Plone Puzzlewood

Ghost Box
8th May 2020

Format Info


With Exclusive Signed Risograph by Julian House

All with Exclusive Signed Risograph by Julian House

How are things for you? We’re adapting to the new temporary new. It’s a beautiful day here in Glasgow and there is still amazing unexpected music in our lives.

In all the time we’ve had the shop we’ve not actually had the pleasure of a new Plone record. Still, we very much think of them as one of our groups, desperately trying to keep their masterpiece 1999 set, For Beginner Piano in stock almost against all odds – last time we looked there were still a few cd copies at the distro which we’re surreptitiously getting through. For us it’s always been a whenever we play it we sell it record. So the question is, what happened to Plone, where did they come from and where did they go?

Formed by two then three friends, Michael Johnston, Mark Cancellara and Mike (Billy) Bainbridge on the fringes of the rich early 90s oddball Birmingham scene (Pram, Broadcast, Novak), Plone’s music was a mixture of winning melodies and cheap keyboards. They were make do, amateur brilliance. Inevitably they were quickly spotted by Wurlitzer Jukebox (Keith Jenkins wonderful but under-acknowledged label), then John Peel and then, like fellow travellers, Broadcast, Warp.

Their music had a tugging future nostalgia about it – it was a little 1970s BBCTV, a little the sweeter side of Aphex Twin and a little a Stereolab instrumental. But still, it was very much its own thing, they were originals. Songs like Press A Key, Plock and Be Rude To Your School were iconic, instantly recognisable pop-adjacent perfections. They toured, they were bunched up on stage behind vintage Casios, Yamahas and Junos – a fragile gang of their own. As they looked normal (or normal for us) so the music was beautiful, extraordinary.

At the time Plone very much seemed part of Warp’s diversification plan. They connected with Broadcast of course, and to an extent Aphex Twin and Boards Of Canada, but always seemed slightly like they didn’t quite belong. After a bit, they didn’t. They just sort of disappeared. There were rumours of a second album that Warp had rejected. Retrospectively it emerged that when their main supporter at the label, co-owner Rob Mitchell, died in 2001, the connection there just sort of unravelled and unsupported by them they lost their momentum.

It was almost like their time hadn’t quite come – they weren’t around quite long enough to build up the kind of love there is for Stereolab and Broadcast. They never quite became that heritage thing that groups eventually become, instead more a kind of… “whatever happened to Plone, I loved them?”. If you dug really deep there were related projects like Seeland and Mike In Mono but these were pretty underground and sporadic. Their BBC Sessions aired from time to time on Gideon Coe’s BBC6 show and always sounded fresh and like a better future we were already losing. But at the same time there was a welcome new partial landscape of Plone influenced labels like Ghost Box and Clay Pipe which we were by now promoting hard in Monorail.

After quite a few years of enquiries, out of the blue, there was an announcement from Ghost Box that they were releasing a new Plone record, Puzzlewood, assembled from music they’d been working on for the past 20 years. Not the rejected second album but a third album. They’d lost a member (Mark Cancellara) but the hook up with Ghost Box was promising as they’ve got consistently high standards. We were already declaring it a potential album of the month without having heard a note, they were making some of us seem less than rigorous in our modus operandi.

With the benefit of rigorous reflection, Puzzlewood is indeed a perfect sequel to For Beginner Piano. The opener, Years And Elements takes you right back into their magical world. They’re so gracefully easy with melody, the colours are so well chosen. It seems unlikely that the music is made on exactly the same equipment as before, it would almost be perverse if that was the case, there are so many shortcuts these days. But maybe there’s bits of the same kit as before, it feels sort of the same it feels sort of new. There are slowly unwinding heartbreaking moments, bits of Bacharach done on the cheap, and everything that’s always been there – timelessness, joy, hopefulness, sadness. It’s completely immersive.

As ever they unselfconsciously nod to the music they love – Martin Rev, Kraftwerk, BBC Radiophonic Workshop – without copying it. They’re happy cyclists careering through a changing scenery – parks becoming high rise buildings, rivers becoming science centres, new builds becoming 1930s bungalows. They’re on their own path, aware of everything but to the side of it too. When you listen to the record it feels like you can take this path or another one, abstracting out of it, it will still be there for you. You could play it 100 times and like magic, there would still be something new.

If you look on Discogs at an early edition of Plone’s first single, there’s a lovely homemade sleeve design with an unresolved game of knots and crosses. Plone will never be resolved, that’s their essence. We’re loving this record so much, it’s the perfect reminder of what we’re here for. Hope you love it too.