The Black Dog - "Set to Receive" (Radio Scarecrow)
Rather like Coil and, more recently, the artists in the Ghost Box imprint’s orbit, English electronica outfit The Black Dog engage in pedagogical creativity, leaving a breadcrumb trail of countercultural clues throughout their records. They’ve been steered by Ken Downie for well over a decade, through the trio’s initial split, where the other two members tripped off to form Plaid, a subsequent period of solo endeavor, and the current line-up featuring Martin and Richard Dust (of Dust Science Recordings). Throughout, Downie has maintained his love of the dropped hint. He’s an exemplar of what Simon Reynolds once described as the dual drive for ‘education and edification,’ someone who wields and imparts knowledge - and maybe, even, a touch of wisdom.
So, your first lesson on Radio Scarecrow is how out of time it feels, as though its tonal palette hasn’t really moved on since the mid 1990s. The production has been recalibrated slightly, and the cheek-chops rhythms are streamlined in comparison to the more unwieldy conundrums found on Spanners, but ultimately, Downie is working the same spectrum he helped found on early releases for GPR and Warp Records. Any nostalgia you have for this regenerative form depends on the hours you spent floating in Artificial Intelligence land back in the day. But you can expect to hear: pattering chord runs that glow strangely, like The Modernist’s velvet and cellophane populism; sweeps of amorphous ambience, blowing through the mix like escaping clouds of pink smoke; and pin-prick electronics as sharp and clear as modern-era Kraftwerk, particularly on the arpeggio rush of “…Short Wave Lies.”
The invocation of electronic voice phenomena (there is a song here titled “EVP Echoes”) and samples of numbers stations, and the repeating piano melody of “Ghost Vexations,” which references Erik Satie’s endurance piece Vexations, serve as flags in the sand, reminders of the intellectual capital bubbling behind the scene.
But there’s something about Radio Scarecrow that has it sounding less than vital, with the thread of historicizing references throughout the album also reflecting The Black Dog’s fundamentally dated language. It’s a lovely record, and endlessly, discretely listenable – even second-rate Downie is better than most artists’ prime material. But sometimes the frisson of clairvoyance gets a bit much.