Starmourner by Ghost BathRelease date: April 7, 2017
Label: Nuclear Blast Records
Starmourner is the second album in a trilogy by atmospheric black metal band Ghost Bath, who got some publicity a while back for pretending to be Chinese. Its predecessor, Moonlover, was a bleak affair with the theme of sorrow. So far, so black metal. This new album looks up from its despair, however, to focus on joy and the cosmos. All song titles have a heavenly bent – with the likes of ‘Astral’, ‘Angelic’ and ‘Cherubim’ – and I was curious to see whether black metal could really be ‘happy‘ (plot spoiler: not really).
There’s definitely more to this album than the typical black metal template, with a mixture of sounds and influences that make a more broadly based whole. Piano interludes are a feature, with the first and last tracks consisting of peaceful piano melodies to create the mood. Halfway through there’s ‘Angelic’, a wavering classical guitar piece that takes a break from the metal mayhem happening elsewhere. On other tracks frantic black metal blasts are mixed successfully with more post-rock sounds, and ‘Celestial’ surprises the listener by turning its shimmering post-rock middle section into a dirge-like piano piece with a fading electro beat. The result has a disturbing edge as the piano sounds like it’s slowing down as it nears the end of the song.
There’s more than an oblique reference to older hard rock, too, with second track ‘Seraphic’ having an exciting vibe and upbeat riffing with a NWOBHM feel. The guitar solos are exquisite at times, such as on ‘Luminescence’ and ‘Thrones’, which make a nod to the old school and have an ear for more traditional metal sounds and the twin leads of Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. Elsewhere there’s a chugging riff on ‘Cherubim’ that has a touch of the Metallicas about it.
The vocals are just distressed howls kept quite low in the mix, and are used as another instrument more than anything else. I don’t think there are any lyrics as such. I could have done with less of them, but for the most part the music is left to get create the atmosphere.
The journey this album takes you on is well planned – the track order and segways between songs create ups and downs of mood, peaks and troughs. Third track ‘Ambrosial’ starts quiet and builds to a full mid-paced chug with delicate guitar picking over the top. It peters out and blends into fourth track ‘Ethereal’, which starts with a post-rock feel, all light touch and tremulous guitars a la Les Discrets, before building into a full black metal blast.
The mixture of emotions this album brings out can be felt all within one song, such as the magnificent ‘Thrones’ that combines a rattling black metal delivery with melodic riffing to make a thrilling whole. At 71 minutes it’s a long album but it doesn’t feel that way, and this is because it’s so well crafted. I’m all for a bit of genre bending and Ghost Bath’s take on black metal shares as much with Wolves in the Throne Room and Deafheaven as it does with Alcest and Ulver. Whether or not it’s exactly happy I’m not sure, but my lasting impression is of a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts.