Ways of Seeing Is The Advisory Circle’s Most Accessible Album, But It’s Still Pretty Weird (Review)
Listening to any Ghost Box release always feels like entering another world, albeit another world with a discomfitingly familiar cast to it. But then, that’s been the label’s raison d’être since the very beginning. Or as its website puts it, Ghost Box’s discography is a “misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”
This aesthetic has remained remarkably consistent across all of Ghost Box’s artists and releases, with all of them pulling from the same basic well of electronic and library music, post-WW2 public education films, classic BBC sci-fi, and stories of the strange and supernatural. (It’s not unlike the sense of nostalgia conjured up by Stranger Things, but with a distinctly pastoral sense that could only come from the Brits.)
Along with The Focus Group and Belbury Poly, Jon Brooks’ The Advisory Circle has been one of Ghost Box’s signature artists, and Ways of Seeing is arguably the Council’s most accessible and straightforward album to date — especially compared to, say, 2014’s From Out Here (which was envisioned as a soundtrack for the English countryside “being manipulated and maybe even artificially generated by bizarre multi-dimensional computer technology”).
But let’s be clear: “accessible” and “straightforward” are relative terms. Never fear, Jon Brooks’ latest is still in keeping with Ghost Box’s distinctive aesthetic. Ways of Seeing is filled with skewed synthesizer compositions that exist in that liminal space located somewhere between playful, nostalgic, and vaguely ominous. (Or, as Brooks once described his sound, “Everything’s fine, but there is something not quite right about it.”) But his music is sleeker, more streamlined, and dare I say, more listenable than ever before.
“The April Interval” evokes the gentler, more reflective moments on the Stranger Things soundtrack while “Flight Capture” blends prancing synth arpeggios with dulcimer-like pluckings and shivering synth-pop. “Airborne Seeds” and “Scuba” find Brooks at his dreamiest. The former is filled with shimmering synth pulses that drift all around you while the latter’s hazy melodies give one the sense of floating lazily down a stream on a perfect spring day, a cloudless blue sky overhead and the sun’s rays trickling down through the leaves.
It’s hard not to think that some of this increased listenability is due to Brooks’ involvement in The Pattern Forms, a collaboration with members of Friendly Fires that resulted in 2016’s excellent Peel Away the Ivy. That album perfectly tempered the Ghost Box weirdness with catchy pop and vocal melodies, and that same tempering is felt throughout Ways of Seeing. Indeed, one of the album’s most affecting songs (“No Way Back”) could pass for a Pattern Forms b-side, with Friendly Fires’ Ed Macfarlane singing “There’s no way back for you now” while Brooks’ synths strike an appropriately forlorn tone.
But even in the midst of this more accessible Advisory Council, there’s still the vaguely ominous to contend with. “Be Seeing You!” (almost certainly a reference to the cult TV classic The Prisoner) imagines ancient/futuristic computers slowly rousing themselves from sleep to spy on unsuspecting citizens once more. “Time Shapes the Lens” sets snippets of a pleasant conversation against otherworldly tones. “A Mechanical Eye” sets a sample of John Berger reciting Dziga Vertov’s ode to the camera — part of Vertov’s belief in the superiority of the mechanical over mankind — against a swirling backdrop of dark, uneasy atmospherics.
This vaguely ominous air also permeates some of the album’s lighter moments. “Airborne Seeds” may drift gracefully by, but a slowly building dark groove threatens to dominate the song. Elsewhere, many of the album’s stately and graceful melodies nevertheless have an unearthly air to them. But to Brooks’ credit, the ominous is left mainly in the background, and from there, it entices, evokes, and otherwise adds intrigue to the music rather than overpower it.