The Ghost Choir – “The Ghost Choir” (2020)

It seems like coronavirus has been in our lives forever, but if you’re in the US like I am, it’s been more like a couple of months. The first reported case here was reported on January 21 in Snohomish County, Washington, which is fairly close by – it’s the county just north of where I live. And then on Saturday, February 29 the news broke of a suspected 50+ cases of the virus in a nursing home in Kirkland… which is less than two miles from my house. All of a sudden we went from feeling like the virus was something “over there”, impacting only Asia and Europe, only to find out it wasn’t just in our country or our state or our county… but within walking distance of where we live and shop and generally make our lives. Since that date I have only gone into the office to work one time, and as the government restrictions became tighter and tighter there have been multi-day periods during which I haven’t even walked outside of my house.

I’m not seeking anyone’s sympathy here. Our situation is not remotely as dire as it is in Italy and Spain and New York City. Not by a long shot. Holly and I both have jobs that allow for virtual work, and both of our employers were at the forefront in getting all their employees the equipment and technology needed to work from home in short order. We’re not sick and we’re still getting paychecks, which is way more than a lot of people can say. That being said, the situation is making things a bit weird as we all try to adjust to the new normal of quasi-isolation and social distancing, of meetings by Zoom and having “happy hours” with your friends in which you Face Time each other and drink.

Without an hour commute each morning, I’m starting work when it’s still dark out, despite the days getting longer. And the best listening for those quiet, dark mornings with a hot cup of coffee and the only light coming from a pair of computer monitors is chill musical fare along the lines of Brian Eno and Kiasmos. But my current go-to is the brand new release from the Icelandic ensemble The Ghost Choir. It’s been on constant rotation and I’ve recommended it to a number of folks since it’s available on Spotify. So far everyone is giving it rave reviews.

The Ghost Choir is comprised of an impressive group of musicians. Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason has been part of the scene for years through his uniquely flavored hip hip project Epic Rain and most recently as part of Hvörf, and in The Ghost Choir he joins Hannes Helgason on the various keyboards. Guitarist Pétur Hallgrímsson was part of Cosa Nostra back in the 1980s and has been involved in projects with the likes of Páll Óskar, Bubbi Morthens, Quarashi, and John Grant. Magnús Trygvason Eliassen’s percussion stylings have contributed to ADHD, Tibury, and Kippi Kaninus, just to name a few. Bassist Hálfdan Árnason is part of Pain of Salvation and Horrible Youth. Those are some impressive resumes.

I feel Pálmason’s influences immediately, right from the opening bass of “Vanishing Hitchhiker”, its cinematic darkness harkening to an earlier time when the macabre was less about overt gore and violence and more about setting a mood, generating tension, and creating a sense that something is going to happen very soon and it will probably be bad for someone. With instrumental tracks you only have the music and the titles to go by, and the name “Vanishing Hitchhiker” gives the listener an almost unconscious frame of reference for the David Lynch-esque music that follows. The Ghost Choir’s eight instrumental tracks all have similarly themed titles, names that set a scene – “Man In Grey”, “The Watcher”, “The Murdered Peddler”, and even “William Mumbler”, which conveys an image of the kind of guy you probably don’t want to encounter on a cold, rain-soaked night.

There’s a smoothness here as well, perhaps nowhere as more perfectly realized than on “The Watcher” with its light-touch jazz drumming, slowly walking bass, pretty guitar, and subtle organ. The western guitar opening of “The Murdered Peddler” is sublime, the drums hit a bit more stiffly and the bass acting like the slow voice of an old man telling a story he’s told hundreds of times before, but you still ask him to tell you again. Every song has its own character, both sonically and in terms of the person you envision while listening. It’s a mood. It’s the people who live on the fringes of society, those who are more comfortable in the late night hours than in the bright light of the day. It’s the sense that most nights nothing untoward will happen. But every now and again… something unexpected, and probably unfortunate.

The Ghost Choir is pressed on beautiful white vinyl and released by our good friends over at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I’m not sure how many were pressed, but my guess is it’s pretty limited. You can give it a listen on Spotify, then when you fall in love with it you can order a copy from Lucky HERE.

Moving Parts – “Moving Parts” (1983)

This is another of the local records I picked up a few weeks back over at Tacoma’s Hi-Voltage Records. Their section of Northwest bands was a treasure trove of mostly-forgotten Seattle-area music from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, before grunge changed everything.

I wasn’t familiar with Moving Parts and suspected that finding anything about the band would be challenging, but the second Google link revealed an interesting and insightful band history written by some of the former members. You can check it out HERE, as well as catch up on their current project Empire of Sleep. Like so many bands, the fickle hand of fate turned success into defeat for Moving Parts, when their contract with Epic was halted at the very last minute after Sony took over that business and killed it. They simply never recovered and couldn’t get any other interest after that.

