Album Review: Ghost Bath - 'Moonlover' (Northern Silence, 2015)

On their sophomore LP "Moon Lover," Ghost Bath offer a darkly beautiful lunar fantasy in counterpoint to Deafheaven's evolution of post-black metal.

Forget what you heard about Ghost Bath being from China. There was a lot of build-up and hype regarding their record in the metal world built around that myth that can cloud the record we do have.

It's not an unwarranted hype; Chinese famously didn't have an open metal scene until the late 80s due to cultural restrictions by the CPC, and even now tours and shows by bands are either small, underground affairs or processed through a (lessening and lessening, but still high) amount of bureaucracy and content-checking.

So the notion that a band as clearly accomplished and imagistic and frankly beautiful as Ghost Bath would emerge under those circumstances felt like a traditional rose-from-concrete situation.

And maybe there is something to be said about issues with creating a myth like that and how it might affect how we listen to an album, but that's something to do another time.

Regardless of origins (and given their distance from me, North Dakota might as well be China), Ghost Bath has turned in a stunningly gorgeous black metal record. Sonically, it's not far out of step with the current vogue of black metalgaze pioneered by bands like Alcest and the aforementioned Deafheaven, that curious blend of post-black metal that focuses on progressive song structures and shoegaze-inspired melodic washes of guitars.

Some metal purists would claim those two bands aren't really metal at all.

And in the case of Alcest, they actually wouldn't be wrong; as of their last album, they are fully dream pop and shoegaze now, for better and for worse.

(Incidentally, we have two names for metal purists like that in the metal world: IMNs, or Internet Metal Nerds, and kvltists, or folks obsessed with trve kvlt aesthetics in lyrics, imagery, and production.

The terms sits just above "hipster" in terms of how you're supposed to feel if someone calls you one.)

Most of the comparisons of this album have been made to Deafheaven's 2013 blockbuster black metal record Sunbather.

It's not an unfair comparison; this album shares a similar aesthetic sense of washes of guitars, a melodic inclination, more varied drum beats than just blasting away and an almost U2 spiritual inclination to the gradually building layers of ethereal guitars.

However, this album takes a different tack to those types of sounds, positioning itself closer to Alcest.

Deafheaven, for all the inane muttering on the web about whether they were or were not "really metal," did possess a sun-dappled and warm atmosphere to their music. The aesthetics of their cover and changed logo didn't feel arbitrary; the record felt like the warm and out-of-focus sea of reds and pinks and oranges that play against the closed eyelid in sunlight, or are painted across the sky at sunrise and sunset. It wasn't that they weren't metal, but that they moved black metal from realms of fantasy and the intensely decrepit and morose into the world of sunlight, seeing pain and longing and desperation and damnation and failure and the disfiguring weight of inheritance in that light.

People who like to peg the album as uplifting too often forget the heartbreaking and pained finale to the "The Pecan Tree," the closing track on the album, where the vocalist shrieks, "I am my father's son. / I am no one.

/ I cannot love. / It's in my blood."

It's a profound sense of doom that both bands share. But where Deafheaven places these things in the lighted world of San Francisco, drawing on the punky roots of black metal's split with the more obviously technically demanding death metal and doing so with the more modern punk sounds of emo bands like American Football and post-rock, Ghost Bath veers in the other direction. Both bands carry the sound of doom metal, but Ghost Bath brings those influences far closer to the surface.

From the cover, which is an image borrowed from an art photograph from the late 1800s, to the desperate funereal wailing of the vocals, to the maudlin strummed chords, there is a palpable sense of more refined despair than Deafheaven's sunny washes.

Deafheaven's frontman wears his black clothes and his sneer as a mask, a kind of 21st century American reimagining of corpsepaint. Ghost Bath touch on an exotic and semi-mythic vision of anonymous Chinese musicians toiling in obscurity.

The cover and name hint at a deeper essence to the record. Moonlover is what it promises, a return to the lunar sound of the more depressive spaces of metal, both doom and black, juxtaposed against Deafheaven's Sunbather. It's hard not to view the titling as deliberate in that way. There is a definition and shine to the guitars, resonating like gently tapped crystal panes or ringing glass bells.

The guitars shimmer not like the sun through trees but moonlight against the surface of water. The mood is funereal but not morose; we get a vision of a beautiful afterlife emerging through moonlit clouds.

But this is still a funeral. There is still death and loss amidst beauty.

This leads to a tilt back to the earlier work of Alcest. For their first three records, Alcest played in (and were the most obvious origin of) this playground, melding the fantastical and atmospheric end of black metal with an acutely French sense of fantasy; images of peacocks resting atop seas of gems glistening in moonlight, strange avian figures creeping in tall Moroccan arches, flute-led arabesques through North African lakesides while atop the water sat a giant swan. Ghost Bath conjures a fantasy of similar detail, but far gloomier.

Notes of Anathema's mid-period blend of more nuanced art rock with their funereal and gothic melodies appear. The image of the bound and nude female moon goddess, whose head is a mask, and an image drained of all color but dark grey and dull silver.

It is a lunar fantasy, one of pain and loss and guilt. If Alcest shows the fantastical pleasure garden, Ghost Bath show us the gentle hand on the gate after it has forever lost the key.

The effusive praise from all over the web is well-earned. This is a wildly evocative and gorgeous work even in its heartbreak. It does, like Alcest and Deafheaven, what this particular post-black metal blend does well, which is communicate the kinds of images and emotions contained within extreme metal in packages that, while still heavy metal, are a bit more communicative to audiences outside.

This is as depressive and devastating as the most immaculate MONO records.

The whistling that closes out the closing track, "Death and the Maiden," carries the narrative images to their close: Death, a tall pale figure, leading her away into the silvery afterlife, while, at the closed gate, her lover sits, serenaded by the taunting pipes of a faun.

A dark and beautiful fantasy of loss.

Image taken from Ghost Bath's Bandcamp.