The Ghost of John Henry, the second album from Sci-Fi Romance, is a concept record based around the folk tale of John Henry. Singer/songwriter Vance Kotria embellishes the basic story of man vs. machine by imagining a life for Henry outside of working on the railroad. “Tomorrow May Take You” has Henry longing for his girlfriend over a pleasant, easygoing guitar line and happy-sounding cello. “God in His Wisdom” finds Henry fatalistically contemplating his fate but wistfully chalking it up to God’s will.
Those pleasant-sounding folk songs are the exceptions on The Ghost of John Henry, though, and they function as excellent changes of pace. For the most part Kotria finds an undercurrent of anger in the Henry story and rides it through an album full of menacing minor-key tracks. His rich baritone voice lends itself well to dark songs that with cranked up guitars could easily shift from low folk to heavy metal. The clearest example of this is “Steam Drill Blues”, which features Kotria chugging away on a heavily-distorted guitar during a track that could be slotted into Baroness’ setlist without anyone in the audience batting an eye. In Kotria’s version of the story, Henry is pissed about he and his fellow workers having to give way to automated machines. He knows that he’s fighting a losing battle, even if he wins the legendary contest. Kotria’s stark guitar accompaniments are perfectly accented with Kurt Bloom’s quiet drums and Jody Stark’s versatile cello. Sci-Fi Romance’s combination of folk music with barely-controlled rage is one that isn’t seen very often anymore, and the band offers something unique in the ever-more crowded Americana genre.