Review // VHS Head - Persistence of Vision LP

VHS Head first came to our attention through his first LP, ‘Trade Mark Ribbons of Gold’ (2010), on Skam Records; the follow-up release to his debut release the ‘Video Club’ EP (2009). His unique creative perspective shone through for us immediately. Stemming from his love of video-nasty and Grindhouse style films, exclusively in his possession on VHS format; he wears his influences liberally – using these cassettes as the primary source material for his music. The layers upon which his uniqueness is built flow from the authentic analogue distortion from the cassettes themselves, his particular consistent taste in the style of movies he's selecting (stemming from his deep fondness of them), the selections of the sounds and samples themselves from within these films, and his absolutely stunning ability to edit, manipulate and work these into cohesive and complex tracks. Mary Anne Hobbs picked up on his talents quickly following the first Skam release, commissioning him for a mix (listen here) on her much-praised BBC Radio 1 show, which at the time was genuinely one of the most prominent portals for new electronic music. Since then, he has quite accidentally maintained a semi-mysterious profile, with only few of his notoriously complex and incredible live shows and irregular releases on Skam (averaging less than 1 per year) and a few remix projects on the side, one of our favourites of which is the ‘Julia Taxi’ remix below.

With releases coming so infrequently, we are always pretty hungry for the next piece of material by the time it comes – and with a 3 year wait since his last release Midnight Section (2011); our appetite was particularly strong in the run up to his new LP, the focus of this article – ‘Persistence of Vision’. Skam Records, the primary label for his releases; once more provides a very fitting home for his sound; given that this label was the birthplace for artists as prevalent and game-changing as Autechre and Boards of Canada (for whom Skam have just announced a remastered re-pressing of their debut ‘Hi Scores’ EP). Skam is a label that has consistently pushed genre-defying future music, and for us, VHS Head stands as their current champion and a very worthy successor of equal ability to these giants of electronic music. He is the ultimate fuser of ideas, a kind of modern Vorticist of music – both embracing the nostalgic analogue grains of synthesis from Boards of Canada, Autechre’s angular percussion and the Future Sound Of London’s euphoric (in the right way) rave spirit – this is not a case of plagiarism, but influence – with these merely being stylistic touches in a much broader sonic picture that he paints. These elements are combined within incredibly complex and often funky structures, forms that are unmistakably and unimitably VHS Head. Like the Caddisfly – a creature that creates something unique in its larvae stage by using the particular physical substance of its surroundings, Ade Blacow ties together the many colourful influences that surround him into his own stunning vision – sharply punctuated by his arresting percussion, keen ear for sonic texture and deep understanding of audio manipulation.

In advance of its release, ‘Persistence of Vision’ first came to the attention of the music media (such as the Wire) through the arrival of now much sought-after VHS preview cassettes, each containing a few tracks alongside strange and something disturbing video footage – one example of which has just surfaced on Youtube.

The digital version was released back in May 2014, but we’ve chosen to write this piece now to coincide with the vinyl release (now available through the Bleep store). This physical release is an essential item for collectors, with stunning artwork from long-term Warp and Skam collaborating visual artist Michael England, who has also been responsible for projects such as live visuals for Autechre amongst numerous other things. The epic sprawling image of the light transmission from screen to eye across the inner double gatefold spread is our particular favourite element, but the front cover quite effectively reflects the trashy horror roots of the LP – roots also evident in track titles such as ‘Enter The Devil’, ‘Don’t Look In The Closet’, ‘Mutant Nights’, ‘Dead To Morrow’ or ‘Tracking The Moon Beast’.

The music itself represents a significant leap forward for VHS Head in terms of both his diversity and production techniques, which, given that he was rather accomplished before, is quite saying something. The album is utterly striking in its sonic complexity, attention to detail and deft shifts through a vast palette of sonic textures. But with the degree that his material can be an assault on the senses, the layout of the material on the album is sensitive to this and pleasingly arranged in such a way as to provide pauses and more calm oases to give some respite to the more intense barrage of ideas stemming from the more intensely edited tracks.

Here are just a few highlights from what is a consistently good album for us...

‘Enter The Devil’ opens with a driving and tight slow funk that often opens out into reverb-laden spaces, before developing a very pleasing acid line that carries the track into its more menacing latter part. This ominous element is introduced in the form of an archetypal oldschool horror organ, punctuated by concisely considered percussion and some seriously epic 80’s Shakuhachi.

An early favourite in the LP for us is ‘Gas Human No.1’, which we think effectively demonstrates VHS Head’s heightened sensitively to space, texture and form. Following an opening reminiscent of some early BoC, the track develops some seriously interesting squelch that sits on top of everything in the mix, adding another dimension and aggressively filling up the space through its refined panning.

‘Mutant Nights’ resonates pretty strongly with me, and is one of the main reasons for the connection to Future Sound of London. It’s an ambient track dripping with the kind of vibe presented in the past by the work that FSOL did with Robert Fripp, as well as the more ambient moments on their monumental ‘Dead Cities album. Softly wailing distorted guitar leads descend perpetually in pitch across a landscape of lush pads, and delicate piano... everything drenched in a sea of acoustically undulating reverb. ‘Red Ocean Apocalypse’ is another track that brings me back to FSOL, with the beautifully distorted epic vocals immediately pulling me back in time...

We featured ‘Dead To Morrow’ on our interactive player in advance of the album’s release back in May, and it remains another one of our favourite tracks on the LP. Ever-shifting arpeggios move against a simple but lushly grained bass and a searing lead synth that soars across the mix, scorching everything in its path until the arrival of the slow and irregular beat that drives the track into its final much darker stage. Cut up strings herald in the breakdown herald the arrival of a much more serious and restrained section of the track.

‘Farewell Africa’ represents one of those palette-cleansing moments I mentioned earlier... with the vibe of beguiling but slightly twisted and sinister elevator music, its calming refrain maintains a fairly soothing course that deviates occasionally into more psychedelic territory. A little like taking an elevator ride into the retro-future with your fellow passengers melting into the walls, while you try to pretend that everything is normal. I don’t know if it’s just me, but that little twisted vocal really reminded me of the vocal from The Prodigy’s ‘Break and Enter...

‘Angels Never Sleep’ closes the album on quite a beautifully mellow vibe, with a lounge-y vibe and sci-fi-esque melody – juxtaposing perfectly sounds both retro and futuristic in only the way that VHS Head can. As alluring as the decadence of an opium den on a space station, dripping with the nostalgia of everything good that came before, while ropily costumed people in robot suits play the harp beautifully against the background of a burning earth.

VHS Head will be touring ‘Persistence of Vision’ with a full live AV show for Autumn and Winter.