Gimmicks don’t always work out as intended. When I heard that Ghost Bath were not, as they once claimed, Chinamen from Chongqing Municipality, but rather well-mustached American hipsters, I believe my first question was “who?” But if this band’s efforts to fool fans before they actually had any comes off a bit less clever than stupid, my negative points end there. Moonlover is a pretty interesting work from its cover all the way to the closing track. Hailing from the far more obscure and frostbitten wasteland of North Dakota, Ghost Bath have forged a really solid sophomore LP that should stand among the better metal albums we hear this year.
Track: “Golden Number”
After a brief, haunting intro track that definitely lends credence to their name, Moonlover makes an awkward but forgivable transition into a really uplifting number that has everyone on the internet comparing them to Deafheaven. With one of those explosions of emotional, half-heartbroken half-triumphant post-black metal glory that sounds more familiar every year, followed by a kind of punk lick underlined by passionate, poppy drumming straight off Amesoeurs’ Ruines Humaines and unearthly vocal shrieks, “Golden Number” is certainly in line with the trend of the day. It kind of feels like someone drug Woods of Desolation out of their basement and shoved them into a top-notch recording studio, and yes, the comparisons to Sunbather have their merit too. But if Ghost Bath are not necessarily pioneers, they are definitely refining the machine.
Much like post-rock, where you had a whole bunch of totally distinct bands making waves while everyone else ripped off Mono–and we could hardly complain about that–post-black metal is definitely developing a “standard” sound. “Golden Number” is that sound to a T, and I absolutely love the clarity with which Ghost Bath pull it off. This is a genre born of static noise. It was the realization that you could invoke a lot of emotion by hiding something pretty in an aural cesspool that really kicked off the scene, and even Deafheaven’s “Dream House”, for all its ability to swoon foreign audiences, was really heavily distorted. The noise carried the passion, but it was also limiting. Moonlover is a surprisingly clean album, and because of it the band can do subtle things that I don’t often hear. The tremolo at the beginning of “Golden Number”, for instance, is complemented by a second, barely audible guitar that’s tapping instead of picking. Maybe post-bm has gone that route before, but if so I never noticed it. The clarity on this song, at least relative to its genre, allows me to detect these things, and the end product feels so much more full of life for it.
“Ghost Number” ends with two minutes of piano, and “Happyhouse” picks the metal back up with a totally different feel from the song before it. Three minutes of melancholy plodding lead into a fresh vision of that ghostly guitar we heard in the intro track, and Dennis Mikula treats us to more of his otherworldly screams. Amesoeurs again comes to mind, and I have to believe Neige was an inspiration on this band in more ways than one, but to me Mikula’s vocals sound most reminiscent of Ygg, a short-lived but brilliant Ukrainian trio featuring former members of Nokturnal Mortum and Helg from Khors. “Happyhouse” erupts into black metal for only a passing burst of intensity before returning to its moody plod. Post-rock guitar ultimately defines the song’s direction, while Mikula’s outstanding vocal performance brings the depth. “Happyhouse” could be a cookie-cutter bore, but the band’s keen execution and knack for making their short repeated phrases consistently catchy turns it into something I can really embrace.
10 minutes go by before you hear another ounce of metal, but I would hardly call it a wait. “Beneath the Shade Tree” and “The Silver Flower pt. 1” are both dreamy guitar-driven visions of forests and streams, feeling perhaps a cross between Agalloch and Alcest. The nature effects on the latter track especially brought to mind the intro and outro to Alcest’s “Le Secret”, though I’m sure you could name a dozen other bands that might have played an influential hand here. The origins are quite irrelevant; these two songs only beg identification because they are so vivid and beautiful. The sound is ultimately the band’s own.
Track: “The Silver Flower pt. 2”
When Moonlover‘s heavier half does return, it feels infused with the spirit of the instrumental tracks before it. “The Silver Flower pt. 2” floats along with no edge to speak of beyond the first minute, drifting on the dream that came before. If it weren’t for Mikula’s persistently tormented vocals–a bit out of place now, I must admit–it could pass as a moody but up-tempo rock song. The style feels strikingly familiar, yet I can’t put a finger on it. It’s sort of equivalent to how Katatonia were playing around with the metal sounds of their day in the late 90s, and it calls the whole “black metal” label for this band into question. Moonlover incorporates so much more, riding a dozen different stylistic approaches to take us on a journey. We started out with a burst of passion–a sense of fulfillment and life–on “Golden Number”, then road down a path into depression with “Happyhouse”. The commune with nature in “Beneath the Shade Tree” and “The Silver Flower pt. 1” revitalizes, moving the album from positive and negative extremes to an even-keel, smooth ride on “The Silver Flower pt. 2”. The final track, “Death and the Maiden”, sort of brings us around in a circle. The equilibrium of “pt. 2” picks up its pace here, growing in excitement until the return of a black metal sound breaks it. We’re back to highs and lows, and we end on the latter. The album trickles out in a dark depressing grind back into the haunting sounds of the introduction, and that opening melody repeats, now made even more ghostly through a synth whistling tone.
I like it. Moonlover feels like a complete package, flushing out a musical narrative that consistently develops from track to track. It might not match up precisely to the picture it painted in my mind, but a progression is definitely there. Ghost Bath refuse to restrict themselves to one genre, incorporating a wide array of styles into a really coherent whole. The drums are tight, the guitarists can pull off some neat noodling but know when to keep it simple, and the album is book-ended by its two best tracks. I don’t think it would have hurt Dennis Mikula to chill out on the screaming for a bit on “The Silver Flower pt. 2”, but over all I love his vocals. There’s not much I can complain about. And since I want to start making a point to link where you can purchase the albums I ramble about: go adopt a moon on Bandcamp.