The texture-heavy synth experimentation on Narrows may not be a grand revelation in light of the many like records put out in the past few years, but it is nonetheless a stunning debut from a highly promising new artist.
The artwork from which Warm Ghost take their name is highly indicative of the music that they make. The piece, Katharina Fritsch's Geist und Blutlache, is both deeply unsettling and haunting simultaneously. Whether one's theory of art rests on subjective interpretation or objective form, it seems difficult to deny the unnerving scene set in the work. The piece is set to divide its viewers; the strange puddle and the oddly-shaped ghost (if one could even call it that) in the background cause unrest in their stoic stillness. Likewise, the music of Warm Ghost, comprised of multi-instrumentalists Paul Duncan and Oliver Chapoy, is equally interpretive. The album is treated more like a canvas than a recording; the various instruments weave their way in and out of songs, layering on top of each other as they build into hazy, at times ethereal choruses. Each chord feels more like a brush stroke than a finger pushing a key on a synthesizer.
The parallel between Fritsch's art and the band's music may attribute more significance to the band's debut LP than is appropriate. Context, as is the case with any record, is necessary.
2011 has seen many bands pegged with the silly label "chillwave" release acclaimed records. Most notably, Toro Y Moi's Beneath the Pine and Washed Out's Within and Without have both been critical darlings, bringing further attention to a paradigm shift that has seemed to be going on for quite some time. Though guitar-driven music still dominates the mainstream, there have been artists outside the realm of popular music who place the synthesizer at the front of the mix. This sonic is a malleable one; though '80's synth pop seems to be the usual point of comparison, shoegaze and dream pop also bear similarities. The common thread of those genres is the textural element; melodic lines and guitar riffs are most often used not as the driving force of the song but instead as another element to add to a dense conglomeration of synthetic sounds.
So while highfalutin descriptions of Warm Ghost's nonetheless complex art can make it seem as if the band is bringing forth a new means of creating sonic landscapes, in truth the band is, while having a distinct sound, part of a recent development that has already begun to gain some momentum. That aside, Narrows is strong proof that the band is not merely going through the motions. The expected elements of a "chillwave" record are here, but they don't inhabit the album generically. This isn't entirely obvious, however; the band avoids relying too heavily on conventions of their genre almost deceivingly. Lead single and album opener "G.T.W.S" sounds a lot like '80's synth pop, and was probably chosen as a single for that reason; it serves as a good, but not great, gateway into the rest of the album's more unique pieces, notably the two that proceed after it.
"I Will Return" highlights one of the substantive differences between Warm Ghost and their like-minded counterparts. While bands like Toro Y Moi still retain something of a clear, discernible vocal, Duncan's voice is used best when it dissolves into wordlessness, as it does in the chorus of "I Will Return." The verses, dominated by a thick bass synth, give way to the song's reverb-laden chorus, with Duncan's voice echoing back and forth, seeming to reverberate from within itself. The way the vocals on Narrows are used is indistinguishable from the album's textural synths, which add to the band's treatment of the voice as just another instrument. This trait culminates masterfully in the album's finest moment, the gorgeous "Once One." The track is centered around a harp-like synth arpeggio, which builds up to a transcendent chorus, occupied of multiple layers of vocal, synthesizer, and guitar. These two songs are the album's strongest and most distinct moments; they are so good that trying to categorize them with another unnecessary subgenre comes off as a pointless exercise. It's better just to listen and take in the music, which isn't hard to do given the way these songs extraordinarily bloom into breathtaking beauty.
Because the album's best songs come early, that leaves the rest of the record to match the brilliance of its preceding parts, which unfortunately the it isn't able to do. The synth-pop style of "G.T.W.S." comes back on songs like "Mariana" and "Splay of Road", though the second half of the record continues more in the textural vein of "Once One". While these moments aren't particularly bad, they don't stand out given the strength of the album's impressive first half. Still, there are some excellent moments in the record's latter moments. "Ply7", the album's lone instrumental track, builds several stratified synthesizer sounds over a repetitive, Philip Glass-like piano motif, creating a rather contemplative soundscape. "An Absolute Light" ends the album on a reflective note, with a single note oscillating in the last minute of the song.
Narrows is a record that grows. The songs grow from basic synth-driven sounds to lush, multi-layered choruses that show striking beauty not in one sound but many sounds all at once building atop each other. Moreover, it's a record that grows on the listener; it may be easy to see Warm Ghost as just another band in an up-and-coming scene, but after multiple listens the record's deep textures have a lingering effect. The emotive power of the songs doesn't lie in the album's most easily heard words (such as this particularly interesting lyric: "Subtle hints of you / Are assembling in the dark / Swimming back to me like a shark"), but rather in its instrumental beauty. So like Geist und Blutlache, Warm Ghost's music is bound to elicit many responses. Over the course of the album's nine songs, Duncan and Chapoy make a pretty convincing case that the reactions will be good ones. Narrows, while no masterpiece or game-changer, is a very impressive debut, one that regardless of what new subgenres it is labeled with will stand on its own as a fine piece of musical art.