Ghost has existed for more than 20 years now, growing and evolving since their inception as a communal experiment by a small group of Japanese musicians dedicated to improvised psychedelic jams. Over the years, they’ve managed to explore various shades of folk and rock, and despite that extended tenure, In Stormy Nights surprisingly marks the first time that they’ve maintained the same lineup for two successive releases. The similarities between it and its predecessor, 2004’s Hypnotic Underworld, are apparent. Both share a certain sense of progressive rock bombast and an almost-over-the-top sensibility that may have come as a bit of a surprise for listeners who had gotten used to their earlier, mostly acoustic records. This new release, however, is a bit less progressive (one could even say regressive) and even more “rock,” keeping the structures simpler and the overall mood a bit darker.
In Stormy Nights kicks off with “Motherly Bluster,” an uptempo, folky tune built around Takuyuki Moriya’s cyclical contrabass figure, which is accompanied by a loping rhythmic accompaniment on hand drums from Junzo Tateiwa. A prominent acoustic lead guitar line adds a snake-like melody, while a flurry of notes from various flutes swirl around in the background. Floating atop everything else are Masaki Batoh’s vocals, which are sung primarily in English with a fairly heavy accent. There’s definitely some similarity to Damo Suzuki of Can, but Batoh sings in a deeper register and is generally a little more rugged and angular in his delivery here. The song drifts down into a quieter, dreamy passage toward the end, one of the few remnants of their unique brand of classic psych/folk sounds that made early gems such as 1996’s Lama Rabi Rabi so beautifully effervescent.
The second track on the CD (which, curiously, on the LP version is actually sequenced to take up the entire first side of the double vinyl package) is the epic “Hemicyclic Anthelion.” Ghost seem determined to seek new realms with each release, and this is the noisiest and most freeform stuff they’ve done on record yet. Pieced together from several live recordings, it swells and surges through a multitude of textures and moods, engulfing the listener in a sonic maelstrom of murky, visceral, improvised chaos. There are some nice, jazzy, even meditative elements scattered among long sections of electronic noise, guitar feedback, and mostly formless drumming, but at times, the density and intensity of sounds is actually fairly oppressive. At almost 30 minutes, it’s a difficult listen, but one that pays off well during the rare moments when most of the noise is swept aside to reveal cascades of wandering melodies. Various other instruments come to the fore throughout the piece, including flute, sax, bass, vibes, and some especially nice piano (played by Kazuo Ogino), often enshrouded in a cloud-like wash of cymbals. At times evoking images of cities, oceans, rain, thunder, and even outer space, it’s easy to imagine it working well as a soundtrack for an abstract film of some sort, something with an apocalyptic vision and postmodern sensibilities.
From here, it’s on to a pair of minimalist tribal rock numbers. Where their last record utilized much more complex structures, here they allow these simple pieces to build in intensity with little in the way of actual changes. Throughout both “Gareki No Toshi” and “Water Door Yellow Gate,” thundering drums and tympani pound out insistent rhythms, which are both repetitive and heavy enough to induce head-nodding, while Batoh lets forth some increasingly agitated chanting and ranting. During much of the proceedings, Michio Kurihara conjures a violent swarm of bees via his fiery electric guitar work, bringing to mind a number of classic rock guitar virtuosos, especially Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cippolina and Can’s Michael Karoli. These two tracks are fierce and dense, but what comes next is even heavier.
The track to which I refer, “Caledonia,” is actually a cover of a song by a group of late ’60s primitivist obscuros called Cromagnon, who recorded a single album for the ESP label in 1969. Ghost changes very little about the tune, which remains a tribal, proto-punk psych-rock stomper. They replace the bagpipe melody of the original with flutes, an effective move which works to highlight the skills of Taishi Takizawa, who also contributes saxophone, vibes, theremin, and more throughout the course of the record. Distorted guitars blast a basic two-chord sequence into eternity while Batoh’s vocals sound as if he is unleashing a lifetime of demons in just five minutes. They’ve done a good thing in unearthing this truly heavy gem, but perhaps they play it a little too safe, as it might have benefited from more of a personal touch. The final track, “Grisaille,” is a rather lengthy ballad that lopes along until Kurihara steps in again with a blazing guitar solo to carry the final 3 minutes of the song (and the album itself) to a fitting close.
Overall, Ghost are less diverse on In Stormy Nights than they were on its predecessor, and while it works on one level, it also feels like a bit of a step backwards given the textural and dynamic scope of that previous effort. Here, they seem content with simple riffs and a noisier, more rock-centric approach, unfortunately leaving nearly all traces of their folk roots behind. There’s also a tangible sense of world-weary angst, which occasionally borders on the melodramatic. Perhaps it’s a sign of their displeasure with the increasingly unjust and corrupt world of today, or just a particular direction they really wanted to explore. Either way, they are to be admired for their willingness to explore further facets of their musical personality, and their continual evolution will no doubt be followed by many discerning lovers of adventurous psychedelic sounds.
Ghost – Hypnotic Underworld
Harvester – Heimat
Karuna Khyal – Alomoni 1985