Had I started a band a few years ago, with the benefit of hindsight Wolf Ghost (or Ghost Bear, or some variation on the above) would have been the perfect name (using ‘perfect’ in the sense of most appropriate, rather than ideal). In his latest book, Simon Reynolds argues that the plethora of bands with ‘memory’ or ‘cassette’ in their moniker (Memory Cassettes, snake eyes!) is telling us something about the deadening ‘retromania’ that grips popular culture today (and, as many have noted by now, in doing so he revives the model of the original good ol’ days — when music was original). But some might see ‘The Deadening’ more in the light of revenance and reverence. So we might ask, could the explosion of spooks in recent times have a similar significance? TV Ghost, Stray Ghost, Team Ghost, Former Ghosts, Ghost Box, Space Ghost Coast To Coast, and, for your inspection today, we have Warm Ghost (Paul Duncan and Oliver Chapoy).
Narrows is not a huge departure from this year’s EP release, Uncut Diamond, though the latter was somewhat musically prettier, while the present piece is a little darker (incidentally, I lament the trend for the acceleration of releases — where’s Quality Control Man when you need him?). Both there and on Narrows, Warm Ghost’s verbal sensibilities lie somewhere between bombastic-poetic and buttock-clenchingly, cringeworthily angsty (“Let My Angst Unfold In the Water Like A Hound’s Tongue,” snake eyes squared!). While they’ve chosen not to veil their music beneath a lo-fi haze, the lyrics themselves are often inaudible. But when they can be deciphered, they either deal in abstract, natural, or technological themes, or address the female Other and object of desire. But, unfortunately, this then tends toward the banal (either romantic or profound, sometimes both at once).
The grandiose end of this spectrum is not devoid of possibilities, but in order to make use of them, the path is Narrow, and whatever influences might be implicit from the authors Paul Duncan has namechecked elsewhere — Gibson, Borges, and somewhat less interestingly, Jung — they are not making their way from the musicians’ id to the listener’s ego. To my mind, the Borgesian labyrinth on view, rather, is the re-creation of fictional or memorious worlds inherent in the phenomenon of revival itself (Funes-as-internet), while Gibson, despite The Gernsback Continuum’s epoch-defining foray into Googie considered as future past, is best known for prescience, not antecedents. Indeed, where Reynolds employs the term ‘retromania,’ I’d humbly suggest ‘antecedentism’ (not only regarding a looking to the past, but also in terms of abandoning the valorization of novelty-as-transcendence) as a possible moniker for “we postmoderns” musical condition.
Narrows does have a certain potential in its fusion of the (new) romantic 80s synth sound currently so deeply in vogue with the crunchy beats and thick drones of instrumental hip-hop and experimental electronica (though Washed Out is also playing his part in this endeavour, albeit in quite a different register). But the sounds sometimes crash and collide rather than meld together, whereas elsewhere, paradoxically, they slide off the ear, a little over-anonymous yet falling short of the unique grey palette of an act like Japan. And while Uncut Diamond’s cover of “All Cats Are Grey,” a song that sits at or near the apex of everything The Cure could be at their best, is a step demonstrating their taste, it also points back to taste, rather than originality, as a determining factor in their music, which again speaks to Reynolds’ analysis of the nature of retro in the postmodern age.
So it’s not that there is nothing to appreciate on the album, from an aesthetic perspective. There are hints throughout of what Warm Ghost might aspire to in the combination of glitchy electronics with 80s retro romance, in Duncan’s magisterial yet multifaceted vocal performance, and in the decision not to semi-conceal these things beneath a layer of chillwave crackle (though here we tilt rather toward the aesthetic of slowed-down minimal wave, and hence fail to escape the past-centric paradigm). But the shadow side of, the Lacanian lack in, the explosion of retro subgenre recreation (dare I say ‘imitation’?) and its inherent logic of the mass-produced, aura-less simulacrum, has been the need for individuation, for some quality of the statement. That is, when music is not only deeply based on pastiche of previous genres (here, the Dance-era Numan-esque slabs of melancholy, machinic synth on tracks like “Mariana” are particularly noticeable), but also sits within a contemporary register of acts that, one way or another, are exploring near-identical sounds and influences, I don’t think it’s unfair to raise the bar a little higher than a consideration of the aesthetic divorced from this context. In other words, the narrow path is indeed a path as such, but not one that always leads to salvation.