The Eccentronic Research Council’s 2012 debut, 1612 Underture, was a concept album of haunted electro-pop about the persecution of witches in Pendle, Lancashire in the 17th Century. Narrated with high moral dudgeon by the Bolton-born actress Maxine Peake — star of Shameless — it sat somewhere between Ghostbox Records’ eerie sound experiments, Earl Brutus’s chip-shop pop and the sinister public service announcements dispensed on the internet by fictional, ’70s-locked Scarfolk Council.
Wisely opting not to repeat the same mystic-historic formula, they take a fictional direction for this second album. There is plenty of bleak, distinctly Northern humor in the story of motorcycle enthusiast Magpie Billy, “a 75-year-old, 12-pint, beer-deep statue on legs, engine-between-thighs kind of guy” who gathers interesting garbage and ephemera to create DIY art in his garden.
When Billy dies and a naive young couple buy his home, the narrative darkens, signaled by an ominous piece of carnival oompah called “First Foot on the Misery Ladder.” The magpies that torment the newcomers seem to be Billy and his late wife reincarnated as birds — but “The Return of Mr & Mrs Magpie Billy” is a merry thing, part kosmische freakout and part working men’s club Casio keyboard rock. The mood is gleefully sinister: One member of the ERC, Dean Honer, used to be in Sheffield’s purveyors of carnivalesque kitsch I Monster and the All-Seeing I.
It’s not giving too much away to reveal that a something resembling Peter Weir’s unsettling film “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is in the cards — open-ended, mysterious and disturbing — but all the complicated romance of Northern England is here too. It’s a nice place to live, the ERC seem to say, but you wouldn’t want to visit.