Broadcast, whose music has always employed the evocations of memory, must now make music in constant reliance on memory. The group’s singer and co-songwriter, Trish Keenan, died in 2011 of pneumonia at age forty-two. This left her boyfriend, and sole remaining member of the group, James Cargill, to complete Berberian Sound Studio, which was composed and partly recorded before Keenan’s death. Cargill has also been working on Broadcast’s next album, which will use vocal recordings that Keenan left. It’s impossible not to think of the painful process this must be for him. “I made music with Trish, but I also made it for her,” Cargill said in an interview. “The next thing I release with Trish on it will be more like a monument and a tribute to her rather than this obsessive thing I used to have about making albums.”
The album currently released, Berberian Sound Studio, is a soundtrack to a film of the same name about a sound engineer working on an Italian horror movie in 1976. The soundtrack was specifically designed to fit the movie (and the movie within a movie) and so it’s deliberately sparse in order to fit the mood of giallo film from the seventies. The most substantial songs all follow a couple nearly identical patterns—an organ playing slight variations on a minor-chord arpeggio or an organ sleepily following a scale. Or the instrument may be a harpsichord or a quavering sampled flute playing the same slight themes. The roteness of the compositions has the sound of an assignment needing to be turned in. But the film’s director, Peter Strickland, had considerable input into the music he wanted, so perhaps Berberian Sound Studio is indeed best thought of as an assignment from someone else.
If part of that assignment was to emulate a soundtrack to an Italian movie from the seventies, which is when Berberian Sound Studio takes place, then they succeeded. The soundtracks to countless movies from the middle decades of the twentieth century—which has always been where Broadcast drew most of their inspiration—featured just a theme or two, altered with different instruments or arrangements in order to fill out an album, and often were no more than loose wanderings of notes set within a certain aesthetic. That can be enough, though. When the images and story are already there, it only takes a nudging by decent-enough music to heighten the mood. On its own, Berberian Sound Studio has arresting moments, but among the thirty-nine tracks, most of them well under a minute, those moments are not many.
But Broadcast has created other special-purpose albums that provided much more substance than this. Two of their last albums—Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age and Mother Is the Milky Way—were also collections of very short art-house tracks with enough collages from stock recordings to be cataloged under “experimental” music. This would wrongly imply that these two albums were more concerned with dischordant provocation than with simply creating memorable music. Instead, the tracks often seem like songs in miniature rather than the undeveloped songs of Berberian Sound Studio. A whole song may not be given to us, but what is provided is often a haunting moment that we might have hummed over and over again had we encountered it in a fuller rendition. We, too, might have mentally stripped away drums and bass, which are often omitted here, in favor of a more ruminative slowness.
Keenan and Cargill worked with Julian House on Witch Cults, which was released under both Broadcast’s name and The Focus Group, one of House’s working names. House is their longtime graphic designer and a creator of several sample- and synth-heavy albums on his Ghost Box label, which are similar in their influences to Broadcast’s music. He seems to have assembled and juxtaposed the many disaparate sounds on those two albums. In a 2009 interview Keenan said, “It’s as though to him the audio is playable memory, like an organ of recall where the keys are years or genres apart instead of octaves.”
Both Witch Cults and Mother Is the Milky Way were also anchored by a fully fledged opening song—“The Be Colony” and “In Here the World Begins”. The whirling, ascending “Be Colony” is stunningly fluid in its intricacies. Its chorus seems to shove off from the rest of the song in a way that feels at once gratifying and briskly stimulating. With “In Here the World Begins,” we hear a vigorously droning, disintegrating note that sounds like a piano from a couple apartments away. The nonchalance of Keenan’s vocals alongside the insistent rhythm creates a striking air of detached hipness that’s common in much of their music.
Broadcast were clearly capable of many more wholly rendered albums prior to Keenan’s death. But lack of money had been causing difficulties for years. A band that had started with five members was down to three by the time of 2005’s Tender Buttons. That album ended up being released in something close to demo form—the same looped drums are heard on most songs in lieu of their usual jazz drummer. After that, it was just the core of Keenan and Cargill, making recordings from their home in Birmingham, England and later, after a move intended to save money, the town of Hungerford. By the time of Berberian Sound Studio, Cargill admitted “I needed to finish the soundtrack because I needed to get some money”.
Upon reading such details, money enters into considerations of something that doesn’t seem monetarily calculable. Albums that enraptured other people’s lives—and that jet the band into international tours, radio interviews, magazine covers and photo shoots—don’t necessarily change the lives of their creators. And then time cruelly ended for Keenan.
After Berberian Sound Studio, Cargill stated “I need to figure out what it is I do now”. Keenan apparently left enough audio tapes for Cargill to work with on another album, which could be the last under the name Broadcast. Many of the tapes are early demos of songs they later recorded. “There’s a version of ‘Ominous Cloud,’” Cargill said, “from when she first wrote it on guitar, and it’s an absolutely beautiful version. That’s just such a wonderful song.” Going through all the tapes has been “wonderful, but I’m also feeling a sense of loss. It’s like she’s with me and isn’t with me at the same time.”
In far less poignant ways, Broadcast’s avid listeners feel the same way.