Moving Parts put out a 7″ in 1982 and followed it with a five-song 12″ the next year, which is the record I’ve been spinning. Their sound fits nicely into the period, a slightly more post-punky new wave a little reminiscent of Wang Chung when they were still Huang Chung. I know, I know… that’s lazy blogging right there, saying “this band reminds me of this other band that you’ve heard of”. Sorry. “Cities Return to Me” best captures the mood of the record as a whole, though the more up tempo “Princess and the President” is the most intriguing. I’ve been trying to figure out how to best describe James Irwin’s vocals – melancholy isn’t the right word because there really isn’t any sadness here. Indifferent implies he doesn’t care about what he’s doing, so that doesn’t fit either. His voice has that sort of Generation X (the generation of people, not the Billy Idol band)… resignation, perhaps? It’s that feeling of “we’re not going to get too up or too down here”. It’s even there when he shows more range as he does on “Nothings Gonna Bring Me Down”. His voice sounds like how many of us felt then, and there’s a lot to be said for that.

Bolt Thrower – “Realm of Chaos” (1989)

This is a bit of an unusual post, as I don’t have a physical copy of this album. On the rare occasions I do post about something without having it in hand, it’s usually because it’s something new and only available digitally. Owning a copy isn’t a “rule” for the blog per se, it just so happens that I’m old school and still love the physicality of media, whether that be vinyl, CDs, tapes, books, zines, old photos… you name it. Part of this is certainly due to age, having grown up in the pre-internet times, and I also attribute some of it to being an only child whose family moved a lot when I was young – my stuff became the one constant in the blur of new cities and new schools and trying to fit in. Neurotic? Probably. Though over the years I’ve gotten better about purging things I no longer use. I suppose that will probably happen to part of my vinyl collection at some point, too. Or maybe all of it. After all, I already sold off all my records once, back in the 1990s, so no reason to think I won’t do it again someday.

ANYWAY… what does all this have to do with Bolt Thrower‘s Realm of Chaos? Well, in addition to having an affinity for my stuff, like many introverted nerds in the 1980s I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and it blew my mind. This was something different than movies and novels, which delivered a complete story to you and didn’t leave a lot of room for your own imagination, instead offering a framework you could use to create your own stories and narratives. Plus the rule books were heavily laden with numbers and tables, something that appealed (and continues to appeal – I can lose myself for hours in spreadsheets) to some part of my brain. The story could be creative, but the framework was governed by rules with a dose of randomness thrown in for good measure. Kind of like real life.

That led me down a rabbit hole of collecting role playing games. Top Secret… Traveller… Twilight 2000… Paranoia… Battletech… Champions… even weird stuff like Toons. Games, books, modules, magazines, miniatures… anything I could get my hands on, even those little Steve Jackson pocket games like Car Wars and Illuminati and Battle Suit. I read Dragon every month and sought back issues back when the only way to do that was to reply to an ad and send someone a dollar for their price list, then write them back with the issues you wanted and a check. Oh and don’t forget to list backup choices, because by time your order got there they might not have what you want any more. Because that’s how life worked before eBay and Amazon.

Mind you, I didn’t actually play most of these games. I absorbed them. Consumed them. Created characters and made my own modules and adventures, most of which were never realized. But that was my art, if you will, the way I created. I did occasionally play AD&D when I could find some like-minded souls who took it seriously enough, but not too seriously. In high school we had a nice group of five that would get together on the rare occasions when we could get all of our parents to agree to drive us all to the same place for part of a day. I’m still in touch with two of them on Facebook (hey, Patrick and Tom!), another is MIA (Howard, where are you?), and the last passed away way too soon (RIP, DJ). We had some fun games, though in reality role-playing games were an oddly solitary pursuit for me.

You’re probably still wondering what the hell this trip down memory lane and self-analysis has to do with Realm of Chaos. Well, Realm of Chaos is an entire album about a game, Warhammer 40,000 to be specific, aka Warhammer 40K. And of course I bought one of the first Warhammer 40K rulebooks in the 1980s, along with some of the miniatures which I clumsily painted. And while that one book was the only Warhammer product I bought, the 40K universe stuck in my mind for decades. The psychic emperor rotting away on the mechanical throne that kept him alive; the genetically modified space marines in their armor; the orks; and of course the archenemy of the human race, the forces of Chaos. About five or six years ago I started reading some of the Warhammer 40K novels, and now I’m about as obsessive about that as I was about collecting games (and records). I figure I’ve probably read at least 50 so far.

