You don’t get the feeling Sydney band Ghosts of Television arrive at rehearsals shrugging. Ideas squirm forth from Forsaken Empire like maggots on month-old meat.
But are they having us all on? Why, this is sunny Sydney – from what deep, dank pit does this darkness emerge? I wonder what kind of costumes they wear on stage? Leather? Capes? Neither of these, as it happens, but unlike label buddies The Laurels and The Holy Soul, Ghosts of Television do have a reputation for confounding novice crowds. I know, I was one.
It was the tail end of a show supporting Witch Hats and The Stabs at La Campana in Sydney, singer Nic de Jong was growling into the mic, I was loving every second, then a sudden, chilly doubt tumbled down my spine. “Is this parody?” I wondered. Before my crisis of judgement had crystallised as such, it was like the ground (musically speaking) was no longer beneath me. And things were too loud, too chaotic, too disorienting to get my bearings. Like a paranoid teenager, I tried to gauge other people’s reactions so I could act the same. Should I smile wryly at the band’s art-imitates-death-metal routine? Or head bang in the front row while totally losing my shit? Both seemed fitting. Until I heard some recorded material in the cold hard light of day, the jury was gonna stay out on Ghosts of TV for me. No one likes to suspect they might be missing the joke.
When Forsaken Empire arrived to assess in peace, at home, unencumbered by the confused post-PoMo oscillations I experienced when seeing them live, it was a clarifying experience. My inner-critic rallied when the LP – released in late 2009 on Magnetic Recording Council – revealed itself as “unclassifiable” in iTunes. Soon after, I read a blog post by de Jong likening the album to ‘Hammerheart’, a ballad by Swedish metal band Bathory.
“I feel like the Ghosts album is really, really similar,” he wrote. “It tries to be epic and it’s a bit lame and is easy for people to make fun of. But [Bathory songwriter] Quorthon means every fucking word, he’s not going to neuter his creation for the sake of being understood.”
So, it’s clear then: Ghosts of Television are for real, or sadly, “were”. After five years, a few demos and 2008 EP they’re parting ways. What a shame. If Siouxsie & the Banshees swing by Sydney they’d have had a killer support act. Thankfully, their parting salvo finds them at the height of their powers.
It’s a band overcome by ideas, habitually cramming three or four different impulses into a single song yet still emerging with a coherent – if hideously spiky – whole.
Opener ‘Empty Thrones’ reinforces the unapologetic gothic drama of the record’s name. Anchored, initially, by the despondent peaks and troughs of a bass and the nervous tic of a guitar, the song soon erupts into a brain-bursting swirl of cymbal crashes, screams and vocal delay. As quick as the chaos explodes, it settles again. “Oh!” you realise. That was the chorus.
The second track is titled ‘Coelacanth’. Coelacanthsare “considered to be the ‘missing link’ between the fish and the tetrapods until the first Latimeria specimen was found off the Chalumna River in South Africa 1938” (according to Wikipedia). Would another band get away with naming songs so wantonly? Possibly not. But Ghosts of Television do. They get away with a lots of stuff. Like gurgling vocals.
The keyboard-driven musing of ‘Breathe Red Dawn’ is reminiscent of the icy hypnotics of Sydney contemporaries Naked on the Vague. Some warmth comes from singer Nic de Jong’s husky ululations and, while he doesn’t arrive at the unearthly crescendo he frequents often, it wouldn’t be Ghosts of Television without at least one affronting tempo change.
The spell is broken by the melodic ‘Know Weather’, however, an incongruent patch of sunlight in an otherwise moody landscape. Thus, it’s a relief when the clouds gather again for title track ‘Forsaken Empire’. Although with musical palates so overwhelmed by post-rock dynamics these days, songs that aim to soar slowly into monstrosity had better be righteously monstrous. Fortunately, ‘Forsaken Empire’ unleashes in grand style, thanks largely to another of de Jong’s mental case episodes.
Forsaken Empire is a dark affair, no doubt, populated by drooping monarchs, despair and – most haunting of all – a spent human race crawling back towards the sea, much like Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish novel The Road. But within its gloomy, sinuous, creepy-crawly centre is effervescence, youth, playfulness, an expression of the sheer fun of unrestrained creativity. It sparkles, darkly.
Mess+Noise version here.