Spell Blanket – Collected Demos 2006 – 2009

In 1975, a time-traveling being from a distant but familiar realm left an indelible imprint on Trish Keenan’s mind. The titular character from Sky, one of a crop of bizarre British sci-fi shows supposedly made for children in the ’60s and ’70s, speaks with a cold, eerie affect, his voice warped slightly by tight echo. When exercising his telepathic powers, Sky stares down the barrel of the camera, his eyes and splayed palm imbued with a crude chroma-key glow. James Cargill, who formed Broadcast with Keenan in 1995, spoke of Sky’s deep influence on the band during a 2009 interview with XLR8R. He cited the show’s cocoon of white noise and paranoid, spectral atmosphere as key building blocks to Broadcast’s brand of retro-futurist psychedelia. In promotional photos, Keenan often emulated Sky, bathed in oversaturated colors and stretching her hand toward the viewer. She always seemed extemporal, as though her icy contralto and surrealist lyrics were beamed in from some far corner of time and space. When Keenan died of pneumonia in 2011, it was tragic not only for the sudden loss of a brilliant, exploratory musician, but because a portal to some other dimension had been permanently closed.

On what would’ve been Keenan’s 43rd birthday, a mere eight months after her death, Cargill posted “The Song Before the Song Comes Out” to his SoundCloud page. The 40-second recording features an out-of-breath Keenan singing a quick tune, seemingly struck by inspiration in the middle of a walk. In the background, beneath a soft static buzz, you can hear her footsteps keeping time. The melody unspools gracefully, as if it’s a lullaby she’s known her whole life, the occasional fudged note a product of overthinking the intrinsic. Despite its brevity, the demo recording captures what made Broadcast so special: the hypnagogic interplay of childlike melodies and the noise surrounding them.

In November of 2011, Cargill told The Guardian that he was constructing a new Broadcast record from Keenan’s massive trove of home recordings. It would be a monument to her preternatural talent, a fitting cap to the too-short Broadcast arc. That album never came, but for several years, Cargill kept a tradition of sharing one or two of Keenan’s demos on her birthday. It was a gift to perpetually heartbroken fans who trawled Soulseek and YouTube for any unheard scraps of the band’s particular magic. Over time, the links died and Cargill’s blog posts slowed to a trickle, but devoted heads doubled as archivists, preserving the songs on YouTube and Reddit. In 2022, Warp continued the fan service and deepened the band’s legacy by releasing Maida Vale Sessions, a selection of the band’s BBC studio recordings, along with reissues of two previously tour-only LPs, Mictotronics and Mother Is the Milky Way. Now, with Spell Blanket: Collected Demos 2006-2009, we finally get to hear what an album of new Broadcast material could have sounded like. It compiles 36 demos (including “The Song Before the Song Comes Out,” “Petal Alphabet,” and “Tunnel View,” all of which Cargill previously posted) into a warm and sprawling 65-minute tribute to Trish Keenan, providing an intimate look into her otherworldly genius.

Spell Blanket is an expansive sonic feast, swiftly—but intentionally—oscillating from minute-long loop fragments and textural studies to more fleshed-out, properly arranged songs. There’s a noticeable flow in energy, which gives the collection more of a proper album feel than a mixtape or thrown-together compilation. “My Marble Eye,” a 32-second clip of pirouetting organ, leads directly into “Roses Red,” an unsettling three-minute pop song where guitar figures tumble around modal vocal melodies, a bed of feedback writhing like angry snakes in the background. The acid-dipped folk of “Fatherly Veil,” which features some of Keenan’s most ambitious and layered vocal work, sits between the quick tape-delay workout of “Tell Table” and the hard-panned drum-machine study of “Dream Power.” Quick cuts aren’t foreign territory for Broadcast; Spell Blanket’s collagist technique mirrors the scrapbook approach the band explored in its later releases. The stylistic swings can sometimes be jarring, but they ultimately illustrate the breadth of Keenan’s musical curiosity.

At times, the naked vulnerability of these scratch recordings makes Spell Blanket a heart-wrenching listen. It’s overwhelming to hear such a torrent of Keenan’s music 15 years after what would be her final works. The chorus of “I Want to Be Fine” is gorgeous, a crushing shout of Sisyphean yearning catapulting over spare plucked guitar. She delivers the devastatingly simple line, “I want to be fine,” with her trademark stoicism, like a single tear rolling down a plastic mask. It’s hard to hear the occult sermon chant of “My Body” without feeling chills, as if we’ve walked into Keenan’s former bedroom with ghost-hunting equipment and received a clear transmission from beyond. Once the thrill of new Broadcast material subsides, the nagging recognition that we’ll never hear fleshed-out versions of these songs or know what she could’ve made next settles like a thick, immovable fog.

Despite being a collection of demos, Spell Blanket feels like an appropriate conclusion to Broadcast’s discography—the final album they never got the chance to make. Among other things, it reveals that the group was a folk band at heart. The songs’ largely acoustic makeup takes away none of their power; it’s conceivable that they might even have embraced a more pastoral sound, had they continued. The band never stayed still, which Cargill lovingly confirmed in that Guardian interview: “We would’ve changed again. That was what I liked about doing [Broadcast]. We never got repetitive.” The bootlegged audio of their final shows in Australia hinted that the band was on the cusp of something new, as Trish’s looped vocals and Cargill’s cosmic synths felt distinct from anything they’d done previously; perhaps they were newly cognizant of the unconscious role shows like Sky and Children of the Stones played in their craft.

As it is now, the Broadcast story is one of steady reduction, a band that pursued a specific idea and peeled away unnecessary layers in its service. Their records went from full-bodied, swinging ’60s psych to brittle, dying-battery synth pop, from a quintet to a duo to one person’s four-track tapes and MiniDiscs. The most prominent instrument on Spell Blanket is Trish Keenan’s beautiful voice, the steady center of Broadcast’s music, the key to its mystical appeal. We are lucky to have shared time and space with Trish; the door to her universe might now be closed, but Spell Blanket gives us one last generous peephole glimpse into its immense, singular beauty.

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Broadcast: Spell Blanket – Collected Demos 2006 – 2009