Certain words immediately come to mind when discussing Ghost Box’s discography: “ephemeral,” “otherworldly,” “haunting,” “weird.” Adjectives like “poppy,” “danceable,” and “catchy,” however, are less apt to describe the label’s strange, haunting electronic music. But then along comes Peel Away the Ivy, the debut album from The Pattern Forms, which sits quite comfortably between those two poles.
Peel Away the Ivy is arguably Ghost Box’s most accessible release to date, though using “accessible” to describe anything Ghost Box-related could be considered tantamount to sacrilege. The label specializes in odd, off-kilter music inspired by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and library music, obscure children’s TV programming from the ’60s and ’70s, and a skewed sense of British pastoral-ness. As such, albums by The Advisory Circle, Pye Corner Audio, and Belbury Poly generally sound like they’re piping in from some parallel dimension. And with the right frame of mind, they can be a fully transporting experience.
The Pattern Forms — a collaboration between The Advisory Circle’s Jon Brooks and Friendly Fires’ Ed MacFarlane and Ed Gibson — certainly taps into the same arcane aesthetic as those aforementioned artists. Peel Away the Ivy is replete with strange, enchanting synthesizer flourishes that are by turns kaleidoscopic, scintillating, and ethereal. In addition, field recordings are scattered throughout the album, imbuing it with a warm, bucolic feel. (See the title track, “Sparrowhawk,” and “Polymer Dawn.)
But that sonic weirdness doesn’t exist for its own sake (which can seem the case with Ghost Box releases). On Peel Away the Ivy, it’s ultimately channeled through a sterling pop sensibility, one which subsumes everything to the ace songwriting. This becomes clear within seconds on “Black Rain”: drifting, Boards of Canada-esque keyboards conjure up an otherworldly tone even as a solid beat and throbbing bassline anchor the song and push it forward. Rather than conflict, the two aspects meld with and enhance each other, creating music that gives you a head trip even as it sets your head a-bobbing.
Even if Peel Away the Ivy isn’t Ghost Box’s most accessible release, it’s certainly one of their loveliest. These songs are frequently drop-dead gorgeous. “A Simple Walk” features one of the album’s most psychedelic backdrops and it’s made all the more pretty as MacFarlane sings “A simple walk on the greyest day,” sighing all the while as if he might just let go and float away on the airy music. Meanwhile, on “Daylight,” his voice soars and seeks to scale seemingly endless cascades of analog arpeggios. Later, he sings “You’re the mark of a fairy ring/And I’ll dance with you for an eternity… You’re the flare on a camera lens/A long lost vision that I can’t contain” (“Fluchtwege”).
A “fairy ring” reference might smack of new age-y nonsense, but like the other mentioned songs, “Fluchtwege” is a beguiling and sublime listen — one made all the moreso by the deft manner in which The Pattern Forms achieve that ever so tricky balancing act of losing themselves in experimental atmospherics while still maintaining enough presence of mind to write emotionally affecting (and hook-filled) synth-pop songs par excellence.