Is Realm of Chaos the first album ever to be entirely about a game? I don’t know. There were some Dungeons & Dragons spoken word records for kids in the mid 1980s, but those were just audio stories. Buckner & Garcia gave us Pac Man Fever in 1982, but that was about a number of different video games, not a concept album about only Pac Man. In subsequent decades we’ve seen groups like The Baseball Project, but that came later and is about an actual sport, something that happens in the real world. The fact that an album that came out in 1989 about a game I was familiar with blows my mind. Unfortunately copies with the original Warhammer 40K cover are quite expensive, since Games Workshop wouldn’t allow for the band and label to re-license it in later years, and while I’ve been close a few times I’ve never been able to convince myself to pull the trigger, so I’d never heard it before. Yes, I could have bought a later pressing with the different, albeit super-similar (but just dissimilar enough to prevent everyone from getting sued) cover… but I want the original dammit!

And then Spotify finally came into my life. And one of the first things I played when I subscribed was Realm of Chaos. And I’ve been playing it almost daily for weeks.

“Intro” perfectly sets the dark mood, one of dank isolation, before Bolt Thrower absolutely crushes you with “Eternal War”. Blast beats and guitar riffs conjure up alternating images of rapid-fire combat and existential dread, with the growled vocals exactly capturing what I imagined a Chaos space marine sounds like when they talk. Even the lyrics keep with the universe’s backstory: Welcome incursions of chaos / You know you cannot resist /
To serve, worship, obey them / Is the only way to exist
. Song titles include very specific references to Chaos (“Through the Eye of Terror”), gods (“Plague Bearer”), and even the fallen Chaos space marines themselves (“World Eater”). “World Eater” is my absolute favorite because the riffs just kill and drive the song forward, synched perfectly with the drums and bass and combining an epic quality with a relentless assault on your ears. When the structure deteriorates midway through the song we find ourselves in the world of Chaos, unstructured, rending your eardrums like a power claw.

I’m glad to have finally experienced Realm of Chaos. And if I’m being honest, it makes me want to pony up and buy an early pressing of the vinyl. Many hardcore fans have shied away from the re-release as the label (Earache) and band had a very public falling out, with the band insisting the label doesn’t have the rights and that they’re not being paid royalties, with the label of course disputing this. I have no idea who is right or wrong in this dispute, and certainly neither will make a dime if I buy a used older pressing, so I guess I can do so guilt free should the gods of Chaos drive me to do so.

Thomas Dolby – “The Golden Age of Wireless” (1982)

My record buying started with, I believe, two 7″ singles. To this day I don’t recall if I bought them at the same time, or if I got one before the other. But those two A sides I wanted were the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”.

While I eventually went on to buy other Eurythmics and Annie Lennox albums, I sort of feel like I’ve never even heard another Thomas Dolby song in my entire life. Is that possible? I mean, the single obviously had a B side, and even as a 12-year-old I must have played it at least once. But I’ll be damned if I can remember doing so, or even the title of the B side. I think I had the purple label version, which means it was “Flying North”. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about “Flying North”. According to the interwebs Dolby charted three singles in the US mainstream charts, all three of which appeared on the most common versions of his debut album The Golden Age of Wireless. “She Blinded Me With Science” made it to #6, “One of Our Submarines” to #17, and “Europa and the Pirate Twins” just snuck into the Top 40, topping out at #37. He did better in his native UK, but never managed a Top 10 hit there (somehow “She Blinded Me With Science” only made it to #49 in the UK…).

So here I am, roughly 37 years after I bought my first and only Thomas Dolby single, sitting down and spinning The Golden Age of Wireless for the first time. It’s a bit quirky, meaning “She Blinded Me With Science” wasn’t an anomaly – in fact it feels a bit tame compared to tracks like “Europa and the Pirate Twins”. Synth-laden and poppy, it maintains its own unique character throughout. I particularly enjoyed “Commercial Breakup”, for what it’s worth. Overall decent, though not sure I’ll end up spinning it again.

Marilyn – “Despite Straight Lines” (1985)

Marilyn, aka Peter Robinson, only released one full-length album, 1985s Despite Straight Lines, produced by none other than Don Was. That being said, Marilyn was no stranger to recording nor to charting – three of Despite Straight Lines‘ tracks were previously released as singles in 1983 and 1984, with all cracking the UK Top 40 and “Calling Your Name” making it all the way to #4. But, like so many performers Marilyn couldn’t replicate that early success. “Baby U Left Me (In The Cold)” only made it to #70 in 1985, and that was the last time he charted.

There’s a definite 1980s synth pop feel to Despite Straight Lines, though the delivery is fairly straight forward – it lacks the excess much of the era’s pop hits, the structure remaining simpler and without the compulsion to fill every cubic inch of space with sound. Robinson was friends with Boy George, and there are certainly some similarities between his sound and that of Culture Club, though Marilyn’s brand of pop is more restrained. “Third Eye” has a strong gospel foundation and gives Marilyn’s voice an opportunity to shine in a way that is lacking on much of the rest of the album.