Review: Ghost Bath – Moonlover


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.

Review: Woods of Desolation – As the Stars


Has it really been two years since I’ve reviewed a new album? The fact came as a bit of surprise, but here it is late October and I’m staring at a massive horde of 2014 releases that I’ve barely cracked. I was a bit more diligent about keeping up with these when I actually took the time to write about them!

I hope to jump back into this business in force, but in case I fail, I’ll not put off the cream of the crop. My album collection is starting to get overrun by “Woods of” X artists; it seems to be the most popular black metal prefix after “Dark” these days. But one among them might be destined to distinguish itself with my #1 album of the year pick.

Woods of Desolation – Unfold, from As the Stars

I spent a great deal of my late teens and early 20s basking in the polarizing glories of post-rock and black metal. The likes of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Rós, Emperor, and Nokturnal Mortum pumped the residual poison of rock and roll out of my blood and raised me to higher expectations of musical fulfillment. I listened to them not with a care for technical precision or physical skill, but in search of an experience I did not fully understand. Both genres approached this through similar means, but fell short as social stigmata demanded modesty or brutality carry the day. As I grew into an adult, the ice was broken. Neige’s Le Secret whispered its meaning into my ears just as I was old enough to embrace it. He’d broken the Berlin wall of music, and what awaited beyond was strange and beautiful.

Post-black metal, shoegaze metal, “transcendental”, call it what you will. Ten years ago, this album–what the woefully uninformed all-purpose reviewers will write off as a Deafheaven copycat–was not possible. It emerged as many musicians with the same thoughts and greater talent than myself caught glimpse of that beautiful beyond and embraced it. You can name a dozen artists that might have influenced the Australian solo project known as Woods of Desolation, but this brave new genre demands our presence in the here and now. It calls on us to bask in glorious tremolo sweeps triumphant over entwined barricades of light and darkness. “Proud to be living in the echo–the mist of all things combined,” Krallice once wrote, and though they designed to crush it, we retain the luxury to return. When I hear a song this triumphant, that line always comes to me, and the albums that accomplish it are still few and far between. I still love Explosions in the Sky and their ilk, but they offer a different sort of grandeur. Theirs is an experience of climbing to the peak. Songs like “Unfold” allow us to explore the pinnacle at length, from start to finish.

Woods of Desolation – Like Falling Leaves, from As the Stars

To start at the summit and know where you stand. That might be post-black metal in a nutshell. What we can do there… that is still an on-going exploration. Where Liturgy and Primordial roar like lions into the jaws of death, “Like Falling Leaves” is something of the opposite. It accepts the end awaiting it. In this track we don’t hear any of the overarching optimism of “Unfold”. Instead, we’re accepting that something dear is gone forever, and we are held fast in that moment of realizing the fact’s finality. The bulk of the album seems in keeping with these two vibes, sometimes heightened, sometimes subdued, sometimes entwined. “Withering Fields” and “And If All the Stars Faded Away” seem peculiarly triumphant and longing simultaneously, while “Ad Infinitum” is pretty enough for a new Alcest album. Nearly every track bears a sufficiently memorable hook to sound familiar by the second or third play through, and at a mere 35 minutes, it does not waste much time dragging out build-up in between.

I don’t know that As the Stars will retain my #1 spot through the end of the year, especially if I start to pump out album reviews in force again. It is nothing remotely on par with my picks for the last three years, and it suffers from muddy production that can’t always do the song writing justice, but I stand by it as my favorite so far. This is one I’ll keep near and dear to me long after the bulk of my 2014 collection has been forgotten.