White Noise’s landmark 1969 album An Electric Storm might not the first thing most people think of when considering 1960s music, but there are few records anywhere tied more intrinsically to the moment of their creation. Recorded in the months immediately prior to the widespread availability of keyboard-based synthesizers, An Electric Storm might be one of the most painstakingly crafted electronic recordings of all time. Pieced together on improvised equipment via innumerable tape edits, this remarkable album is at once futuristic and unavoidably date-stamped, serving as a fascinating audio snapshot of a bygone era in sound generation and recording technology.
One of the few acts in pop music history able to trace their origins to the lecture hall, White Noise were first conceived when American electronic engineer David Vorhaus– following a lecture by BBC Radiophonic Workshop veteran Delia Derbyshire– enlisted Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson to integrate their experimental electronics with more pop-oriented material. (Derbyshire, of course, was by this point already responsible for the classic theme song from “Dr. Who” and other music for BBC TV and radio programs.) Commissioned by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, the three musical scientists soon holed themselves up for months in their Camden Town studio, fastidiously assembling what Vorhaus later surmised to be the most heavily tape-spliced album in history.
Yet knowledge of White Noise’s academic or technical background does little to prepare the listener for the widescale psychedelic mayhem of An Electric Storm. Despite its brief 35-minute running length, the album covers an enormous amount of stylistic ground, as White Noise overlay their fractured pop songcraft with musique concrète effects, weird bits of radio theater, and long stretches of gothic horror. While other groups of the period–such as Silver Apples or The United States of America–made use of similarly primitive electronic equipment, An Electric Storm was a separate beast entirely, and its singular textures have been a primary influence on such subsequent acts as Stereolab, Broadcast and Belbury Poly.
Not originally issued in the U.S. until 1973, the album has seldom stayed in print for long, and surely owes at least a portion of its peculiar mystique to its rarity. With their latest reissue, Universal has kept the original tracklist intact, without unearthing any additional alternate or bonus material. The album has been splendidly re-mastered, however, and An Electric Storm remains a virtually requisite headphone experience with an otherworldly appeal that transcends its considerable influence.
Like so many ambitious albums of the time, An Electric Storm is consciously split into two distinct sides, the first half dubbed “Phase In” and the second “Phase Out”. On the first side, White Noise indulge their daffy pop appetites with such bizarre trinkets as the cartoonish “Here Come the Fleas” and “Love Without Sound”, the sensuous track which first encouraged Blackwell to pony up the cash for the full album. With the aid of rotating vocalists Annie Bird, Val Shaw, and John Whitman, the songs on the album’s first half are melodic and memorable, and often infused with a cheeky sense of humor. The group’s quirky wit is perhaps best witnessed on “My Game of Loving”; the album’s notorious “orgy” track that follows an ecstatic bit of sexual frenzy with the sound of contented snoring.
Things get considerably scarier during the lengthy “Phase Out” segment, which begins with the group’s 11-minute ambient centerpiece “The Visitations”. This death-defying piece, which reportedly took over 3 months in the studio to assemble, ostensibly tells the tale of a motorcycle accident and its supernatural aftermath. Packed dense with disembodied noises and eerie panning effects, this intense track can become addictively engrossing, a perfect slice of audio theater that one can’t help but ride through to the very end.
Vorhaus, Derbyshire and Hodgson took so long in recording An Electric Storm that Island started to get antsy, and well before completion the label began to demand the finished product. Presented with the challenge of such a time crunch, many groups might panic and fall back upon more conventional material. But true to their iconoclastic nature, White Noise instead improvised the still-astonishing “The Black Mass- An Electric Storm in Hell”, a spirited cacophony layered thick with percussion, funereal chanting, and the tormented screams of the damned. Like the rest of An Electric Storm, this dark finale sounds quite unlike anything recorded before or since, and stubbornly refuses to ever settle in as background music.
And this unrehearsed episode of grotesquerie provides An Electric Storm with a strangely appropriate ending, as it stands as one final monument to White Noise’s unique inspiration and eccentric approach to technical problem-solving. Theoretically, with the benefit of all the ensuing advances in recording technology, it should be easier than ever for today’s musicians to duplicate such a production. Perhaps this deceptive sense of ease is precisely why no one has ever really been able to do so.
-Matthew Murphy, pitchforkmedia.com
White Noise-AN ELECTRIC STORM (1969)