The simple way of saying complicated things.

Dreamy Screens, Bill Nelson (3CD box set, Cherry Red)

What we have here is 68 pieces of music in the same vein, noodlings and food for moods. The three albums were recorded in Bill Nelson’s bedroom studio and the first album itself he says was drawn from almost 5 hours of recordings on his ‘faulty tape machines and speakers, each track possessing its own technological deformity’. There is an extensive booklet accompanying this boxed set describing the ‘story’ behind each piece and listing the tech used. While of interest to the listener, it doesn’t really add anything to the actual listening experience.

What might be of more interest to the casual listener giving up an afternoon to engage with these 68 moments is: ‘They are presented here not only as a form of exorcism, but as a public demonstration of the private art of practical dreaming.’ So, if you missed these collections back in the day – and they hail from 1981/82 – this is an apt excuse to, as Bill would have it, quit dreaming and get on the beam.

This whole piece of work gives us great insight into what BN was doing at this time and how he was doing it – and he was doing a lot of it. His musical output was – and still is – considerable to say the least. Have a look at his discography and it’ll take your breath away; this man must have been sleeping an hour a night and working the other twenty-three for decades. You’d certainly need to commit yourself over work and family to make a dent in this list as a listener. Or as a composer/musician, come to that.

But to the music itself…

There is little difference stylistically between the three albums; they really are a single piece of work in every respect except a slightly temporal one. And they’re each very much a product of their age if you can remember back that far, when almost all such music was consumed via a radio-cassette recorder and the John Peel show. Like those opening notes? Then press RECORD quickly. It was quite an art.

Each of these albums is a pleasant enough experience, especially as background music on a Sunday morning. The first, Sounding the Ritual Echo, is the more guitar-based of the three; the others rely more heavily on keyboards/synths and sound effects (in the case of Beauty and The Beast). I wanted to hear more guitar, to be honest. The instrumentation is a snapshot of low-fi composing and recording – for instance the £35 Casio VL Tone (VL-1) is very noticeable, mostly because I was myself making music on one of these amazing little synths in the early 80s.

STRE has a track, ‘My Intricate Image’, that stops just short of reggae in parts! Yes, really. The other pieces move together as one, like a scintillation of starlings. ‘Another Willingly Opened Window’ is a typical piece here, pleasant enough and ‘Cubical Domes’ has a touch of Christmas to it. The best (ok, my favourite) piece of music on this first album of the set is ‘Ashes of Roses’, a quite lovely piece that had me thinking of Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Which brings me to my least favourite of the three: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Pretty much nothing here grabbed my attention. It’s more synth/keyboard based than STRE with little guitar to be heard. Even the extensive notes to this album add very little to the experience. Onward.

La Belle et la Bete (or: Beauty and the Beast) is, to me, a much more interesting affair than the other two albums. There are more layers to it, more structure. Yes, I appreciate the looseness of the first two albums with those noodlings and near-ambient Durutti Column-ish content. But I like a bit of structure too, especially when there’s a story behind the music.

This one is like an aural painting. Or more accurately, a collage. Again, it’s mostly synth/keyboard based but BN is looking outside his own little recording studio world and bringing in, as he says, the sounds, techniques and influences of modern classical composers such as Satie and Ligeti. There are common themes running through the collection of pieces: bells, sound effects of what must be windswept hilltops in fog.

‘The Mirror’ is pleasant and has some Mike Oldfield sounding guitar on it. Or maybe that’s just me. The instrumentation on this album is more extensive and like everything else about this three album set is very much of its time. The VL-1 is most noticeable here (sorry to keep going on about it but I loved that cheap little synth, made in some kind of Japanese heaven).

If you didn’t get these albums as extras back in the day (and I didn’t) and if you’re even remotely a Bill Nelson fan, you should probably get this set. If you want modern music you’re not going to find it here; as I said, it’s a snapshot of 2 or 3 years from the early 80s. And a snapshot from BN’s long career beginning with Be Bop Deluxe and continuing through to today. I can’t imagine sitting down and listening intently to one or more of these albums. I’ve enjoyed having them playing in the background while I do Sunday morning stuff though.


John Gimblett

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