12 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #12

Songs: Ohia, Ghost Tropic (Secretly Canadian, 2000)

I don't know what mental state Jason Molina was in when he recorded this album, but it sure sounds like he was depressed. Ghost Tropic is one of those albums that's clearly meant to be taken as a whole, and judged on songs alone or as an entire record, it's almost abnormally bleak. From Molina's tremorous, disconsolate singing, to the obscure and doom-laden lyrics, to the slower-than-molasses pace of every song, the atmosphere is oddly humid and haunted, which makes the title immensely appropriate. The album actually sounds like what the title evokes. Listening to this album is like watching terrible things happening at night in a rainforest from behind an impenetrable screen.

Picking out individual songs to describe is almost meaningless on an album this self-contained. Everything here works toward achieving a cumulative effect on the listener. Sequencing is extremely important here: though there's nothing here that's "catchy" in almost any sense, the songs go in an order that they were obviously meant to go in. You can't do any random shuffling with this record, because the atmosphere will be completely destroyed. And the atmosphere on this record is possibly the most important thing about it. I'm not saying that the songs aren't musically worthy: they're all great songs. But they all sound the same as each other to a degree, and they're all clearly in the service of the whole. There are eight songs here. Two are bizarre instrumentals dominated by lo-fi tapes of ambient forest noise: birds screeching, bats chirping, all that, sparsely furnished with lashings of melody from almost randomly selected instruments: lap-steel, vibraphone, piano, strangely ringing percussion that sounds like someone tapping on the metal hull of a boat, etc. The other six songs consist of four five-minute dirges and two ten-plus minute dirges, and the two ten-plus minute dirges are on Side B. If you're not gripped by the atmosphere by the time the first song ends, you probably won't like the album too much.

Instrumentally, this album is fairly unique. There are often two guitars on many of the songs. One, presumably the one Molina's playing, is a clean electric guitar that almost sounds like it's been strung with rubber bands run through an amp with the vibrato setting permanently on. The other is a very adept acoustic guitar (through some kind of wizardly playing, this other guy manages to consistently bend acoustic guitar harmonics and strings on the first song like he's got a whammy bar attached - it's a really cool and unsettling effect). Strange and brilliantly unsettling keyboard work pops up increasingly as the album goes on, especially on the two long songs. "Not Just a Ghost's Heart" features a vibrating, droning synthesizer that sets the rhythmic pattern for the entire 12-minute song, along with grim piano and bizarre, nearly atonal organ way off in the background, while "Incantation" features what sounds like an actual Mellotron. But the most noteworthy sonic feature of the album is the odd, loping, seemingly non-Western percussion that's everywhere here. I think the only time a standard trap set is used is on "The Ocean's Nerves," which ends the first side. There is at least a bass drum used on most tracks, but just as often you'll hear percussion which I personally have a very hard time identifying. I'm not sure if it was easily available percussion merely recorded in a weird way, or if it was actually strange percussion that the people recording the album had access to, but either way it sounds quite individual. I don't honestly know if I've ever heard another album with a percussion sound like this.

Every song here is good. But the last 11-minute stare-down of a finale, "Incantation," is one scary way to end the album. The Mellotron work here is extraordinarily foreboding and unnatural, evoking nothing so much as Popol Vuh's soundtrack work for Herzog's '70's films. Coupled with Molina's lonely wail, his repetitive minor-key guitar, the deeply frightening, apocalyptic lyrics and the spare, funereal percussion, it all adds up to a creepy, terribly effective song that's hard to forget.

Ghost Tropic has limited usage, to be honest. It's extremely quiet, subdued, and so slow that it's nearly going backwards. The only way you can really listen to it is at night in a room alone, with the lights turned off. But it is one hell of a nightmarish trip, and it must be listened to on its own terms.

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