Written by: Dave Cantrell
We’ll make this quick. On Collection of Shadows, European Ghost, a trio from Bologna consisting of Guiseppe Taibi (bass, drums, and much etc), singer/lyricist Cristiano Biondo and Mario D’Anelli on guitar and synth, even while almost certainly not meaning to, would appear to be making a play at being the finest post-punk band in existence. Now, without argument, that’s of course just an absurd thing to say. There are so very very many of them out there about which that exact statement could be made. But on the strength, the tensile, thrumming, expansive, passionate, grippingly precise strength presented hereon, it is, at the moment anyway, a conclusion that is quite simply hard to dispute.
The record, just their second – Pale and Sick arrived in 2016 – finds the band, in essence, surpassing themselves (and again, just about everyone else we can think just now) with a powerful, fluid ease. While, at a glance, a skeptic might wonder – classic length (10 tracks), each a song of more-or-less classic, post-punky duration (slightly over three-and-a-half minutes the shortest, slightly less than six the longest), the fact is that each track acts something like a full album in microcosm. Consistency might indeed be the hobgoblin of small minds in many instances but here it’s a sign of an ever-burgeoning confidence in their craft meeting the band’s darkly luminous ambition. The result is that level of gratifying that can border on grandeur. It’s almost impossible to get enough of this album. So much of what we love, all that’s drawn us and continues to draw, is present here in abundance.
The key, as always, to the optimal application of one’s influences (both past and present), is absorption not mimicry, a sometimes elusive truism that European Ghost have clearly, well, absorbed. Listening, noting the fire of Killing Joke, the mystery of Joy Division, the take-no-prisoners sonority of Soft Kill, the melodic dexterity of the Chameleons all being blended, hybridized, basically cell-transferred into a moving, mesmerizing beast all its own, makes the record’s title loom with ever greater significance.
So, sure, I could delineate here a bit, talk about how opening song “Suspended in the Void” is so utterly captivating – just as all first tracks should be – holding (OK, suspending) you in a dark abeyance that even the prospect of existential madness toward which we’re all pulled can’t dim the bright joy the thing overall evokes. Or discourse on how the ringing glisten of “Dream House”‘s guitar offsets with a disarming grace the darker tones of desperation that otherwise exude (European Ghost, it would seem, know a thing or two about the dynamics of balance), or the kinetic trance factor, abetted by an understated Go4 bassline and an arpeggiated synth-fed backdrop that hangs and haunts like a sky made of fear, that makes the title track a transfixing centerpiece, how “Return” begins as light as “Lovecats” but quickly descends into a propulsive addictive hell. I could do all that (not even necessarily feeling the need to mention the pitch black post-punkedelica of final cut “Black Ocean,” a lugubrious beauty), but you, ever astute SEM reader, would already have sussed as much from the short slew of words that preceded this paragraph.
Though at this point both a bit expected and extraordinary, it still bears saying that there’s not a step, a half-step, a gesture or a drumbeat misplaced here. Thing is, however, that the real beauty of the beauty so generously available on Collection of Shadows, is that, while there can be little doubt that much care and dedicated labor went in to the writing, editing, and executing of this record (including it being mastered by James Aparicio), on the end result one senses it’s all a case of finesse and intuition, as if, much like freeing David from a block of marble, this ‘collection’ already existed, fully-formed and lyrically ornate. All – ha! Right, “all” – European Ghost had to do was uncover it. And that, as we all know, that impression of unforced naturalism, is damned rare.
Never ones to shirk the challenges presented by being artists inside the constructs of an otherwise conventional life – drummer (usually) Casey and keyboardist/primary singer Amy are married with three boys in or near middle school, bassist (mostly) Jesse is a schoolteacher; only guitarist-sometimes-bassist Jason might qualify as the band’s lone rock’n’roll rebel but even he’s engaged and holds down a fairly senior position at CD Baby – Shadowlands, on this cleverly-titled mini-LP follow-up to 001, take chances they don’t really need to take. After all, that debut marked them out as already established talents, formidable writers, exquisite players, an enviably tight-knit, creatively cohesive group. No one would have begrudged them a part II, son of 001 outing, except of course themselves. So, though those familiar with that reputation-establishing initial work won’t exactly feel adrift listening to its sequel, they might be – and bloody well should be – delighted to find a few new wrinkles pleating the Shadowland sound.
Now, it’s subtle at first, with the opener “Newborn,” past its click-clacky percussive intro, mostly mining a decidedly similar (and similarly effecting) sublime as they’ve become known for, Amy singing with nightingale loneliness over an echoing yearn of melody, synthy desert atmospherics hanging over everything like the end of the world made liltingly pretty. Then comes “The River.” Long menacing murmur, modulating volume levels, a jumpy nervous rhythm that’s soon enhanced by some light industrial synths like this is der Mode taking a stab at the Human League circa Dare. Which is to say that a) it’s entrancing and addictively melodic, and b) this is Shadowlands? I mean, no doubt it is. That’s Jason singing (it’s his song), and it has that same bewitching undertow and besides there’s their name and their enigmatic band graphic in bright gold on the cover. But, but…anyway, moving on. Perhaps the next track will return us to…umm, well…no. Not nearly.
