Burton-upon-Trent, the North Midlands town that produced both The Telescopes and this reviewer, is principally known for the quality of its beer, boasting a brewing industry that was once world renowned. Unfortunately, its contribution to popular culture has been somewhat less noteworthy, with that fine actor Paddy Considine an honourable exception.
In terms of a musical legacy, Burton’s pantheon essentially consists of two bands – tuneful but twee folk-rockers The Leisure Society and shoegaze survivors The Telescopes. The latter, founded by Stephen Lawrie back in 1987, briefly flirted with the fringes of the UK charts in the early 1990s, capitalising on the popularity of ostensibly similar, better known acts such as Creation labelmates Ride and My Bloody Valentine by evolving the noise rock of their 1989 debut album Taste towards a more structured, accessible style.
Ever since then, The Telescopes have shifted in and out of focus, with long periods of inactivity – including a decade-long hiatus between 1992 and 2002 – and numerous line-up changes. Throughout this time, the one constant has been Lawrie, a musician content to plough his own idiosyncratic furrow, blissfully unconcerned by trends or commercial success.
As Light Return, The Telescopes’ eighth album overall and their second on Hamburg label Tapete, is cast very much in a drone rock rather than shoegaze mould. Long passages of layered, hypnotic noise created through waves of feedback are the order of the day here, with Lawrie’s trance-like, rumbling chant buried so deep in the mix it is practically subterranean. After their collaboration on 2015’s Hidden Fields, Lawrie is joined once again by members of Scottish indie rock outfit St Deluxe. The prevailing mood of the music is bleak and portentous; emphasised by song titles such as You Can’t Reach What You Hunger and Hand Full Of Ashes.
With only five tracks and little in the way of audible lyrics or melody, understandably As Light Return tends to blend into one rather murky whole. That said, after repeated listens, individual song strengths do gradually emerge. You Can’t Reach What You Hunger and Something In The Brain in particular have propulsive, rhythmic undertows that slowly draw the listener in, with subtle shifts in texture and pacing that belie first impressions of a rather shapeless dirge. The squalling guitar work is ragged yet fluid, a kind of free form impressionism that splatters the sonic canvas in sprawling patterns rather than creating conventional shapes.
The record closes with the 14-minute Handful Of Ashes, an epic, throbbing slab of space rock that sounds like a horror film sound track being put through a blender. It’s both compelling and unsettling, with ominous hums, shards of organ and screeches of feedback looping and echoing before slowly fading away into the ether. Not exactly music to sing along perhaps, but undoubtedly quite an experience played on headphones in a dark room at 3am.
The Telescopes’ work will clearly never reach beyond niche appeal – not that Lawrie will care a jot – and it is hard to make a case for As Light Return being anything more than an occasionally intriguing curiosity. Yet one still has to admire the maverick Burtonian’s commitment to making the music he wants to make, even though it is largely impenetrable to all but the most adventurous souls.