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By the time you get to “The Curfew After the Massacre”–the 27th of 39 tracks on Broadcast’s 39-minute soundtrack to the lauded 2012 British psychological horror flick Berberian Sound Studio, out today on Warp Records–the feeling is familiar and exquisitely frustrating: A tantalizing soundscape, a melody mysterious and evocative, promising so much before vanishing so quickly. Gone way too soon.
Fitting, probably, given the untimely passing of Broadcast frontwoman Trish Keenan nearly two years ago, at the age of 42, following complications from pneumonia. She and fellow electronic-pop experimentalist James Cargill–her sole remaining partner in the Birmingham combo, purveyors of psychedelic dreambience and, later, netherworld lullabies–were working on the Berberian soundtrack when Keenan died. Cargill finished the largely instrumental album by himself.
Berberian Sound Studio the movie, directed by Peter Strickland, is a Lynchian thriller that tells the tale of a meek, middle-aged Englishman and foley artist named Gilderoy hired to create the sound effects for a ’70s Italian horror film. But as he stabs watermelons, pulverizes cabbages, tears radish stalks and heats fat to simulate the sounds of bodies being tortured and dismembered (the fat’s for the sizzle of molten metal on skin), the isolation, the incessant screams of female victims, and the increasingly gruesome scenes he scores (which we, the audience, never actually see, but hearing is more than enough) sends him down the dark corridors of his unhinged psyche. And you know what happens at the end of those dark corridors…
Berberian Sound Studio the album follows Gilderoy’s mental unraveling with short bursts of potent, arresting ideas and a few recurring melodies given different textures; most tracks (excepting two, which nudge slightly past the three-minute mark) are fragments clocking in at a half-a-minute to a minute-and-a-half, occasionally intersecting with snippets of dialogue or spine-freezing howls. Severed from the film to become its own sonic story, Broadcast’s 39-minute journey, in a way, soundtracks the listener’s descent into madness as one compelling snippet after another is dangled in front of the ears and then cruelly snatched away just as their hooks are about to sink into brain matter.
About half of Berberian is billowy, gentle: Chirping birds and pattering rain makes “Such Tender Things” just that. Flute- and oboe-like sounds dance almost playfully in “The North Downs Dimension,” and in “Monica (Her Parents Have Been Informed),” “The Gallops,” and the aforementioned “The Curfew After the Massacre” they begin to create the sort of disoriented serenity you feel while standing at the edge of a foggy, snow-covered meadow. Elsewhere, however–“Beautiful Hair,” where harpsichord meets eerily modulating synths; “Teresa’s Song (Sorrow),” featuring Keenan’s distant, wordless voice layered and echoing like a transmission from another dimension–the calming effect cross-dissolves into something more unsettling and macabre, like the part in the movie (not this movie) where the camera slowly approaches the little girl glancing downward and holding the ragdoll, and you just know she (and probably her doll, too) is about to be revealed as a fanged, glowing-eyed demon-child.
Sprinkled in between are the sepia-toned sinister bits: The evil church-or-Dracula’s castle organ that drives “Burnt at the Stake,” “Treatise,” “Valeria’s Burial (Under the Fort)” and “Edda’s Burial (Under the Clump)”; the fearful Italian whispers of “Malleus Maleficarum” and “Anima di Cristo”; the crescendoing rumble of “The Game’s Up,” which approximates the feeling of a standing in the crater of a not-dormant-for-long volcano.
And then there are the straight-up frightening moments: The hair-raising Argento/Goblin synth-grind of “Mark of the Devil” and “Found Scalded, Found Drowned”; the eight-second screamfest “The Serpent’s Semen” and “The Fifth Claw” — a minute-twenty-eight of deranged gibberish turning into a prolonged torture-terror caterwaul amid ghoulish keyboard thunderclouds, it’s the kind of shit that doesn’t need to stick around long to have you keeping the lights on at night for days.
But the bulk of Berberian understays its welcome; despite its brilliance, particularly when taken as a whole, you can’t help but wish that most of these striking miniatures extended into songs, which happens only twice–the gorgeous, glassy, hymn-like “Teresa, Lark of Ascension,” featuring Keenan’s angelic exhalations, and the melancholy, flute-dappled closer “Our Darkest Sabbath.” Then, the sad reality hits that Broadcast is no more, and you’re just thankful that there’s anything here at all.