Typefaces of the occult revival

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Man, Myth & Magic #1, January 1970; McCall’s, March 1970.

The announcement last week of the death of British character actor Geoffrey Bayldon prompted some discussion here about the typeface used for the titles of Bayldon’s TV series from the early 1970s, Catweazle. This was a humorous drama in which the actor portrayed a warlock transplanted by a time portal from the Norman era to the present day, a comic counterpart to another occult-themed series, Ace of Wands (1970–72). Being aimed at children, both Catweazle and Ace of Wands are at the lighter end of the great flourishing of occult-related media that runs in parallel with the rise and fall of psychedelic culture, a period roughly spanning the years 1965 to 1975. The two trends reflected and fed off each other; the hippie movement stimulated interest in the occult (Aleister Crowley is on the cover of Sgt Pepper) while giving to the commercial propagators of the supernatural a range of aesthetics lifted from the 19th century.

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Muller, 1972; TIME, June 1972.

Among the graphic signifiers is a small collection of typefaces from the Victorian or Edwardian eras, designs which vanished from sight after 1920 only to surface 50 years later in very different settings to their previous deployment. I’m always fascinated by the way context changes the perception of a typeface, and the repurposing of Art Nouveau fonts—which hadn’t previously been associated with diabolism—to signify witchcraft or sorcery is a good example of this. In the case of the occult revival this was partly opportunism: the commercial application of post-psychedelic style made the previously untouchable trendy again, decoration and elaborate stylisation was no longer taboo. But it was also a solution to the problem of signifying the sorcerous with typography when there were no off-the-peg solutions as there were for, say, Westerns or stories about the Space Race. As well as carrying with them a flavour of old books, some of the more curious letterforms were reminiscent of the glyphs of magical alphabets which no doubt explains their popularity.

What follows is a chronological selection of the more striking examples (or my favourites…) which conveniently begins with Ringlet, the Catweazle font. With the trend being towards Art Nouveau you find popular Nouveau styles such as Arnold Bocklin also being used in the 1970s but I’ve avoided these in favour of the less common choices.

Ringlet (1882) by Hermann Ihlenburg

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Pall Mall, 1971.

Jullian’s landmark study of the Symbolist movement isn’t an occult text but it is a great favourite of mine whose original title—Esthètes et Magiciens—puts it in the right sphere. Inside, the author touches on the spiritual concerns of many of the artists which included Theosophy and fashionable Satanism.

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Duckworth, 1973.

Aleister Crowley is represented here with the first reprinting of his erotic poetry, produced in a limited run by the venerable London house of Duckworth.

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Rise Above Records, 2016.

Blood Ceremony are Canadians devoted to the occult rock of previous decades. Their presentation matches songs with titles like The Great God Pan and Morning Of The Magicians.

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Dune: some French connections

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French poster by Michel Landi for the ill-fated Jodorowsky film.

There’s more to French music than Air and Daft Punk, and there’s more to cosmic French music than Magma, although you wouldn’t always know it to read Anglophone music journalists. I’ve been championing the electronica recorded by Bernard Szajner for a long time, and even tried without success to get one of his albums reissued a few years ago. (Which reminds me: Gav, you’ve still got my Szajner albums!) That album (credited to “Zed”), Visions Of Dune (1979), has been out-of-print since 1999 so it’s good to know it’s being reissued on vinyl and CD next month by Finders Keepers’ Andy Votel. FACT has a mix of extracts to give the curious some idea of its buzzing analogue soundscapes.

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Visions Of Dune (1979) by Zed (Bernard Szajner). Artwork by Klaus Blasquiz.

Visions Of Dune attempts to illustrate Frank Herbert’s novel in musical form; you wouldn’t really know this without the track titles but that’s the way it often is with instrumental music. The album has gained a surprising cult reputation in recent years although it’s difficult to tell whether this is merely a consequence of its rarity or whether it’s because people like Carl Craig have taken to listing it as a favourite electronic record. It’s a decent enough album but I’ve always preferred Szjaner’s follow-up, Some Deaths Take Forever (1980), a conceptual polemic against the death penalty which is ferocious enough in places to be classed among the post-punk electronica being produced in the same year by Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. Szajner later recorded an album with Howard Devoto, Brute Reason (1983), which puts him even more firmly in the post-punk camp. I suspect Some Deaths… offends the hardcore synth-heads with its squalls of electric guitar and other traces of the rock milieu. More amenable is another Szajner album, Superficial Music (1981), which remixes the Visions Of Dune tracks into seven chunks of doom-laden ambience. I’ve never thought of the resulting sound as very superficial, “unsettling” is closer to the mark which is why I included an extract in my Halloween mix last year.

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Chronolyse (1978) by Richard Pinhas. Artwork by Patrick Jelin.

