I’m still floored that such an album like Pictures exists and that it exists in such an arrested state of discovery. In 1983, Andy Stennett and John Rocca, of influential British electro-funk group Freeez, decide to hide away from their record label and sure chart-topping success (courtesy of their infamous/ubiquitous hits, “Southern Freeez” and “IOU”) to record something completely unexpected. Released in 1983, and never reissued since then, Pictures remains another forgotten masterpiece to childhood nostalgia.
A record driven by thoughts of synesthesia, influenced by the music of Steve Reich, Keith Jarrett, Yes, and an unexpectedly complex Oberheim OBXa synthesizer, Pictures was the duo’s attempt to create music that mimicked “turning over the pages of a picture book.” At once gorgeous and disturbing, quite possibly it accomplished exactly what they wanted to do — present the entire life cycle of one person. Using sounds and sonics to toy with your sense of nostalgia, innocence, and imagery, Pictures, released on the influential experimental record label Editions EG, sounds unlike little else. It was Prog drunk on minimalist music. It was a fourth world, stuck inside your own world. Pictures was more music on canvas than anything else. A musical score for the imagination.
Pictures began as sounds and ideas presented to John Stocca by Freeez keyboardist Andy Stennett while on sabbatical. Driven to infernal ends by one Oberheim OBXa synthesizer, it was Andy who decided to learn the ins and outs of this unwieldy synth. With time, on this extended escape from the group, Andy managed to record a bevy of melodies and sounds using the programming techniques he learned while whittling away at this beast. John, somehow, got wind of those musical sketches, decided to write lyrics to them, and add his own bits of sampled noise, percussion, and tape loop experimentation.
From the cover art, designed by John’s brother Danny, to the unusually elaborate lyrics written by John all signs pointed to Pictures capturing the weird bits of growing up. “Lullabye” the opener, begins quite eerily, with harpsichord-like melodies inviting you uneasily into this world. As the album opens up with John’s harmonizing guiding you to the melancholic comfort of the album. There’s a very weird duality, made even more apparent with the floating synth bridges and sampled baby sounds. Should you feel comforted by the gorgeous music or remain vulnerable to the darker turns? The beauty of Pictures is that you never get an answer, every musical idea cycles amazingly, and quite intelligently through all sorts of wandering emotions, never letting you rest completely at ease. If one can imagine Toontown psychedelia (Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, Yellow Submarine, Shazam by the Move, etc.) jumping into the modern era, Pictures would surely be its landing point.
Disturbing songs like “Dancing Mind to Mind” force you to dance along to racked-out sentiments moving to drum machines mimicking closed doors in some haunted house. Hoover-like synths mimic unearthly beasts and beats in songs like “Skrahs” with reversed vocals joining a ghostly play on world music. The first side of the album ends on the otherworldly torch soul of “Battle of the Leaves” which somehow manages to join some of the ecclesiastical spirit of Aphrodite’s Child “666” with the weirdly phased out, fragmented vocal ideas of Robert Ashley to birth something completely unexpected — no easy places to place such a piece. Haunting and decidedly abnormal, it works because it cares enough to provide no point of reference to guide you from. Calling it “ghostly” would be understating it.
The flip side goes further down the rabbit hole. Songs like “Black Tiger” go from aggressive to circumspect, in the blink of an eye, unsure of the powerful mutated sound their toying with. Progressive in spirit, it’s its phased out melodies introducing you to floating music that reeks of dread and nostalgia. Then as close as anyone can get to tapping into the fragmented innocence of Nuno Canavarro, John and Andy pitch “Loneliness” as a extremely disjointed piece of gorgeous spliced up sentimentality. Trying to capture a feeling, they aim for the soft focus of memory, only to turn on modern ways we disconnect with the world, in our worst times. Heavy, heavy stuff to hear, in such way. Then, the way this song bleeds by beats into the wicked dance “groove” of “Child In A Sweet Shop” borders on some maniacally pure genius. Pictures truly earns its stripes in fades like these.
As the album closes on even more soft focused, dark innocence I can’t help but ask myself: why does this album still hold a special place in this world? There’s just something about it that will always draws you in. Engrossing like little else you’ll ever hear, Pictures has a lot of us, in the bit of music they’re making. Full of creeping darkness, it seeks pockets of hope and levity to draw away from all the pull of that heavier world enveloping it, until it is gone again. Pictures knows what pieces of the past trigger something and it probes them fully…to make you fully listen.
To capture the essence of what he sees, the artist has to interpret in such a way that others will experience a degree of enlightenment from his work. The painting, which amounts to nothing more than a metaphor of its real counterpart, however, can never actually become more than what it is trying to evoke. If it were accepted that the clarity of an image could only be as strong as its power of suggestion, then one should be able to ‘paint’ with equal effect by smell, touch or any of the senses.
Experimentation within syn-aesthetics has been developing for over 100 years. Even so, we decided it would be a new challenge to ‘paint’ with music, through the vehicle of the popular song. With magnetic tape for canvas and electronic boxes for paints, PICTURES began to evolve.
We developed the idea that if sensations of hearing and vision could be delineated into a series of electrical or chemical signals to the brain, then what would happen if ‘cables’ to ear and eye were interchanged? Would the ear see and the eye hear? Relative to their proper functions the ears would perhaps be less sensitive to contrast in light and similarly the eye would not be able to distinguish minute changes in pitch. Nevertheless, the eye and ear would be more than likely to have a small degree of responsitivity in their new roles. If this were accepted, then would someone listening to PICTURES through their eyes experience a strong visual connection in their mind’s ear? If they did, this would undermine the very semantic of sight and sound, but nevertheless would be a monitor of the effectiveness of the PICTURES project in its power and consistency of visual projection.
- An explanation by Andy Stennett and John Rocca