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Review: Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler March 5, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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scarfolkI wanted to like this more than I actually did. Not that I disliked it; my expectations were just off a bit.

Richard Littler’s fictional town of Scarfolk is a place where the 1970s never ended. It draws from British culture of the decade — book covers, educational programs, posters, anything else that has inspires nostalgia in British people of a certain age, I guess.

The thing is, that’s hardly unexplored territory. The Ghost Box record label has been mining that for several years now. Their album cover esthetic borrows from the look of 1970s UK books; their music is inspired by early electronic music, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, ’70s educational TV, and a bit of supernatural horror from Lovecraft and Machen through to the late 1960s TV version of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Their albums appear to come from the same universe as each other, but not necessarily this one. There are TV ident logotones on some of them. There’s a Belbury Parish blog. They present an image of a UK where the 1970s are still in effect.

And there’s Moon Wiring Club. Not so much 1970s, but there’s a unique and recognizable world that comes out of their albums, videos, and website, which features the fictional town of Clinkskell.

Scarfolk started as a blog about a fictional 1970s-bound town, presenting artifacts like posters and book covers, and clearly drawing from the same kinds of sources as its more hauntological predecessors. Some have accused Littler of swiping ideas, though apparently he claims not to have been aware of them when he started.

The thing is, he’s doing something rather different. There’s certainly some humour in Ghost Box and Moon Wiring Club, but it’s relatively subtle. Scarfolk is more overtly out for laughs:

Welcome to Scarfolk…

Imagine you and your family are held captive in a town that is forever locked in the 1970s.

If you cannot imagine it, just think what it would be like.*

*For more information please re-read.

That’s from the book’s back cover. I think the difference is that Scarfolk’s predecessors are presenting an alternate reality; Littler is doing the same but sending it up while he does it. He’s not going for believability or subtlety. So, with that kept in mind, the images and texts he creates for the blog, Facebook, etc, are definitely fun. And often funny.

So how about the book?

Discovering Scarfolk repackages a lot of the material from the website, but presents it as documentary evidence supporting an investigation of a missing family built on some notes by the father. Littler creates a plot structure for what otherwise would just be amusing ephemera. It didn’t work all that well for me, though; it’s a the perspective of an outsider on another outsider’s perspective of an odd place. It’s more distanced than a JG Ballard protagonist. But then, it’s common to present stories of old places through the eyes of outsiders — The Wicker Man, which is a touchstone for fans of ’70s UK strangeness, does that. So too do many of Ballard’s novels.

But the book keeps adding on more and more strangeness and absurdity. The art creates an odd and funny world; the book turns everything up to 11, belabouring everything a bit too much. The humour ranges from over the top silliness reminiscent of 1970s Monty Python books to quirky bits that reminded me of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers. Douglas Adams is probably in Scarfolk’s DNA as well.

The main problem with the book is that, although superficially it looks wonderful, the material from the website is reproduced from low resolution graphics. The small print in some posters is hard to read. This stuff is the heart of the book and it doesn’t look as good as it should.

If this seems too negative, well, I was hoping for something more subtle, I guess. I recommend anyone who’s intrigued at all check out the scarfolk.blogspot.ca website and consider giving the book a try. But you have to have at least some knowledge of or interest in 1970s Britain. Otherwise it won’t make much sense at all.


Catching up with John Foxx January 23, 2016

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When I started this blog to write about music, mainly for my own pleasure and to stave off the boredom of being between jobs, I posted several times about John Foxx for two reasons: first, I like his music, and second, he’s prolific. Looks like the most recent of his albums I posted about were the live album In the Glow and some reissues back in 2009. So what’s he done lately? I’ll skip reissues and compilations and remixes.


jf1D.N.A. (2010, one CD and companion DVD with videos). It’s a collection of tracks created for collaborators to make videos from. Many of the videos are good, but the CD doesn’t really flow as an album, mixing beat-oriented and ambient tracks.


jf2Interplay (2011). The first album by new project John Foxx and the Maths. More song-oriented than some of the preceding albums but built entirely with vintage analogue synthesizers. Retro synthpop, basically.


jf3Torn Sunset (2011). An ambient collaboration with Theo Travis, who’s also worked with Robert Fripp and various jazz and progressive rock musicians. I like Foxx’s work with Harold Budd, but Travis’s flute pushed the line between ambient and new age a bit too much.


jf4Nighthawks (2011). A new release packaged with a reissue of the Foxx/Budd Translucence/Drift Music albums, this teams Foxx and Budd with Ruben Garcia on more piano/electronics ambient music.


