John Mills-Cockell once told an arts blogger that, “Labels are a trap.” The Canadian composer has the c. v. of a restless muse that freely pursues any and all inspiration. His music has warmed the cockles of mainstream arts patrons in scores for the National Ballet of Canada and outdoor productions of Shakespeare. But Mills-Cockell also wrote scores for ‘70s horror movies like The Clown Murders and Terror Train and, even further back, was a member of the experimental group Intersystems. Despite a pedestrian name that suggests an office full of bean counters, the group was a bridge between the spare electronics of John Cage and the industrial sludge of Throbbing Gristle. Alga Marghen has reissued three early albums from Intersystems, and they are all worth hearing.

The name Intersystems seems like an homage to Indeterminacy, Cage and David Tudor’s two-album set from 1959 that set Cage’s deadpan, almost Zen koan-like stories to Tudor’s electronics. Number One Intersystems came along in 1967, and if its forebears seemed informed by the beats and literature from the Far East, Intersystems is thoroughly informed by North American psychedelia.

Three-minute opener “Orange Juice and Velvet Underwear” sounds like Cage discovering Syd Barrett in a garage. Mills-Cockell assembles a kitchen sink of sounds to support the spoken word by Blake Parker, who reads his poetry in a dry declarative voice that sounds a bit like a Brando beatnik. “Close your eyes and feel about/ See where you stand/ Oranges and Velvet Underwear.” The phased voice travels between stereo channels with percussion, tape manipulation and untuned guitars forming a disorienting aural canvas where you’re never quite sure where to listen.

It feels like the soundtrack to a ‘60s happening and may read like the peak of the decade’s hippie self-indulgence, but there is a controlled madness to the din, even in more expansive tracks like the 16-minute “Blackout Mix.” Of course, the horror music that Mills-Cockell later composed fits right in with one of the instruments he built for Intersystems: the Coffin, a six-foot long box lined with purple satin and stretched with piano wire.

The horror that Intersystems describes isn’t that of vicious serial killers but of soulless modern living. “Lately,” another three-minute story, is set in an 11th floor cafeteria wherein the song’s protagonist only has, “this air conditioner for company.” “Vox 3/13/67” veers closer to soundtrack territory, but its eerie timbres describe a sadly common desperation: “Can you help me friend, I’m trying to get some soup.”

Intersystems was one of the first groups to use modular synthesizers, its home base of Toronto a mere six-hour drive from the workshop of Robert Moog. While its debut album was recorded with mostly homemade instruments, Peachy, released later in 1967, was the group’s first Moog recording. It’s a more structured album, the sounds still eerie but with motifs recurring throughout its length. Mills-Cockell used excerpts of radio broadcasts, including easy listening strings and fragments that may sound familiar to fans of The Conet Project, the four-CD set of transmissions from shortwave numbers stations. Blake’s poetry here is at times more conventional, telling stories about a farmer and his cow in “Let’s Go Get Them Guns,” which sounds like a strange descendent of Indeterminacy. The poet’s rhythms are at times beautifully simple as he closes a tale with “The story has been told/ It is ended/ It is the end,” which recurs in both “So They Took Them Guns’ and “Friends Laughed at Him” (the protagonist eats his friends in the latter).

Mills-Cockell describes the relatively conventional Free Psychedelic Poster Inside as having the narrative of a soap opera. So did the Firesign Theatre, whose album-length assemblages were dense, hilarious homages to old-time radio. This final Intersystems album is its most successful, and perhaps most bleak. Its title a sly nod to a commodified counterculture, the album’s generic sleeve – paper-bag plain except for the title in English and French – holds a depressing indictment of modern life. It opens with electronic drones that could well be robotic crickets chirping. The drone persists for a few minutes of introduction to “Mirror Maze” before Blake begins to tell a story “about a little plastic boy and girl” named Gordie and Renee who have “all sorts of adventures in the chemical world.”

The album’s narrative has elements of melodrama, but it is a thoroughly unsettling one; the couple’s romantic arc of falling in love and buying real estate is accompanied by those persistent robotic crickets and murmuring percussion. Atmospheric instrumental tracks are self-descriptive: “Floating Room” suggests just that, the hum of fluorescent lights (among other eerie tones) evoking a Kafkaesque office building. After a few tracks of purely sonic narrative, Blake returns to Gordie and Renee on “Kaleidoscope,” and it’s not pretty: “They both stand paralyzed in shame and the only solution is to run in panic.” This, however, is not the only solution to a three-disc set of Intersystems’ anxious work. It’s a lot to listen to and absorb, but before long it immerses the listener in a mysterious, dystopian world.

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