You remember the Beastmaster, right? Marc Singer running around the desert in a loincloth, communicating with animals via ESP, deploying ferrets to filch Tanya Roberts’s clothes as she skinny-dipped? I was hopelessly spellbound by the film as a youngster, and I watched it whenever I could for two straight years, seeking it out on HBO, Cinemax, or in my parents’ top-loader VCR. It’s etched so deeply into my memory that I still associate it with certain things words, objects, and sounds. One of those words is “cauldron.” You remember the three blind witches, right?
At any rate, I like being reminded of the Beastmaster. So when the new album from Ghost Cauldron arrived in my mailbox for review, it received immediate bonus points on the strength of its name alone. Things were quickly equalized when I unwrapped it and saw the cover art, which features some sorely misguided type treatment. That’s too bad, because as it turns out, Ghost Cauldron could have used the head start.
Invent Modest Fires is the first full-length from the spectral stew cookers, who are actually DJ Kaos (formerly of Terranova) and a gentleman who goes by CE.EL. The moniker Ghost Cauldron captures well the essence of the material on their first album. An ethereal tone pervades Invent Modest Fires, while its songs hail from nearly every patch in the genre garden. While there is a certain gallantry to such fearless crossbreeding, it ultimately suggests a band who doesn’t really know what it wants to do, so it does a little of everything. Ghost Cauldron does this to nearly always adequate—but hardly ever fantastic or memorable—effect.
Of course, just because it’s not brilliant doesn’t mean that Invent Modest Fires doesn’t have its pleasing bits. Particularly strong are Ghost Cauldron’s stabs at hip-hop. The always reliable Anti-Pop Consortium give a good showing on “Fear”, and the vibrant and dance-ready “Whole World” is buoyed by some stand-out versifying by female New York rapper Apani B Fly. But the beats and synthesized swishes that accompany the hip-hop tracks keep them from ascending to greatness. Everything is too well polished and cyclical, and it ultimately works against the grit and immediacy of the performers’ rhymes.
Similar problems plague Ghost Cauldron’s few attempts at moody, guitar-driven pop. The moments when Nick Taylor joins the duo on songs like “See What I’ve Become” and “Right Now” quickly turn into derivative dirges the likes of which groups such as the Doves toss off between shots.
Elsewhere on the album, Ghost Cauldron tries its hand at bass-driven funk (“Garage Beat”), beat heavy ambience (“Fire Walk with Me”), and Kraftwerk-inspired disco (“Death before Disco”). While competent, none of it is all too captivating. Listening, one gets the feeling that if they narrowed their focus a bit, Ghost Cauldron could improve their chances of inspiring more than just nostalgia for campy ‘80s fantasy films.