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Ghost - Hypnotic Underworld

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Artist: Ghost

Album: Hypnotic Underworld

Label: Drag City

Review date: Jan. 29, 2004

It's been a few years since the last two Ghost albums, Snuffbox Immanence and Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet, were released together. Given that the approach of those two albums was fairly different, one had to wonder, when Hypnotic Underworld was announced, which way the band was going to go. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, the answer is both ways: this album is one part sonic exploration, one part song. If a criticism could be levelled, it might be that the results are schizophrenic; yet the negotiations between the approaches are handled so seamlessly that the criticism simply can't hold water. Rather than offering differing sides of a musical coin, Ghost successfully traverse the continuum between the two. The renewed emphasis on free-flowing forays may be partly down to original member Taichi Takizawa, who has rejoined the group after a long period away.

Whereas it would be more typical to front-load an album with catchy songs and then toss in any droning soundscapes on the B-side, Ghost fearlessly turn that on its head. Hypnotic Underworld begins with a four-part title suite totalling 23 minutes. The first part is the bulk of the suite, over 13 minutes of quiet studio improvisation. It's hard to guess what all of the instruments are, not that it matters: bowed cymbals, synthesizers, quiet bass pulsing, gentle percussion, distant-sounding horns. It's dreamy, slow, and calm, ideal headphone zone-out music. Admittedly, however, if you don't have patience for meandering soundscapes, this may be a bit much for you.

The second part begins with a cymbal crash, and while it has a similar feel to the first part, the difference is the groove, a simple and effective bass line with tick-tock drums. Middle-eastern sounding woodwinds and piano combine with echoing horns atop the rhythm, with a result that's exotic and evocative. By the end, it's picked up some serious bulk, with crashing cymbals and howling noises, anchored by a simple, effective piano melody. Part three starts with an oddly New Wave synth line, and it feels like Ghost could be dabbling with electroclash until it's quickly buried by power chords and smashing drum hits. A minute in, the song abruptly switches to a chorus that harkens back to the late 70s, then singer and group leader Batoh's distinctive vocals take their turn. The song ends with a pounding fuzz-bass and drums assault, and the final part of the suite is a brief 22 seconds of speed-thrashing drums and noises.

With "Hazy Paradise" the album changes gears, and we enter a song-oriented realm more like what people might expect from Ghost. Floating synths and acoustic guitars carry Batoh's high, trembling voice, augmented by impeccable guitar from Kurihara, who can't seem to play a wrong note. His lead in the middle of the song is the perfect blend of intensity and control.

"Kiseichukan Nite" takes things back to a more minimal aesthetic. The piece is a mysterious, slow-moving blend of gently-moving bass, light hand percussion, distant woodwind, and Japanese vocals that are almost whispered. It's like you're sitting at a temple, barely hearing instruments playing in another room, while someone quietly tells you his secrets. Non-Japanese speakers, of course, will be missing part of the song, which may leave it feeling a bit like a slow spot in the middle of the album.

In a smooth segue, "Piper" opens, appropriately enough, with a woodwind playing a beautiful, pure melody reminiscent of a Renaissance fair. The song then flows very nicely between the pastoral feel of the verses and the chaotic, electrified choruses. That the band moves so smoothly through the transitions is impressive. And once again, bonus points for Kurihara's incredible guitar work. "Ganagmanag" moves slowly from gentle percussion, woodwinds, and piano, gradually building up momentum. Drums and bass lead as quiet plucked strings and atmospheric synths and other instruments float above the beat. It's evocative and dreamy, though towards the end the song suddenly gets sucked away and a pounding keyboard/percussion mantra takes over, with buzzing tones and echoing vocals coming and going.

Batoh's vocals lead calm guitar and percussion in "Feed," with cascades of guitar and thick bass pushing upward during the chorus. The song grows intense towards the end, with pounding keyboards, soaring synths, and shouting vocals. "Holy High" launches out of the gate with a whooshing synth, glittering guitars, and a fast, loping rhythm bouyed by adept acoustic picking and piping flute. Batoh\'s vocals are soft and lyrical, and the song overall is very strong, lush, and deep.

The album finishes with "Dominoes - Celebration for the Gray Days," which attaches a Syd Barrett cover to Ghost's own original material. It's very quiet and spacey at the beginning, perhaps the most delicate song here. Halfway through, it concludes only to be replaced by a simple organ motif, portentous and majestic. When the drums come in, it moves into a heavy, slow, almost punishing repetition. It's harrowing, yet has an ultimately uplifting feel to it. Quite a way to go out.

What makes this album a success overall is that it's by a band that, having been around quite a while, knows how to play to its strengths. Despite what seems like a widely disparate range of material, from amorphous improv atmospherics to traditional songs, and despite an extremely wide array of instruments and sounds, the band move confidently from step to step in such a way that the listener never gets lost. It's true that some people simply won't care for some parts of the album because the band\'s own tastes are wide-ranging, but I have to commend the band for not worrying about that. That the songs have a cohesive vision is clear from the first listen, and that's what makes it a singular journey rather than a disconnected series of pieces. It's also why I'm sure this is one January release that I'll still be listening to come December, and beyond.

By Mason Jones

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