Album Appreciation: Districts, Roads, Open Space by Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan

As a proud resident of Northern England there has been a lot of music from the area that has resonated with me over the years, and I do not think that it is wide of the mark to say that much of this has reflected or formed my own experiences of this wonderfully beautiful, often ignored, left behind, drab and dreary, provincial, part of the world that I would never want to leave. Of course you can name your favourite Manchester/ Liverpool/ Leeds/ Sheffield/ Newcastle (and all points in between) band… they are legion. But, for me, there has also been something of a quiet yet profound emergence of a set of musicians who are reflecting their Northernness in subtly different ways creating, mostly electronic, sounds which reflect their own part of the North and somehow capturing the atmosphere of their localities in a way that reflects it as such an interesting place to live… in weirdly comforting manner.

Most of these are low profile to the extent that I have come across them by chance… which suggests that there are more to be mined in this rich seam… but, for me, include: Craven Faults, Western Edges, Great North Star, Land Trance… and Warrington-Runcorn New Town Development Plan (WRNTDP, featured here)… I don’t think that there is any movement here… or the development of a musical school… but they are musicians who make sounds which feel part of me, and the landscape around me and my past.

And to that end WRNTDP feels very much part of who I am, having spent the first decade or so of my life up the road in Ellesmere Port. Runcorn was the place that we overlooked when we spent Sundays up Helsby and Frodsham hills… and the place we motored to when the M56 was first built (and event that I was massively excited about as a ten year old)… and Warrington the place where we ‘hit’ the M6 for our many trips North. I marvelled at the modernity of the new road, which opened just after Kraftwerk’s paean to the Autobahn. It was our ‘Gateway to the North’ which, by some sort of alchemical coincidence, is the title of the first track on the WRNTDP debut release ‘Interim Report, March 1979’.

This was one of those albums that I immediately bonded with, perhaps because of the Janus-faced character of the music, which is reflected in the the moment in time where Gordon Chapman-Fox (the musician behind WRNTDP) gets his inspiration from: the moment when new towns ceased to be the modern utopias that they were designed to be… and began to fall into the sort of decline that has, if anything, accelerated over the last few years. One of my ‘Essential Albums of 2019’, it really felt to me that Chapman-Fox had captured that mix of grandeur and decay that not only marked the new town projects, but many other places that were similarly given hope at that time… modernity, like nostalgia, proved not to be all it was cracked up to be… that was the concrete.

Listening to ‘Interim Report, March 1979’ again today I am once again struck by the chords that are engendered within me… moreover it reminds me that I have been waiting for a re-press of the second WRNTDP release, ‘People and Industry’; a celebration of the workers and industry that was booming in the area at the time (my Father worked at the Stanlow Oil Refinery, which was very much part of this). Having not previously owned this on vinyl I am coming to this relatively fresh (I was very happy to have ordered a re-press copy with the third album, which I will get around to in a moment).

Like the first album, ‘People and Industry’ has that dual sense of hope and futility, and possesses elements that, in the same moment, seem give the music both a contemporary and historical feel… there were a couple of occasions which struck me as being similar to very early OMD, residents of the Wirral who were breathing very similar air to the age being commemorated here. It’s a slightly different take on modernity than in the first album with more of a nod towards processes, something which gives the whole thing a more dynamic feel (as opposed to the more reflective ambiance contained in the debut).

…which finally brings me to the third and latest release, ‘Districts, Roads, Open Space’, on which Chapman-Fox brings together feelings of isolation within the anonymity of new town, and that of the pandemic… to quote Chapman-Fox:

The music began to reflect the social isolation of New Towns life. This was mirrored by its creation through two years of pandemic lockdown…. The music is perhaps the loneliest and most spacious I have created so far – the Open Spaces in the album title taking on multiple interpretations. The focus and feel of the album is not inspired by the architecture of new towns, but the lives lived in them. I think the precise planning new towns and creating specific zones for different activities – working, shopping and living – created an artificial way of life. One that failed to understand the sheer messiness of human existence.

I find it fascinating how, album by album, Chapman-Fox is building up a picture of the fundamental flaws of these places that were considered a ‘new design for living’ back in the 1960s and 70s. I like how he manages to capture the bleakness of these places, but, increasingly as the albums progress, he also manages to find and reflect the humanity within them.

This is perhaps the tension that is found within this album: that sense of isolation married with the need to exist and create something which is warmer and more liveable… in ‘The Key to a New Home of Your Own’, for instance, there is so much going on (even in the title) with different layers of electronics co-existing within the track… each giving off a different vibe, but somehow creating a coherent whole at the same time. This is what I really like about all these albums, but I think it is starkest in this third one… a real sense of disjuncture which can be challenging… but ultimately a desire to communicate these issues to the listener.

All three of these WRNTDP speak to me in a way that I cannot fully fathom. There is basic understanding of these New Towns which underpins this work that I think transmits beyond them to encompass wider issues around planning and governance… and, for me, reflect a wider critique of how are lives are organised in contemporary society… issues that seem to be coming to a head over recent years.

However, these are also beautiful albums in their own right… they strike a wonderfully warm and sympathetic tone that resonates with me musically as well as socially… perhaps reflecting the fundamental humanity that they possess… either way these are records that I can just sink into… that just seem to go with my grain… amazing stuff!

-o0o-

Hey, 

Thanks very much for reading my blog, I really appreciate this. I write it as a labour of love to help me enjoy music, and to give something back to the many talented people who put out these incredible sounds.

To make it as enjoyable as possible for others I do pay extra so there are, for instance, no ads on these pages; but it would be great if the blog could pay for itself.

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Cheers…

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3 Comments

  1. When you commented “Northern” Craven Faults sprung to mind immediately. Nunroyd Works and Springhead Works were my favourite releases a couple of years back and it’s where WRNTDP will no doubt sit at the end of this year which has been a year of great releases, the best since 2019 for me.
    Excellent taste as ever.

    Like

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