White Noise “An Electric Storm”

One of the strangest releases of 1969 was this collaboration between David Vorhaus, an American orchestral double-bass player and composer with a background in avant-garde classical music, and Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, a pair of sound-effects engineers from the BBC’s Radiophonic workshop, providers of themes and incidental sounds for such shows as Out Into Space and Doctor Who. What drew these unlikely bedfellows together was a shared desire to create experimental electronic art music, at a time when Bob Moog’s early experiments in the US were still barely getting off the ground and available electronic sound generators were limited to military surplus oscillators and simple home-built circuits. The process involved endlessly overlaid electronic tones, percussion, vocal tracks and found sounds, assembled into recognisable pieces via hundreds of tape edits on a bank of six two-track Revoxes.

So what has all this to do with rock’n’roll? Well, the demos produced by Vorhaus and Co. stirred unexpected interest from Chris Blackwell, the innovative proprietor of Island, the burgeoning UK psychedelic/progressive music independent. As a result of its release on that respected imprint, the ensuing album, which took a year to assemble, was taken up by the most hardcore of those admirers of trippy sounds who’d already got past early Pink Floyd, Zappa, the Nice and other leftfield pioneers from the world of rock and who were prepared to tolerate the lack of rock instrumentation and flowing hair in the pursuit of true psychedelic weirdness.

A friend played me this album soon after its release, and I promptly declared it unlistenable. (Mind you, I’d also just declared Lennon’s “Revolution 9” and Zappa’s Freak Out unlistenable, so that’s where I was at the time.) Forty years later my liberalised ears find these recordings irresistible. I know it’s a cliché, but this record truly is unlike anything else; probably the nearest thing to it is The United States Of America’s eponymous opus from the previous year, which similarly marries electronics, avant-garde composition and general strangeness but lacks the peculiarly British whimsy, emotional gamut and outrageous sonic variety of An Electric Storm.

Of the seven tracks, only the first five manage to approach conventional song structures. Four of these are quirky love songs involving various permutations of synthesised accompaniments with Ute Lemper-like vocals, the highlight being the simulated group orgasm voiced by a group of male and female vocalists on “My Game Of Loving”. By contrast “Here Come The Fleas” is a charming comic interlude reminiscent of the Floyd’s “Several Species of Small Furry Animals”, festooned with electronic bleeps, clicks and boings. Thereafter, any resemblance between the remaining tracks and music as conventionally understood in terms of harmonic structures is purely accidental. The lengthy, maudlin but beautifully-constructed “The Visitation” chronicles in cinematic fashion the revisiting of “the girl with roses in her eyes” by her deceased biker lover, while the closing “Black Mass: An Electric Storm In Hell” starts with a cod-Black Magic chant which segues into a full-blown, percussion-driven electronic rendering of a hurricane; its seven minutes were allegedly constructed in one evening when Island became impatient for the album’s completion.

If all this sounds difficult, that’s because it undoubtedly is. It’s also compulsive, fascinating and occasionally mind-blowing, and successive CD reissues in 1994 and 2007 indicate that there’s still a market of brave souls out there willing to give it a go. Are you brave enough?

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“Your Hidden Dreams”

:D CD Reissue | 2007 | Universal | buy here ]
:) Original Vinyl | 1969 | Island | search ebay ]

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  • Dave

    Weren’t they with Asylum Records for awhile. The second track is actually pretty cool.

  • Some of the best! It’s nice & interesting to hear Delia making music outside the BBC workshop. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I respectfully request more electronic posts, please.

  • Len Liechti

    Glad you like it, Kenneth. Point of interest: Wikipedia insists that the album was released on 30 November 1968, but that the release date is “often given as 1969”. Although even the case notes in the latest CD reissue say 1969, I’m not disposed to argue. As for Asylum, I dunno. David Vorhaus released no fewer than five other albums under the White Noise moniker between 1974 and 2006, but none of these appears to have been on that imprint. For an interesting article on Vorhaus, go to
    http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb02/articles/davidvorhaus.asp .

  • Dave

    I was only joking about Asylum Records. I love this blog and you guys have really turned me on to some awesome music that I would have never heard elsewhere. Great reading about the artists and wondering where they are these days or what stratosphere their floating around in.

  • redmanthinks

    What a great site. Thanks for all your hard work. It really is a voyage of discovery.
    This particular track sounds a lot like Broadcast, who I suspect listen to this album on heavy rotation.

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