At some point it’s apparent that Ghost Bath’s biggest issue, the controversy of a made-up backstory now behind them, is more one of marketing than of sound. Even prior to this record’s major-key affectations, they were only very rarely a straightforward black metal band. The well-noted observation that they live in similar musical space as kinda-sorta black metal bands such as Alcest, Deafheaven, Bosse-de-Nage and Liturgy is a valid one, but often sells short why precisely this is. Alcest have always been interested in the more ephemeral musical styles, of which black metal is but one seasoning in the pot; Deafheaven and Bosse-de-Nage have always been more musically adventurous than pure second-wave black metal would allow (and more interested in groups such as Slint and Fugazi than the traditional hardcore influence on black metal); Liturgy has always been more or less an artsy indie rock band that dabbles in metal rather than the other way around. Ghost Bath sits closer to the Alcest/Liturgy end of things, showing flashes of influences from far outside of metal all over this and their previous work.
All that said, it’s still an odd experience to throw on Starmourner, ostensibly a shoegazing black metal record, only to think—briefly but sincerely—that you accidentally put on a power metal album. And not a gruff and morose American power metal record a la Manowar or Visigoth, but cheesy Euro power metal.
That passing instance winds up being the only riff like that on the record, however. And I can’t be too critical of it; it serves the intended purpose, to shift the tone of all the riffs that follow, to focus on ecstasy and euphoria rather than seclusion and despair. Ghost Bath, after all, have always been a band fixated on beauty; as I’d said somewhere else years ago, if Deafheaven were about showing the rot and despair trapped inside of beauty, then Ghost Bath were about showing the peace and beauty inside of the ugly and fearful. Their name, let’s remind ourselves, is a reference to slitting ones wrists in a warm bath.
While this may come across as perhaps a bit edgelord-y, one must keep in mind that this is black metal we are talking about, and explorations of death and suicide and despair are one of the large experiential cores this genre works with. And beyond that, Ghost Bath’s music is too sincerely peaceful and serene to really come across as attempting to disturb or shock in that way; one might question the thought, but the sincerity of intent is very clear.
Unfortunately the band falls a bit short when it comes to the synthesis of influences. For the punk element of black metal, they seem to be drawing more from the poppier end, and for guitar tones we get thinner almost indie rock sounds. Thin guitars in black metal is not exactly taboo, but with the otherwise strong progressions, melodies and harmonies of these songs, one has to wonder what a fuller and richer tone on the instruments would have brought. Likewise the more upbeat drumming, while on paper keyed to the more joyful and exuberant focus of the record, tends more often to make the songs sound like parodies of themselves. These are all, thankfully, fixable, and the underlying songs are of high enough quality to deserve these little adjustments.
The power metal comparison, both tonally and melodically, bears fruit on a second element; if the only real failing that more shoegazing and indie-influenced strands of post-black metal have is that they don’t consistently carry the same evocations and experiential center of black metal, then Ghost Bath have given themselves an out. Like Summoning before them (there are more than enough synth interludes on this record to warrant that comparison outside of this point), Ghost Bath have instead decided to touch on the mythic and folkloric aspects of metal, the pageantry and play, rather than the gloom and despair. In this light, their tremolo picking and blast beats are transformed; after all, don’t power metal bands share these components too?
It doesn’t quite reach the heights of a Blind Guardian or Ayreon, though. Ghost Bath seem trapped between poles, torn between pursuing the aesthetic, imagery and emotional heft of black metal, the joy and triumph and melodicism and ecstasy and mythicism of power/folk metal, and the more acceptable spaces of indie and shoegaze and the like. All the pieces are here, and when the ideas briefly align themselves fully, the songs exploded and became quite magical. Embracing these kinds of metal tones and textures in this climate was brave of Ghost Bath, and while the experiment does not fully succeed on this record, it does point the way to future successes.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.