❉ A set of tracks rooted in real world experience, but which still manage to reach out and touch the unreal and the ethereal.
“That’s what I think art is about, when it’s not boring, it’s the allowing of ghosts to come back.” – Jaques Derrida
Hauntology is fast becoming a meaningless term, an over-used and very loosely applied label for everything from Weird Folk to The Wicker Man. Generally, it’s a tag attached to anything a bit rural, a bit melancholy, a bit spooky (but only in the MR James sense, never in the Ghostbusters one). Such a nebulous definition can obviously lead to difficulties in focus, and I’ve lost count of the number of musical collections I’ve seen described as ‘hauntological’ (or it’s near relation, ‘psycho-geographic’) when what they actually mean is ‘droning’ or just plain ambient.
That accusation, thankfully, cannot be made of the folk behind A Year in the Country, an ongoing series of multi-disciplinary examinations of – in their own words – ‘otherly pastoralism, the outer reaches of folk culture and the spectres of hauntology’. There’s a tight focus to each of their regular releases, with previous anthologies relating to fictional soundtracks, the history of English fields, and lost transmissions echoing in the stars, and here that focus is turned onto something which seems ideally suited to the hauntological gaze, lost and abandoned cinemas. If anything in the modern world is more haunted by the ghosts of creativity lost, it’s those glorious old art-deco edifices which once adorned even the smallest of towns but which were all too often demolished to make way for shopping centres and trendy apartment flats.
To be fair though, on an initial listen, most of the tracks here seemed to me to have taken the theme of cinema as a whole as a starting point, picking an image or a sound linked to that wider concept and running with it, without many obvious links to hauntology. So, my notes from the first couple of listens include lots of things like ‘sound of loose film reels flapping’ and ‘incidental music from a kids cartoon’ but also a more general than specific appreciation of the range of music on display. The fault, however, was mine.
It was only on subsequent listens, and especially having read the notes which come with the download (part of the multi-media aspect of the project) that a clearer throughline became evident, and the real depth of the piece(s) became apparent.
Because, far from being flames kindled from the spark of an over-wide theme and otherwise divorced from the collection’s original intent, this is a set of tracks rooted in real world experience, but which still manage to reach out and touch the unreal and the ethereal.
Sometimes the links are mental and emotional, rather than physical and mechanical – Sproatly Smith’s memories of his grand-parents working in rival Herford cinemas in 1 and 3 on the Front, for instance, (in many ways, the central track of the collection, with the nameless woman’s reminiscences providing a key to everything else) or Pulselovers’ gorgeous tribute to The Gaumont Frieze.
But elsewhere, though, more specific film-related mechanics shine through – Handspan conjures music from the mysterious numbers scratched on the inside the watch of his silent movie pianist great-grandfather in A World in my Pocket, while Listening Center’s Boards of Canada-influenced Meet You Outside the New Metropole has at its core a pitch shifted chord derived from a recording of his own Super 8 film projector running at 18 fps.
Everywhere, though, there is a sense of full examination, of looking at a world now slipping away in the round, of not allowing helpless, humourless melancholy be the only emotion on show. True, grandeur lost is the strongest emotion on show, but there’s also humour – Keith Seatman’s Saturday Matinee in particular is a brilliantly energetic tumble of a track, with jaunty, bouncing notes leaping like balls along the top of a song lyric in an old cartoon, and the sound of what could be kids shouting in excitement, briefly lost in a haze of drone, before the bouncing ball returns on an exit of triumphantly crashing cymbals.
The collection ends with a beautifully mellow piece by Vic Mars, but in some ways it’s the title of the track, not the music itself, which has the most to say. Only the Clock Remains it reads – but this collection proves that, for the moment at least, that is far from being the case.
There are memories too, and fresh creativity borne from them…
‘It was all colours…I don’t know what they did with it after…’ – from ‘1 and 3 on the Front’
❉ The Quietened Dream Palace, the final A Year In The Country release of the year, is released 17th November 2020. Available as a limited edition hand-finished CD and also to download and stream. Pre-order now from A Year In The Country’s Bandcamp page.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas