An electronic outfit of great influence who keep appearing on new artists’ lists of influences, but haven’t released any new music for years, and have experienced multiple line-up changes? No, it’s not Kraftwerk (for once) but the Radiophonic Workshop – a name that is often, and with some merit, prefixed by ‘legendary’. It is also usually preceded by ‘BBC’, as they were the in-house creators of weird sounds and wonderful music for the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Given the technology available at the time, they were pioneers, having to find ever-inventive ways to create the sound effect that was required. There is a fascinating clip of John Baker explaining the lengths he went to produce an eight second theme for Woman’s Hour – it’s all about manual cutting, splicing and tape manipulation in the pre-sampler age – which is very much the Radiophonic Workshop in a nutshell.
The Workshop was formed in 1958 producing music and effects for, among other programmes, Quatermass and the Pit and The Goon Show for whom Dick Mills produced “Major Bloodnok’s Stomach”, one of their most influential works prior to Delia Derbyshire’s arrangement of the “Doctor Who Theme” introducing electronic music to the masses. The Workshop continued through the 1990s, gradually winding down as projects were outsourced and advancing technology meant that it was a lot easier for one musician with a laptop to produce an eight second theme for Woman’s Hour (a programme on Radio 4 which continues to this day) without stitching together tapes of water droplets at different pitches.
Of course by the time the doors were closed in 1998, the children of the Radiophonic Workshop – those who had grown up with an LP of BBC Sound Effects, or maybe 1968’s ‘pink’ album (containing work by Derbyshire, Baker and David Cain), and had definitely heard the music at school, on Dr Who or The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – were now making records. It’s a remarkable coincidence that three weeks after the Workshop was shut, Boards of Canada released Music Has The Right To Children, which effectively reclaimed the Radiophonic legacy and spread its own influence far and wide through the electronic community.
After all this time, then, it’s a bit of a surprise to see an actual new Radiophonic Workshop album. The collective have been going for some five years in various live settings and indeed Burial In Several Earths is the result of a single day’s recording on 15th January 2014 so they haven’t exactly rush-released it. Perhaps aware that sounding like the contemporary version of the 1970s Radiophonic Workshop has already been taken care of by the Ghost Box label and friends, they have opted for a different approach, one that requires all preconceived ideas to put aside before playing.
The first thing you notice, whether it’s the two CDs, or four slabs of vinyl, or even the digital files, is that Burial In Several Earths is a long record. This is not the typical approach of the Radiophonic Workshop when they were on the BBC payroll – indeed the longest track here, “Some Hope Of Land” is almost the same length as the recently reissued soundtrack to Doctor Who: The Krotons. You could play “Major Bloodnok’s Stomach” on repeat nearly 500 times in the same amount of time as this album lasts (we don’t recommend this). This is the Radiophonic Workshop without the shackles of a deadline or a length of film to compose to – and they have taken the opportunity with both hands.
There the odd moments when the old familiar sounds of the Workshop pop up, but in the main, the tracks here are long, immersive works full of sinister and suitably subterranean drones and mechanised rumbles, eschewing any obvious beats (or melody) for the most part, in return for a gradual, atmospheric unfurling. It’s not an easy listen, or a very immediate one, requiring repeat listens to really grasp the work. And it’s not always successful either; a most non-Radiophonic sounding grand piano adds splashes of light when it might have been better to keep to the unremitting bleakness already established.
If you are looking for a quick hit of Radiophonic centred nostalgia, then it might be better to go back to the Belbury Poly or Advisory Circle – or at least take the accessible way in through closing track “The Stranger’s House” – as Buried in Several Earths won’t supply anything as straightforward. In an odd way, it’s most reminiscent of Miles Davis’s string of electric albums in the 1970s, where long improvisations were edited in to something relatively cohesive by Teo Macero. Here it’s Mark Ayres doing the editing work, with the music coming from Workshop stalwart (since 1970!) Paddy Kingsland and Ayres himself, one of the last members before it closed. They are joined by two non-Workshop musicians – Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and Chemical Brothers’ engineer (among other credits) Steve ‘Dub’ Jones. It’s not the most promising-sounding quartet, and it may explain why the elements don’t always gel. But a Radiophonic Workshop album is such an unlikely occurrence in 2017 that it’s difficult to complain too much – just be prepared to put in the time. (Jeremy Bye)