There’s a reason beyond my own laziness that this project has hit a snag: Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age (henceforth referred to in this piece as “this album”) is a uniquely difficult album that resists most typical attempts at interpretation and analysis. I’ve never been sure if I really understood everything it was trying to do, or if I was even meant to. Through the years, my opinions on it have vacillated from “this isn’t even a true Broadcast album” all the way to “this is the most Broadcast album of all the Broadcast albums.”
Released four years after Tender Buttons, this album was a collaboration with The Focus Group (Julian House), who had collaborated on the band’s artwork in the past and had an obsession with digging through the past and repurposing old sounds into little bits of psychedelia. He drove enough of this project to receive equal billing, which has led to a weird modern frustration — this album doesn’t appear on Broadcast’s Spotify page, but is listed under “Broadcast and the Focus Group,” making it easy to miss for new fans discovering the group and adding to the perception that this was more of a side project and not one of the band’s “true” albums. This was also the only Broadcast album (other than 2011’s posthumous Berberian Sound Studio, which I don’t really think of as one of their “canon” albums) released while I was an active fan, but I mostly remember not initially liking it because it was so different, and I might have went about five years before I even listened to it again.
Years later, the album has grown on me a lot, but I still think there was some validity to my initial reaction — that the appeal of Broadcast was how they made pop songs that were simple, but contained layers of weirdness and psychedelia underneath that you could gradually unfold. This album removes a lot of that satisfying subtlety and replaces it with very overt strangeness — this is more of a shout than a whisper like “Echo’s Answer.” The litany of samples and sounds in every song are jarring, and I’ve never been able to tell how much of it was original material and how much was scrapbooked together from old horror movies and the Radiophonic Workshop. The only traditional song on this album comes at the beginning: “The Be Colony” isn’t too far off from classic Broadcast and is one of my favorites by the group.
After that, this album is pretty much just a trip, and it takes a lot of the more subtle psychedelic aspects in Broadcast’s music and amplifies them to the fullest. The entire Alice in Wonderland construction of their songs comes very heavily to the forefront here, with Keenan’s ghostly innocent voice surrounded by all sorts of obscure sounds. It is never unpleasant to listen to because of the band’s gift for gentle melodies, but at times it is frustrating because of its patchwork structure. Parts like the haunting beginning of “Royal Chant” that I want to go on forever drift away in about 40 seconds, replaced by the next oddball sound they dug up. That makes it difficult to latch onto any sort of central meaning or purpose to the songs at times.
I’m normally weary of just accepting musician’s explanations of what their music is at face value (I prefer deciding for myself), but in this case, Keenan had a good summary:
I’d like people to enjoy the album as a Hammer horror dream collage where Broadcast play the role of the guest band at the mansion drug party by night, and a science worshipping Eloi possessed by 3/4 rhythms by day, all headed by the Focus Group leader who lays down sonic laws that break through the corrective systems of timing and keys.
That provides a bit of a road map to the album, but it’s still one that, at least for me, is more prickly and hard to love than all of their other efforts. One thing I think defines Broadcast’s music is a spirit of generosity — their songs had a warmth to them through sound, but also allowed listeners freedom to slowly find the truth and meaning hinted at in their songs. This is the only music they made that has a hint of self-indulgence to it, a sense that maybe it was more fun for them to make than it was to listen to.
Despite these reservations, there are times I listen to this album and convince myself that it was actually the purest representation of Broadcast. It captures many of the band’s obsessions in their purest form: the use of old sounds to create something new and weird, the desire to challenge listeners, and the idea of using psychedelic music as a door into a different way of thinking. It’s radically different from everything they did previously, yet also kind of the same, and I believe the band set out to make an album that was effective in part because it was disorienting, confusing, and not easily interpreted or analyzed. Broadcast loved making puzzles, and this is one I still haven’t figured out — that might make it the most effective of them all.