Broadcast is a band for whom patience is both recommended and required. Fortunately, they’re also a band that rewards said patience as evident in their discographical history. Three years after their debut singles collection, Work and Non-Work, the UK dream pop group took their sound to new, atmospheric and stunning levels with proper debut album The Noise Made By People. And three years after that, they released haha Sound, which is not only their best album, but one of the most incredible pieces of music this decade. But since their last album, 2005′s Tender Buttons, the duo of James Cargill and Trish Keenan has been awfully quiet. Tiny bits of news would leak now and then, suggesting that new music from the Birmingham dream-psych group was just around the corner. And, to date, the ETA on their fourth full-length is sometime in 2010.
With little warning, Broadcast emerged earlier this fall to announce that October would bring a 23-track, 45-plus minute EP released in collaboration with friend and album art designer Julian House, who records under the name The Focus Group. That an EP can somehow contain so many tracks and maintain such a lengthy running time may be a bit confusing, but it makes perfect sense in the context of the band’s discography. Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age is a different sort of animal than the typical Broadcast release. Of the EP’s 23 tracks, 11 of them stay well under two minutes, and the vast majority of them aren’t so much pop songs as they are atmospheric sound pastiches, layering melodic though often disorienting bits of sound in heady strata, sounding more like Boards of Canada’s shorter pieces than the group’s well established brand of trippy, space age pop.
Though Witch Cults is an unexpected diversion from Broadcast, it is quite beautiful. Structurally speaking, it diverts from the group’s more familiar methods, but production wise, it shares much in common with Haha Sound, as it contains many woozy synthesizers and vibrant arrangements, leaning heavily on the group’s more avant garde influences from the 1960s. At times, the crackly samples and beats they sew together even resemble the jazz-heavy compilations of hip-hop maestros like Madlib or Oh No, as on the exotic “Reception/Group Therapy,” or “Mr. Beard You Chatterbox.” However unlikely the comparison, the result is definitely cool.
Pop songs are far and few between here, but when Trish Keenan’s voice emerges from the dizzying shuffle of sonic treats, the pieces come to take on an even greater form. “The Be Colony” is the most accessible and cohesive song in the bunch, dreamy and booming with reverb and a loop of jangly guitar riffs. It’s a stunning way to kick off the mini-release, but fans should be warned: it only gets weirder from there. “I See, So I See So” is stripped-down and pretty, primarily consisting of harpsichord and Keenan’s angelic coo. “Seancing Song” is as ghostly as the name suggests, with a distorted distant Keenan floating in amid static-ridden samples, intermittent phone rings and other bizarre ephemera. “Libra, The Mirror’s Minor Self,” still quite odd, is absolutely wonderful, rich in soothing yet vibrant effects, while a serene Keenan carries the song back from its brief drop into a woozy abyss. “Make My Sleep His Song” is another dazzling dirge, more an exercise in sound than in melody, but still quite accessible, with Keenan’s voice carrying the melody as glorious cinematic bits come rushing in and out. And closing track “The Be Colony/Dashing Home/What On Earth Took You?”, while sharing nothing but part of its name with the first real song on the set, is a beautiful and rhythmic conclusion that stands as one of the EP’s most incredible moments.
Witch Cults is a strange and intriguing direction for Broadcast to take, but it’s also one that fits in curiously well between albums like Tender Buttons and instrumental tour releases such as Microtronics. It’s a successful experiment, a lengthy journey through sonic minutiae that occasionally opens up into something concrete, but remains consistently interesting throughout, and frequently incredible. Whether or not this release points to any future direction the band takes remains to be seen, but after hearing this, I have a very good feeling about album number four.