiar shores of rock, though still keeping it in vision on the far horizon) consists of Cargill along with his former bandmate Roj Stevens (who played keyboards in Broadcast) and Julian House, co-founder of Ghost Box records, whose distinctive graphic design work also gives the label its signature look, and hidden prestidigitator behind The Focus Group.
Both Stevens and Cargill lent their incubating musical presence to the 2013 Focus Group album Elektrik Carousel, and a fully-fledged collaboration was hatched with the Ornithology record a few months later. Stevens had released a solo record on Ghost Box in 2009, The Transactional Dharma of Roj whose clicking and ratcheting clockwork rhythms suggested the cogs and teeth of complex interlocking machineries and automata set into keywound or water-powered motion. He brings a similar sensibility to the recordings here, creating an impression of irregular, juddering forward motion, a Heath-Robinsonesque progression. House is a concrète collagiste, his assemblages torn by abrupt a deliberately rough-edged jump-cuts, audio analogues of his visual work. Cargill’s warm synth colours infuse the whole with sustaining solar radiance, and bass lines redolent of the Broadcast duo LP Tender Buttons occasionally rise to the surface before drifting off on the mercurial flux of transformative sound. Julian House had previously collaborated with James Cargill on the album Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate the Witch Cults of the Radio Age, and Children of Alice further explore and expand upon these researches (and those carried out on the Mother is the Milky Way tour CD). These are sound pictures whose discrete movements, organically morphing musical matter and sudden transitions produce a sense of passage through a kaleidoscopically refracted panorama and form a narrative of journeys into inner landscapes. The sound world is gently psychedelic, full of backmasked tapes, phased flutes and analogue hum. Clocks and birds chime and twitter, processed autoharps and glockenspiels glint and shimmer, woodblocks and hand-drums plock and patter.
The music the Children of Alice triad make is impossible to narrowly define. It dissolves the limiting boundaries between field recordings, musique concrète, electronica, programmatic classical music, psych folk, experimental rock, radiophonic sound, library cues, hip-hop sampling and imaginary soundtracks. These four pieces (songs or tracks seem inadequate handles to define them) are pastoral concrète, a romantic English modernism (for, to answer Paul Nash’s rhetorical question, it IS possible to go modern and be British) which replaces brutalism and the clashing bruitage of the city with birdsong, folk chatter and the sundappled buzz and hum of a summer’s afternoon (shades of XTC’s Summer’s Cauldron, with its ‘insect bomber Buddhist droning’) and hedgerow bricolage. There is an inherent lightness to these sound pictures, a feeling of expansiveness and joyful exploration. Inner and outer worlds meet, and the divide between them becomes indistinct and, in the end, irrelevant.
Harbinger of Spring is the lengthiest pieces here, a sonic suite which guides us through a varied terrain, its successive sections like rooms in a spatially transcendent mental mansion, interiors and landscapes interpenetrating like one of Paul Nash’s surreal rooms, lapped by oceanic edges and lit by pendant moons. Beginning with cuckoo sounds which spring from carved, concertinaed clock automata to transform into woodland heralds of the turning season, this playful pastoral tone poem evokes both post-war electronic and electroacoustic composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Trevor Wishart (the morphing of human agonies into bird choruses in the immensely powerful Red Bird), Bernard Parmegiani and Pierre Henry, and British composers such as Benjamin Britten with his Spring Symphony (Broadcast had already drawn on Britten’s music for their song Echo’s Answer) and the Delius drift of reveries like The Walk to the Paradise Garden and In A Summer Garden. Messiaen’s Catalogue D’Oiseaux piano pieces are also a point of comparison, their field-notated birdsong imitations set within musical evocations of landscape, weather and seasonal climate. The fact that comparisons from the classical and avant-garde worlds are easier to draw than examples from the realms of rock and pop indicates the sui generis nature of Children of Alice’s music.
Harbinger of Spring set the pattern for subsequent releases in the Folklore Tapes Calendar Customs series – a harbinger of the seasonal tone-poems to come. The Liminal Space from FTCCI Fore Halloween, Rite of the Maypole – An Unruly Procession from FTCCII: Merry May and Invocation of a Midsummer Reverie from FTCCIV: Crown of Light summon up the spirit of seasonal rites and traditions, whether as remembrance, reproduction or ongoing observances. Landscape, time and ritual are inseparable, and these pieces are full of the spirit of an age in which the seasons of man and the cycles of the pastoral year were in close synchrony. The nature of the music makes the substance of time malleable, folding it in and stretching it out, moulding it until it becomes immaterial, eternal. Only timelessness remains, a process of perpetual becoming, recession and renewal; but never an ending or a beginning.
Elements of these pieces trigger associative responses, particularly from those Broadcast fans attuned to the influences Trish and James have promulgated over the years through mixes and interview effusiveness. A revving motorcycle engine brings The Owl Service to mind; cracking flagellations and ‘orgy vocals’ Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and David Vorhaus’ White Noise track My Game of Loving; swooping sirens and agitated voices the public information films which portrayed a world in which fatal danger was everpresent in the seemingly ordinary and everyday; singing, glassy sonorities the unearthly calls of Les Sculptures Sonores; the ratcheting clogs of a large clock, with its imprisoning linear temporality, the mechanism which features in the Angela Carterish Czech fairytale fantasy Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (a firm favourite of Trish’s); and are those stridulating creaks and boings the sound of Froglets, making a surprise visitation from the soup-rich asteroid of The Clangers? These associations (and many more particular to the individual auditor) all add to the richness of the experience. For these are condensed and multi-layered soundworlds which bear repeated listening. They are unique works of singular imagination, and this first LP by Children of Alice is an extraordinarily inventive work. May it be a harbinger of many further explorations and investigations of cults and rituals, inscapes and landscapes, the temporal and the transcendental to come. Meanwhile, lay back and immerse yourself in these transformative sonic poems, take the hands of the Children of Alice and let your mind drift and come into sudden sharp focus as they lead you into undreamed of yet instantly familiar worlds. Like Alice herself on that hazy summer’s day, dream and wake UP!