The psychedelic garage rock subgenre is a dicey one, in the sense it’s so specific and self-limiting. To be in that mold and still stand apart from the pack, a band has to finagle some way to implement a degree of innovation. But go too far into left field, and you risk not being considered part of the typically minimalistic form at all. Thus, any new group is almost certainly tasked with using the same building blocks of their progenitors and tying to invent some new manner of organizing them. The surfeit amount of garage rock revivalists that appeared in the early aughts struggled with this; a decade on, an even steeper incline mars the path of upstart bands trying to adhere to tradition and break out on their own.
Such is the predicament faced by Auckland’s Ghost Waves on debut LP Ages. To get right to it, there is nothing bad about the album. At the same time, there is nothing impressive about it either, nothing that really grabs on and won’t let go. The album is a by-rote example of a group struggling to find its own identity by channeling its influences and winding up sounding more like a band playing covers rather than referencing their forbearers or offering homage.
This isn’t to say the group is lacking in youthful energy or enthusiasm. On the contrary, the record has a palpable sense of vitality, of four guys ecstatic to be jamming and having their tunes recorded. This is most evident in the jangly instrumental workout of “Arkestra”, set in the middle of the record and serving as its anchor. One of Ages highpoints, it ebbs and flows, rises and crashes, like a tumultuous surf. It’s the most natural cut on the record, the band unencumbered by concern and playing as though they don’t realize the tapes are still rolling.
As individual numbers, the songs are fine enough. Opening track “Horsemouth” is a driving and urgent ditty, electric organ and guitar effects propelling it forward as frontman Matthew L. Paul’s distorted voice drearily repeats the refrain, “Sun come up and sun come down / That’s the only time I see.” The slacker approach carries on through the record, evident in its lo-fi sensibilities and specified in “I Don’t Mind”, a championing of insouciance as bliss. The hypnotic drift of “Country Rider” has some understated swagger to it, while lead single “Here She Comes” has a hazy dreaminess, accented by a twinge of Indian music.
Yet even at a cursory listen, the songs are all but drowned in their adherence to the template set by the ‘60s underground (hell, “Here She Comes” is a word away from sharing a title with a Velvet Underground song, something which doesn’t seem coincidental). Simple, catchy choruses and hooks abound, yet none linger once the record stops. Taken together as a whole album, the songs’ resistance to break convention in favor of playing it safe means they end up lacking variety, sounding too similar for the sum total to be enjoyable. What results is a flatness of sorts, a distance between the listener and the record, and the gulf can be characterized as the recognition on the audience’s part that good as the songs might be, they are covered by a sheen of mediocrity. That said, the germ of something that could grow fruitful and rewarding is here; Ghost Wave just might need another album or two to cultivate that prize.