Album: Ghost of New York
Author: Sven Klippel
Publication: Musique Machine
As a kid, my most-read book was a peculiar little volume called, roughly translated, the Horror Handbook. In a dozen or so chapters, it set out the basics of horror: what kind of creatures you might encounter in horror stories, essential horror movies, essential reading, and so on. The chapters were accompanied by black-and-white, charcoal illustrations of the creatures and situations described: a head sprouting legs, a creepy shaman, the emaciated undead, etcetera. Most intriguing was the chapter on ghosts. Not only did it describe (and depict, most creepily) your typical pale dead persons walking through walls and stirring things up a bit, it also delved into ghosts of an inanimate nature: ghost carriages, ghost cars, and many other ghost possessed items.
Fervent music fans will start to wonder: what about ghost(ly) music? Unfortunately, the Horror Handbook offers nothing on this particular topic. To this reviewer, ghostly music seems like something fleeting and drifting; odd, sparse notes hanging in the background, with some soft whispers here and there, perhaps a slightly-off key music box, and, of course, creepy, atmospheric ambient (effectively, yes, a Resident Evil soundtrack). Frank Rothkamm has his own intriguing view on ghost music; in the liner notes he explains how he believes that the music of ghosts is located in between the known system’s twelve fixed pitches that evenly divide the octave. Ghost music, then, can be heard at moments of transition, and it seems sensible – ghost music is, in this way, unavoidably fleeting, sparse, somewhere out of time.
To capture, or rather: play, ghost music, Rothkamm uses analogue synths – at least so, on this album, aptly titled Ghost of New York. The music he so creates bears little resemblance to anything musical: it’s largely devoid of structures, melodies and composition. Instead, seemingly random synth beeps and blips and whirrs bounce around between my left and right ear, then rather violently, then more laid-back. As also laid out in the liner notes, the music is wholly reverbless, instead moving and creating spatial illusions solely through frequency modulation, and it must be said that the experience is pleasantly hallucinatory, at the album’s best moments.
Though Ghost of New York, at least in theory, is an album of ghost music, it will primarily sound as a sort of sci-fi experiment gone wrong to the casual listener. The blips and beeps resemble, more than anything, fiery lasers; the whirrs space ships descending to earth to then wreak havoc; and the havoc is perfectly scored by the remaining atmospheric sounds of doom and suspense. While doubtlessly Rothmann set out to execute diligently the principles laid out in the liner notes, and so doubtlessly achieved some degree of success, there is little in Ghost of New York for those listeners who hope for a listening experience that is frightening, disconcerting and ghostly.
The main limitation lies perhaps in the choice for analogue synths: they, above all, make the music sound tinny and slightly outer space. Moreover, they make it quite the acquired taste: an album full of bleeping synths, even if it’s only just over thirty minutes long, will only appeal to the most hardcore of synth lovers. I personally don’t mind synths at all, especially not when whirring and raging like mad (Atrax Morgue, XV Parowek, to name two artists who have done synth material I love to bits), but at the end of Ghost of New York, I feel a bit like I’ve overdosed on them.
Ghost of New York is quite a fascinating ride in more than one way, but ultimately it falls just slightly short. What’s on offer does not seem to fulfill the full potential of Rothkamm’s idea of ghost music, and the album itself is a bit too one-dimensional to offer any sort of revelatory listening experience. As is, much like ghosts themselves, Rothkamm’s ghost music is a few shades too pale, and a bit too flimsy, too.
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