How does an overworked, underpaid music obsessive like me spend a wet Tuesday evening? Why, listening to probably the best soundtrack album ever released, over and over.
The film that benefits from this magnificent collection of sonic cues and assorted foley artefacts is Peter Strickland’s equally magnificent Berberian Sound Studio. Set in the 70s, it tells the story of a rather ordinary sound engineer from Dorking who takes up a position at an Italian film studio to work on a new giallo flick called “The Equestrian Vortex”. The protagonist is slowly engulfed by the mundanity of creating sounds to accompany the onscreen images of sex, violence and satanism. As the film progresses, he slowly loses his fragile grip on reality which eventually culminates in a psycho-metaphysical implosion of anxiety and disdain for the world in which he now inhabits.
Watching this, it’s almost as if Peter Strickland had been told to sit down and write a movie synopsis for me personally. I won’t go into any more detail about the film here but you should most definitely grab a copy of the newly released DVD and experience one of the most original pieces of cinema produced in years.
Over the past thirty years or so, soundtrack albums have become the stuff of nightmares and the marketing man’s wet dream come true. A dozen chart ‘hits’ cobbled together with a few ‘themes’ and – bingo! Another few million quid in the bank for the big boys. But this LP is a different matter entirely. Strickland asked one of my favourite bands, the massively underrated Broadcast to score the film with original music created specifically for the project. It was the last music produced by the band before singer Trish Keenan’s untimely death last year and is therefore imbued with a palpable sense of poignancy for me.
Broadcast have never really tried to sell many records since their inception in 1995. In fact, their output has slowly become more assuredly odd and wonderfully out of step with anything going in the world of music at the time of each release. Their last album, a collaboration with the Ghost Box label’s Focus Group was the absolute antithesis of a commercial record – and sounded all the better for it.
If this album didn’t have the word ‘soundtrack’ on it’s cover, it would easily stand amongst the very best of their canon. It manages to achieve that anyway both despite, and because of the fact. Over the course of thirty nine tiny fragments, James Cargill and Trish Keenan manage to capture the absolute essence of the film’s subject matter and it’s obsession with the minutiae of sound, suffused with a creeping sense of paranoia. It sounds like an undiscovered library music LP, recorded in 1973 and forgotten until being rediscovered and released forty years after the fact. The sleeve even looks like an old audio tape reel box, complete with faded tape holding it’s worn edges together. From the opening clunk of a reel to reel tape machine there are flutes, pipe organs, harpsichords and bucolic strings. These are punctuated by snippets of birdsong, a ticking clock, laughter, rain and traces of hushed Italian dialogue plus, a few rather marvellous screams! Trish Keenan’s voice appears fleetingly, a wraithlike presence amongst the tangle of sonic detritus. It’s an utterly beautiful record which works remarkably well as a whole, even when isolated from the visuals it was ultimately produced to accompany.
The artwork deserves a special mention here too. It was conceived by the very talented Julian House who’s singular sleeve designs have given his Ghost Box label an instantly recognisable, thematic identity. I read an article last year in which House stated that he’d completed dozens of different designs before submitting his finished piece to Strickland. A small selection of these amazing works are included below;