Visions Of Dune isn’t the only Dune-related synth album from France. Chronolyse (1978) is the second solo album by Richard Pinhas, another musician you won’t find many Brit writers discussing even though he’s been recording since 1974. Pinhas’s inspirations are an unusual amalgam of science fiction and contemporary French philosophy, a subject he studied at the Sorbonne; prior to going solo he was performing with Heldon, a French prog band whose name is taken from Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. Heldon may be classed as a prog group but their first album, Electronique Guerilla (1974), has one side dedicated to William Burroughs, features a track with “lyrics by Nietzsche”, and also contains an appearance by Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze and Norman Spinrad appeared on later Pinhas solo albums although neither of them are on Chronolyse which, like Visions of Dune, is a wordless (and often tuneless) meander through synthesised soundscapes named after Dune characters. The music on the first side is much more sparse than Szajner’s, and less satisfying as a result; the second side improves with the 29-minute Paul Atreïdes, a typical Pinhas guitar-and-synth jam with extended Fripp-like soloing. As with Szajner, all the Heldon/Pinhas output tends towards the abrasive, and looking at the recent Pinhas discography the man is showing no sign of growing soft, having played shows recently with notorious noise merchants Merzbow and Wolf Eyes.

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Dune paperbacks from Robert Laffont (1975–1983). Designer unknown.

Has there been any other Dune-related music from France? Given the French enthusiasm for science fiction I wouldn’t be surprised. A search for French covers of Frank Herbert’s novels turned up these strikingly abstract examples from Robert Laffont which I’d not seen before. That combination of foil backing and lower-case Helvetica is clearly derived from the celebrated Prospective 21e Siècle series of new music albums released by Philips in the late 1960s. Many of those albums featured exclusive recordings of musique concrète or electro-acoustic compositions (and many of them featured French composers) so there’s another electronica connection. Incidentally, if you ever find one of those Philips albums going cheap in a shop, buy it! The series is very collectible and some of them command high prices. Even if you don’t like the music, they’re worth having for the shiny sleeves.

Update: Further investigation reveals another French album with Dune connections, Eros (1981) by Dün, a Magma-like band whose name is taken from Herbert’s novel. So too are some of the track titles on their sole release: L’Epice and Arrakis.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune

Weekend links 206

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Nova Express (2014) by Paul Komoda.

• Last week it was Kraftwerk, this week it’s Can in another astonishing 70-minute TV performance from 1970. For those who know where to look in the torrent world there are copies of these recordings circulating there.

JG Ballard: five years on. Extracts from introductions by John Gray, Hari Kunzru, Robert Macfarlane, Deborah Levy, James Lever, China Miéville and Michel Faber for a new series of Ballard editions.

• Mix of the week: Needle Exchange 147 by Inventions. Also at Self-Titled Mag: Suzanne Ciani on her Buchla beginnings, talking dishwashers, and why no one got electronic music in the ’70s.

• At Dangerous Minds: It’s So Far Out It’s Straight Down, a Granada TV documentary from 1967 featuring Paul McCartney, Allen Ginsberg, International Times, Pink Floyd et al.

The Wonderful World of Witches: Portraits of English Pagans. A photo-special from the 1960s at LIFE. Related: From 1974, the US TV ad for Man, Myth and Magic.

• Suspicious Minds: Adam Curtis on Stephen Knight, Jack the Ripper, squatters, heists, From Hell, and why people no longer trust those in authority.

• Here be men with beards and syntezators: Andy Votel‘s Top 10 Early Patch-Bay Polymaths From Eastern Europe.

The New York Public Library has made 20,000 maps available as free, high-res downloads.

• An oscilloscope video by Vincent Oliver & Steve Bliss for Riff Through The Fog by Clark.

Anne Billson interviewed Alejandro Jodorowsky in 1990.

• At BLDGBLOG: When Hills Hide Arches.

Do gay people still need gay bars?

Pixelord Dreams

I’m So Green (1972) by Can | Nova Feedback (1978) by Chrome | Gay Bar (2003) by Electric Six

Fiser and Liska

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Having enthused recently about Czech soundtrack composer Zdenek Liska, and about Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1969), I can’t avoid mentioning the release this month of Liska’s soundtrack for Herz’s film which comes twinned on CD with Lubos Fiser’s equally distinctive soundtrack for Herz’s Morgiana (1972). Both films are available on DVD from Second Run. Having only discovered these works in the past month the soundtrack collection arrives at just the right moment, another excellent reissue from the UK’s Finders Keepers label who specialise in resurrecting neglected soundtracks, electronica and other obscure music. (Highlights from the electronic catalogue have included the reissue of Suzanne Ciani’s synth music from the 1970s and 80s.)

With Morgiana and The Cremator sharing a director it makes sense to present the soundtracks as a pair, but the films also share a macabre atmosphere that verges on outright weirdness. Where the character of the Cremator is obsessed with reducing human beings to ash, in Morgiana we have a sister plotting the slow death by poison of her twin in order to gain an inheritance. Fiser’s organ-inflected score is suitably dramatic, even melodramatic for the scenes where the poisoned sister is hallucinating, or we’re seeing everything from the point-of-view of the family cat. Finders Keepers’ albums are designed by Andy Votel who for this release has had the CD booklet printed with the Cremator pages running from the back to the centre so that—in the booklet at least—neither title is favoured.

Anyone curious about the Finders Keepers’ sound world can receive a taste via this mix by Andy Votel for Self-Titled Mag. It’s intended to tie-in with Cassette Store Day (that’s today) but really functions as a good sample of the record label’s obsessions. There’s some Suzanne Ciani in there, as well as a rare piece of Cristal Baschet playing from Lasry-Baschet.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Two sides of Liska
Liska’s Golem
The Cremator by Juraj Herz