Launching in the dying jetstream of “The River,” “We Cannot,” though laying claim to a familiar drum character, flays along further into the urban matrix, sounding for all the (doomed) world like the sweet nectar sound of post-apocalyptica, a phrase that, at this point, the band may want to adopt as the core part of their mission statement.
Mildly hyperbolic overreaction, you’re thinking? Could be. We’ve been know to come a bit rhetorically unhinged at times here at SEM, we admit. Regardless, though, we’re pretty sure we’re on to something here as “Charming Tyrant” drifts into existence inside a droning metallic fog just prior to exploding into what can only be called a hauntological fury. It’s like a punk rock Lee Hazlewood or something, and, just as good as that sounds. And then, then…get this. They finish the record by covering New Order even as they’re NOT ACTUALLY covering New Order. I mean, it could be a NO song. Even its title, “Possession,” rings with that shiny early 80’s ambiguity that Hooky, Sumner, Hannett and them perfected as the master alchemists they were. And it finds the band pouring their liquid mercury Shadowlands mystique all over that glorious template that the Mancunian legends chiseled out of “Everything’s Gone Green” and into an entire stadium-filling career and, really, even though it’s not a cover it nonetheless could function as one anyway and sounds absolutely WONDERFUL! Amy back at the mic (nice bookending touch, that) as well as throwing those icy synth shapes of hers everywhere, Casey’s drums cascading in a wild triplet precision that suggest that being considered a, um, shadow member of New Order was a condition of his being born, Jesse low-ending it on the bass but then his dancing-around playing style has always had a couple of Hooks in it, Mr E.Lectric letting fly with flecked glissando guitar runs that positively glow with the joy he’s having playing them. Overall effect? Shivers, dear listener, guaranteed.
It’s never easy to follow an easily bewitching debut, the traps plentiful, the potential trips and stumbles so legion as to be mundane. It’s why bands so often attempt to replicate the magic by, well, replicating everything they did the first time, not realizing that that path most often leads in something very close to the opposite, very much non-magic direction. Then, even when a band have a decent handle on all that, there’s not a lot of certainty they’ll succeed (it is, after all, a significant undertaking to tear up the map and redraw as if you never saw it in the first place). Way to nail it, Shadowlands.
There’s all kinds of snarky things one can rightfully say about the internet (most regarding the snarky things that get said on the internet) but among the many aspects that all that bad blowback overshadows is how it helps allow bands to stay together even when its crucial components end up, through life’s many windstorms, living on different continents. Though, as might be well-presumed given this record’s title, Night Nail is an LA-based band, its singer and lyrical linchpin Brandon Robert is now resident in Berlin (where, by the way, on the day I’m writing this he and Valentine Veil – also a contributor on this album – have just become parent to baby Dylan. Prost! to you both from SEM!)
Formed in 2013 and gaining almost instant traction via a self-released EP the following year, Night Nail, tone-wise, are an exquisitely moody bunch, their sound, while often underpinned by a lively restraint, tending towards the saturnine. In that way LA Demons might be posited as one of the more ideal soundtracks for both the season we’re heading in to (those of us in the northern climes, anyway) and the, well, somewhat gloomy subtext that informs our every waking moment these days, a moment – perhaps neverending – when hope glowers at best. What’s curious, then, is how records like this, that so viscerally reflect that creeping haunt of anxiety we all share, can have such an uncannily uplifting effect. There’s no doubt some kind of emotional double-negative rule at play – not to mention a parallel to the standard conundrum wherein one responds with the greatest exhilaration to the most despondent Russian literature – but whatever the case there’s a joy etched in the darkness here.
That joy – if it’s accurate to really call it that; resilience is perhaps better? – finds its expression straightaway in the mournful shimmer of first track “Never Dream,” the melancholy in Robert’s voice – there’s an elegant decadence in its delivery throughout – offset by a sparkle of guitar (his and Michael Carpenter Jr’s both) though the songs, and arguably the album’s, most salient moment comes in the rather casually uttered line “Let’s drink to darker times.” Here’s to that.
Elsewhere, initial singles (which is to say videos) “Little Armenia” and “Walls Collapse” carry torches, respectively, for a druggily soporific insomnia and a nimble bout of shadowboxing between Faith-era Cure and any-era Bauhaus, the title track stalks the dark warm night like a noirish specter hunting memories, echoic hints of cinematic horn in the reverbed guitar effects, the creeping-up “Her Gallows Humor” features a delicate, arresting tripartite dance between bass, synth, and drums (James Hendrix Justin Regele Bryan Panzeri in that order) that begins the break and carries you through to the end like a 6-handed spirit guide, “Shadow Songs” is near-ethereal with punctuated rhythm as if someone’s trying to punch their way through some beautifully backlit gauze while closer “Hollow Day,” all Tolhurstian bass and unintrusive gaze dynamics, carries aloft through its three-and-a-half minute length what might well be termed a sustained effervescent dread, a summation, in its way, of both the record it caps and the lives of those tuned in to it.
There is indeed a feeling afoot now that encompasses both the pendingness of doom and the necessarily resigned temperament that suggests a state of mind and heart of how we might survive it. On LA Demons, it seems Night Nail have taken a big breath of that oddly saturated air and, if you’ll pardon me saying it, nailed it. The genre, already, by default, best suited to address the coming drift into the abyss, has found one its truest voices.
Let’s drink to darker times indeed.