Harmonic 33
Music For Television, Film and Radio Volume One

By Ed Chamberlin

 
Pin-pointing the birth of electronic music is more difficult than you think. Often people will bring up Kraftwerk’s name, as they certainly introduced the electronic idioms that we are most familiar with to music, while others will shake with glee, as they point out that even further back in time, the Silver Apples were releasing music that was equally dominated by electronics. In fact, you can go way back in time to find examples of people using electronics to make sound, musical or otherwise: Elisha Gray's Musical Telegraph from 1976 and William Duddel's Singing Rrc from 1899, being pretty much as far back as you can go before arguments become flimsy.

In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in-between: the BBC Radiophonic Workshop being founded in 1956 and creating new sounds for Auntie, mad-inventor and general genius Raymond Scott composing advertising jingles and Soothing Sounds For Babies in the 50s and 60s, and Joe Meek’s head-spinningly strange concept album of men from the moon I Hear A New World from 1959.

Harmonic 33 tread similar ground, but are entirely of the here and now. The work of Dave Brinkworth and Mark Pritchard (from, among others, Global Communication), this is classic, dusty and neglected-sounding music, bringing to mind all the gloopy, electronic wonderment of all the aforementioned artists (apart from Gray and Duddel... probably) and crap sci-fi films – not only in the sound themselves, but in the under-a-minute vignettes that punctuate the record, acting as short experiments with a new synth noise or tuneful flourish.

But with the benefit of hindsight, Brinkworth and Pritchard avoid many of the pitfalls that early electronic artists fell so predictably into. There are no laughable squelchy-noises-for-dramatic-effect, much tighter editing and no cheesy voice-overs. In a way it is such a utopian view of what prehistoric electronic music could have sounded like, that you find yourself wishing that it really were an uncovered gem from some dank, forgotten vault somewhere.

Optigan, which opens the album has a distinctly orchestral feel, with sweeping strings, ghostly opera vocals (possibly synthesized) and electronic burbles. The only hints you get of the modern era are the funky, plodding bassline and nimble drum shuffle. Funky Duck wins points for sounding exactly like its title, and is one of the few tracks that cannot hide its modern sensibility – this kind of tongue-in-cheek groove would have been unthinkable in the highly academic world of early electronics. Departure Lounge’s space jazz is simply masterful – dawdling along on a zero-gravity backbeat with plenty of cheesy trippy noises to enjoy. The album ends on Planet 54, a gorgeously melancholy gaze into the night sky, that would have Air seething with jealousy. Harmonic 33 know their craft inside out, and rarely fall out of character; the temptation to insert modern techniques must have been hard to resist but, in resisting it, they have created a whimsical and beautiful record that never becomes bogged down in pretence. Next time someone is pissing you off about when they think the first electronic music came about, shove this on and tell them it’s from the 40’s. That’ll shut ‘em up.
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