We seem to be in the midst of a long-overdue Delia Derbyshire renaissance at the moment due to the efforts of filmmaker Caroline Catz, Cosey Fanni Tutti, BBC Radiophonic Workshop's Mark Ayres, and others. Fittingly, this unusual and inspired album was commissioned back in 2018 as a score for Catz's similarly unconventional feature-length documentary. Sadly, it seems damn near impossible to see Catz's film at the moment (outside the UK, at least), but this soundtrack was released earlier this year to coincide with Cosey's own foray into telling Derbyshire's story (Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti). The book, film, and album were all inspired by research into Derbyshire's archive and the voluminous recordings and writings that became available after the visionary electronic artist's passing in 2001. Apparently, copyright issues are preventing much of Derbyshire's unearthed work from seeing an official release (there are some great unofficial ones like Inventions For Radio/The Dreams out there), but this album is a compelling consolation prize: using Derbyshire's notes on her compositions and techniques, Cosey has achieved a sort of posthumous homage/collaboration in which her own aesthetic is co-mingled with Derbyshire's singular and groundbreaking techniques and sounds.
While Delia Derbyshire is far from a household name, it is something of a miracle that she ever managed to be revered at all, as her musical career only spanned 15 years and took place at a time when neither women nor electronic music were taken particularly seriously. On top of that, she also had an eccentric personality, a tendency towards alcoholism, and an employer (the BBC) who did not consider her work to be "music" enough for her to be credited as a composer. Fortunately, she was both motivated and fucking brilliant, so she still managed to make a profound impact on the evolution of music despite those incredibly long odds. And it did not hurt that she was responsible for the Doctor Who theme, which made a sizable cultural dent of its own. It is hard to say whether or not there would have been a Throbbing Gristle had Derbyshire and her Radiophonic Workshop colleagues not forced weird electronic music into the mainstream, but I do think Derbyshire might have traumatized the general populace to a Gristle-y degree in the early '60s if her gear had been more portable. Obviously, bloody-minded persistence in the face of disrespect and hostility is a relatable theme for Cosey as well, so it is hard to think of another artist who could be more naturally suited for a project such as this. In short, Catz needed appropriately "Derbyshire" music for her film, but there were very few usable Derbyshire recordings available. Introduce Cosey Fanni Tutti, who immersed herself in the archive's collection (267 reel-to-reel tapes found in cereal boxes, I believe) and Derbyshire's notes and set about casting a Delia-esque spell in her own way on her own gear (though Delia's actual voice does make some appearances). As an aside, this is not Cosey's first homage to Derbyshire, as Carter Tutti's "Coolicon" took its name and inspiration from a metal lampshade that Delia regularly used to make sounds.
Interestingly, my initial impression of the album was that it captured the whole vibe of Derbyshire's known work quite well, but it had the (brooding) "ambient" feel that plagues a lot of soundtracks by design (good composers tend to focus on crafting and sustaining moods rather than on tearing the audience's focus away from the screen images). That said, the album does begin with a piece centered around Cosey's signature cornet that feels like an excerpt from a lost TG album devoted to soulful sax melodies for lovers (that immediately curdle, smear, and get enveloped in a black ooze of electronic drones, of course). I thought a few pieces stood out as especially good, but I did not fully appreciate Cosey's vision until I listened to the album on headphones at sufficient volume. That is when I realized that this album had some serious bite and that there was considerably more depth and nuance than I was previously aware of. Apparently, the difference between decent ambient music and a compelling electronic composition can sometimes be remedied with just a volume knob.
In any case, this album is a sustained plunge into a rabbit hole of retro-futurist psychedelia, cryptic voice fragments, and cool electronic sounds. It works nicely as an immersive whole, but several individual pieces come and go quite a bit quicker than they deserve. The one-minute lysergic cabaret of "Psychedelic Projections," for example, sounds like a would-be highlight from Love's Secret Domain. Elsewhere, I quite liked the psychotropic air raid nightmare of "Sirens" and the wonky Ghost Box-adjacent cosmic horror of "Four Bebe." That said, there are plenty of other wonderfully unique and warped moments strewn throughout the album, as my notes are filled with phrases like "a horse dissolves into extradimensional ghost dust," "a cold wind blows through an empty shack where something bad happened," "subterranean exotica by nightmare people," and "sounds like a creepy fairytale about a sneezing gnome." Anyone who can convincingly evoke even one of those scenes is probably deserving of my undying respect and Cosey manages to nail like ten of them here. This is an impressively alien album.