Wednesday, January 7, 2015

album review: 'ghost culture' by ghost culture

So one of my goals this year is to be open to trying and embracing new genres of music. As much as I looked back on my year-end lists with some pride, I do feel that there are certain genres I haven't quite delved into as deeply as I'd prefer. And while this does mean there is definitely a requirement to explore more deeply into the rougher subgenres of metal (and really, I'm on the cusp there anyway) or the murkier sides of post-rock, a larger part of this will involve continuing my journey into electronica. Last year was very exploratory for me - be they the evolving mechanical sounds of Objekt, the warped melodies of Arca, the high-concept jazzy feel of Flying Lotus, or the retro charm of Aphex Twin, I found a lot to like last year.

As such, in the doldrums of early January, when I heard about the self-titled debut from Ghost Culture, I was immediately intrigued, especially by the comparisons to Andy Stott - whose album I unfortunately missed last year - and especially Todd Terje, whose record I thought was all sorts of cheesy yet moving fun. And considering we're in early January and I desperately needed to wash the taste of Rae Sremmurd out of my mouth, I figured what the hell and gave his debut a few listens - what did we get here?

Well, it's an interesting listen, I'll say that for sure. And while I'm not quite sure I love the self-titled album from Ghost Culture, it definitely stands out as having unique instrumental character among its peers. It's also one of the trickier albums to decipher that I've tackled recently, with no lyrics available anywhere online and his partially muffled voice making the album feel all the more enigmatic. Hold on, folks, we might be going in deep for this one.

The first thing that becomes apparent when listening through Ghost Culture is instrumentally, it's toeing an interesting line - layers of glistening, precisely synchonized melodies that interweave with the crisp, tight beats and blubby basslines. And yet for as much as the mix bubbles, there's still a chill that comes through in chiptune flourishes and a cavernous analog mix. It's clear that there's plenty of texture in the hazy cymbals, regimented bass lines, and echoing waves of shimmering keyboards. There's a richness to the atmosphere on this record, not quite analog warmth but a fullness that reflects a producer with a sharp eyes for organic sound that comes across a surprisingly elegant. And while so much of this album is languid with impressive poise, the percussion is surprisingly sharp, almost to the point of becoming too prominent in the mix and having too crisp an edge, especially as the synths are woven into walls that alternate between sharply prominent and understated vintage lo-fi. And yet there are moments where there is real intensity: the mid-point crescendo of 'Mouth', the distant glaze of the synths on 'Giudecca' that thickens impressively before a midpoint pause with beautiful swells, the washed out melody on 'Arms' where the beat becomes stuttered and shockingly tense, the ragged lo-fi unease of 'Lying' with moments of whirling hazy chiptunes, and those jittery melodies on 'Lucky' remind me of some of Arca's best material with a bit of a firmer backbone. And yet Ghost Culture also takes his lo-fi moments into richer sonic tapestries, with the album closer 'The Fog' that reminds me of a slightly more refined and spacious Ariel Pink. And then there's my favourite track 'Glaciers', a gorgeous chilled waltz that's both mournful and yet subtly touching in a quiet way.

And a large part of this comes back to Ghost Culture's voice. Some critics have drawn parallels with Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode, but there's more subtlety here, not so curt and aggressive and more self-assured and balanced, with a natural poise that's impossible to fake and yet desperately needed on an album that feels this smooth. His vocal tracks are often very well mixed into the tracks - often a little too well-mixed, because if I were to have a compliant about this record, it'd be that the vocals are often quite difficult to parse out. His slow, not quite methodical delivery and the layers of synth and fuzz often make the vocals a little tricky to parse out, especially without any lyrics published for reference.

Which is a little frustrating, because there's a lot about the lyrics to really like. Fitting with the washed-out, hazy atmosphere, the lyrics are often simple, but oblique and abstract. And yet they do paint an interesting picture - the most striking lyric comes on the second song 'Giudecca':  'How strange, I'm satisfied'. It's a distinctly odd shift from the neuroses that often wrack the darkwave and chillwave from which this album draws influence - and yet it's not sex hungry or hunting that wild time on the dance floor either. Indeed, if we're looking for a common emotional element for the album's protagonist, it'd be an uncanny self-assuredness - whether he's under pressure or required to lie, or possessing secrets and answers that others crave, or simply able to detach from calamities that'll crush others, he's got himself under control. And there's self-awareness that comes with it - 'Arms' reflects his desire that things not change and 'Glass' shows how his coldness insulating him from pain or human contact.

And it's here we need to talk about album themes. Ghost Culture himself has described his name as a metaphor for superficiality through obsession with technology - and with that, the album snaps into sharp focus. Sure, there is a certain satisfaction and insulation that comes through technology, using it as a barrier from the harsher pains of the human experience, something which 'Glaciers' makes incredibly clear, showing how others are crushed by implacable forces and its so easy not to care. How easy it is to lie, and how one can parlay those lies into seemingly incredible luck - and from framing himself on the inside, he shows just how seductive and comfortable that place can be. And yet the album progresses, the album's point-of-view shifts from that insulating comfort to the outside point of view, recasting the confidence of his lies into something much shakier, his hunt for answers and fulfillment unanswered, and with 'The Fog', the safety net is yanked away to show the consequences of getting lost in the fog of superficiality and losing one's humanity in the process. It's a neat framing trick in showing the parallel, and does capture a fully nuanced picture - although I do feel the album might have been better served by sticking with one point-of-view all the way through. As it is, he never really gives up his position of comfort, starting off insulated and then turning back to criticize his old protection, and it can ring as a little condescending. 

Yet with that, I have to admit I really like the self-titled debut from Ghost Culture. It's not perfect - there are points that feel a little long, especially on the longer digression the back half of 'Answer' or the many moments of repetition on 'Lucky', and I do feel the record might have benefited from either a shade more intensity or an even more spacious, frozen sound - but as it is, I'm feeling a very strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. If you're looking for some thought-provoking electronic music that's melodic and beautifully textured, definitely give Ghost Culture a listen - you won't regret it.

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