You can't accuse Massachusetts-based Judson Mac Rae and KaeoFLUX, a.k.a. Pilot Balloon, of not having a sense of humor, even if it's black as coal. If this is good cheer, then who needs depression? On their debut album, the duo construct a web of post-nuclear haze and confusion that is so oppressive, it's terrifying.
One of the more interesting points that Chuck Klosterman makes in his biopic/treatise Fargo Rock City is that there's a marked difference between music that's hard and music that's heavy. While Ghastly Good Cheer could never be described as "hard", it's some of the heaviest music you'll hear. Well-chosen samples and sound bites struggle to make their way out of the mix, as if someone were trying to tune in a radio just to find signs of life. Throughout the first three tracks, beats spurt and stutter to life only to sputter and die quick deaths; the atmosphere is just too dense for them. When a backbeat does finally get going on "Pavane for Vinchy", it's one of the most crushing hip hop rhythms you'll hear all year.
After that, the assault rarely lets up. "Closet Carpetbagger" incorporates some wraith-like, vaguely Eastern droning that could only be described as "real horrorshow". "Testimonial Match" carpetbombs the musical landscape with bursts of thudding beats, while a survivor moans incoherently in the background. The second half of the album continues with more broken beats, ominous minor-key keyboards and strings, occasional guitar strumming. When KaeoFLUX delivers a suitably alienated, paranoid rap on "Hug Dusty", it's less jarring than you might think. Guest rappers Swedish Stacs of Stamina keep up the tension with their incisive, stream-of-consciousness flow on "Throe Stasis" ("I keep my life in a matchbox / ignore the broken glass"). Just as suddenly as it came, though, the rapping is gone. It works so well in this context, lightening the mood just a little without relieving the pressure, that you wish Mac Rae and KaeoFLUX had included more of it. The skittering "Christian Stirfry", meanwhile, is almost drum-and-bass. Finally, all of the pressure that has been building throughout the previous eleven tracks comes crushing down on the waltz-time "Vampire Tonic", surely the soundtrack to the scariest movie you've never seen. Hide the razorblades for this one!
Ghastly Good Cheer's seemingly random bits of dialogue, stop-start rhythms and meandering, almost free-form arrangements all nod toward jazz. And, like most free jazz, it's a challenging listen at times. It's not the kind of record you put on the car stereo while you're doing errands. But settle in with some headphones or a nice sound system and Pilot Balloon's truly blunted compositions will envelop your senses. If Radiohead had gone whole hog with detached, brooding atmosphere on their last couple albums, they might've ended up with something like this. Even if they had, they would've been hard-pressed to come up with a listen as arresting, and harrowing, as Ghastly Good Cheer.