WHITE NOISE – An Electric Storm (1969)

Review by: Steve Andrew Robey
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

At first glance, this seems an easy album to review – an obscure lost classic from 1969 that was way ahead of its time, with a fascinating backstory as well. But once the excitement of the discovery wears off, what am I exactly left with? Do I like this? Or am I just fascinated by the idea of it? These are the hard questions I forced myself to confront after about the 5th listen.

Backstory? Well you know the Mike Watt lyric in the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part 2” – “Our band is scientist rock.” And that is exactly what I would call this. More than almost any album I can think of, this album was produced in a laboratory as part of a scientific experiment – albeit a fairly casual, lighthearted experiment, not necessarily any grand attempt to change the world, although in a low-key way it kinda did. The experiment aimed to see what would happen if some musicians and electronic wizards made a pop album with whatever was lying around the BBC studios? Result: it would be pretty weird.

Two employees of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (including Delia Derbyshire, creator of the original electronic “Doctor Who Theme” which fills my house several times a week to this day) got together with an orchestral bass player who wanted to experiment with electronic music. The trio were hardly “rock musicians” at all, and the compositions on this thing reflect that fact – they sometimes kind of sound like pop music, but it never stays in one place long enough to really register any “hooks” in the classic sense. Perhaps the cause of this disjointedness is the manner in which the pieces were conceived. This is no “play a synth chord for 5 minutes and then twiddle the knobs and see what happens” kind of music. These pieces were intended as bona-fide songs with verses and choruses and whatnot, but each part was put together in such a manual, inorganic way (i.e. pieced together rather than a continuous performance) that the seams can’t help but show. The good news is that this makes for some pretty interesting music that doesn’t really sound like anything else. The closest I’ve heard is the United States of America album, which has a similar devotion to primitive electronics, as well as a similarly dorky female singer. The five tracks on the first half of the record can eventually get under your skin and stay there as quirky pop tunes if you give them a chance.

But the other side of the record? Pretty frickin scary, in contrast to the naive pop experiments of side one. There are but two lengthy tracks, both of them clearly aiming for a “horror show” kind of atmosphere – the first side’s Evil Twin, in a way. “The Visitation” is 11 crazy minutes of dramatic music, evidently telling a ghost story of some kind, with suspense music to match. Like the shorter songs on side one, this was pieced together over a period of months in what must have been a tedious process – albeit clearly a labor of love for the artists.  Having missed the production deadline to deliver this album to Island Records, the trio still found themselves a bit short of material, so in a panic they rush-recorded the album’s last track, the infamous “Black Mass: An Electric Storm in Hell”. This track is little more than weird noises, thunderous tribal drumming, and frenzied screams. Some of those screams are pretty damn convincing,, too. Scared me pretty good, I must say. “The Visitation” had some cool screams too. Side B really gives this album the extra meat it needed to make for a memorable album.

I have to confess that this album is more interesting in concept than in execution – though my avant-garde-loving ears automatically squeal with joy upon encountering anything as weird as this, if I were making a recommendation to another person, I seriously doubt many of them would enjoy this, outside of its historical importance. The music itself is a bit clumsy, if charmingly so, reflecting the “clean slate” approach the group took to making this album – NOTHING had really been done like this before, and their pioneering spirit must command respect.
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Author: tomymostalas

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