jf5The Shape of Things (2011 and 2012). The second release by John Foxx and the Maths came in two versions a few months apart. The first was a 14-track album with an 8-track bonus disc of remixes and collaborations, the second was a single disc with all of the album tracks plus one from the bonus disc and one new track. It basically continues the Maths’ melodic retro electronic song style, if slightly darker.


jf6Evidence (2012). John Foxx and the Maths continue to develop their style, but this album is a mix of new material, collaborations, and remixes rather than a single piece of work conceived as a new album.


jf7Analogue Circuit: Live At The Roundhouse (2012). This is a big package from a big concert, with John Foxx and the expanded version of the Maths and special guest, former Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon, playing songs from Ultravox’s 1978 album Systems of Romance, Foxx’s 1980 Metamatic era, and the recent Maths material on one DVD and two CDs.


jf8Rhapsody (2013). Currently the final recording by John Foxx and the Maths, this is a “live in the studio” album, presenting solo Foxx, Maths, and Ultravox songs as they might be played live but with the sound quality of a studio recording.


jf9Gazelle Twin/I Speak Machine: Exponentialism (2013). Not exactly a Foxx album, this is an EP featuring four Foxx/Ultravox songs as covered by two women who worked with Foxx in recent years on Maths projects, released by Foxx’s label.


jf10Empty Avenues (2013). Musicians from The Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle, of the Ghost Box label, known for retro/hauntological electronic music, collaborate with Foxx under the name John Foxx and the Belbury Circle. It’s a beautifully melodic EP, the least synth-purist thing he’s done in years, with some of his best singing and songwriting in a long time.


jf11European Splendour (2013) Another EP, this time in collaboration with Jori Hulkkonen. More electronic than Empty Avenues but just as strong and melodic. These two EPs rank among his best recordings since the 1980s. Or ever, really.


jf12B-Movie (Ballardian Video Neuronica) (2014). Back to the conceptual, this instrumental electronic album sounds like outtakes from Metamatic and soundtracked a video inspired by the work of JG Ballard.


jf13Evidence Of Time Travel (2014). More conceptual instrumental electronica, this collaboration with Steve D’Agostino is the soundtrack for a multimedia work by the artist Karborn (apparently Foxx’s son). Somewhat more austere and abstract than B-Movie, but not overwhelmingly dissimilar.


jf14London Overgrown (2015). Inspired by the experience of moving to London in the 1970s as well as by Ballard’s disaster novels and surrealist art, Foxx has long incorporated references to visions of an abandoned, overgrown London in his music over the years. This is something of a summation of the concept, recycling a couple of tracks from other sources, including bits of Cathedral Oceans with the vocals removed. But it works well and nobody else makes ambient quite like this.


jf15Ghost Harmonic: Codex (2015). Another strong ambient album, this collaboration between Foxx, Benge (from the Maths), and violinist Diana Yukawa.


That’s a lot of music to absorb. The critics loved the Maths albums; I liked them quite a bit, but my favourites here would be the two EPs from 2013 and last year’s ambient albums.

Belbury Poly: From an Ancient Star (2009) February 3, 2009

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From an Ancient Star

Belbury Poly: From an Ancient Star

There was a time when electronic music seemed like the sound of the future, so it’s ironic how dated some early electronic music sounds. This album, for instance, sounds like it could have soundtracked some early ’70s educational TV program, or a special about the history of astronomy, but the odd thing is that this is new.

Over the last few years, there’s been something of a cult of early electronica, overlapping with a cult of library music. If you’re making a new movie or TV series but can’t afford having someone compose and produce new music for it, library music is the way to go. Want something quirky and jazzy, or something funky, or something spooky, to support a scene? Someone’s already done it for you. Even Doctor Who sometimes used library music, in addition to the work done by the Radiophonic Workshop and others.

Anyway, there are a lot of blogs out there now devoted to sharing old library music; most of the ones I’ve seen focus on the 1960s and 1970s, and some specialize in a certain genre. I can’t help but think there’s a lot of overlap between library music fans and Belbury Poly fans. And, no doubt, Belbury Poly themselves. This doesn’t sound like a 21st century album. It sounds like pieces from a variety of early 1970s educational TV programs, documentaries, and SF movies. To add to the corporate demo reel feel, the album starts with a very brief track called “Belbury Poly Logotone.”

There’s actually a lot of musical variety here, though it all shares the retro/nostalgia feel. There’s a lot of old-fashioned electronic music, but there are also significant elements of psychedelia, progressive rock, folk, and children’s music. A few tracks have vocals, some spoken.

What this reminds me of a bit is Logan’s Sanctuary, the fake soundtrack for a sequel to Logan’s Run that never existed (a topic for another day). But this is a stronger and far less cheesy affair.