Stray Ghost, the musical project of 21 year old Oxford native Anthony Saggers, has been slowly gathering a growing tribe of admirers over the last few years. As anyone who has heard either of his first two albums or e.p’s will no doubt testify, he’s a talent to be reckoned with; sculpting vast sonic arrangements which incorporate elements of ambient drone, minimalism, sound design and shoegaze.
His third full length, ‘An Avalanche of Swollen Tongues’ displays a startling depth both in terms of texture and emotionality. The thing which will most likely strike first when listening to this album though is how unremittingly bleak it can appear on surface, it’s harsh straining drones and sustained notes build a towering sense of dread which can be quite daunting at times. Personally I’ve always been a fan of darker, more haunting and often just music which deals with sadness and other less desirable aspects of the emotional spectrum. Often I’ve been asked what it is about “depressing” music that resonates with me so intensely, other than me being a bit of a miserable bastard; as the question is usually prefaced (affectionately I assume). Upon being asked this question I’ve rarely managed to communicate the emotional response which I associate with the music that I genuinely love. I often end up rambling incoherently about it being a more pure form of expression, that it’s emotional outpourings often unhindered by the mechanics of song structure or it being a more acute snapshot of human nature and the living experience than for example dance music or hip hop. You’re probably wondering what the hell I mean by that, and this is exactly my problem really. I recently read a quote which summed up in eloquent logic exactly what it is about bleak music which resonates with me. That quote was from Stray Ghost;
“Happiness is something which, for me, needs no expression in music, the emotion stands by itself, it is self-fulfilling, where as depression, sadness and loneliness are emotions which require catharsis, expression and search for a form aside from myself, a kind of exorcism.”
Well, he’s only gone and cracked the case. And it’s not surprising really as ‘…Swollen Tongues’ really does feel like a cathartic experience at times. Throughout the album there are highs and lows, but you can’t help but feel yu need to persevere with those gut wrenching guttural lows just so that you can experience those moments of euphoria in which you are lifted briefly from the darkness, emerging the surface and allowed to catch a solitary gasp of air before being plummeted back in to the murky depths or Sagger’s exorcism. That is what this record feels like, it’s the sound of the expelling of raw emotion, not emotion which is nicely packaged with a nice hook and cute lyrical couplet. Combining the subtlety of Stars of the Lid with an intense atmosphere of foreboding similar to artists such as Nadja or Sunn o))), these songs are often terrifying in their deep reverberating form and are as a result incredibly emotive. One of the stand out tracks ‘Grains and Waves’ is in it’s title almost a perfect summary of Stray Ghost’s music, it rises and falls with both light and heft, like the slow rising remembrance of painful buried memories, fragmented through clouds of grainy tape static.
Despite it’s emotive qualities this is primarily an electronic feeling album and as such there are still occasions where the drones can feel inhuman, particularly when it reaches closer to the stratospheres of white noise. This only serves to make the flashes of recognizably more traditional instrumentation all the more satisfying though. The distant piano sounds on Sunday’s Tape Hiss or the masked beauty of the euphoric orchestration on The End, majestic strings and uncharacteristically optimistic spurts of brass, obscured by thunderous swathes of noise. There are strains of the Japanese aesthetic Wabi Sabi throughout Stray Ghost’s music, the fact that we cannot quite hear what is buried below the synthetic drones and static makes it seem all the more appealing in it’s imperfection. We are forced to press our ears to the speakers and listen closely to catch scintillating frames of the beauty which is buried beneath the kind of harsh protrusion of external noise which invades our hearts and minds on a daily basis.
Often artists who operate within the field of Experimental music, and particularly the more drone heavy end of the spectrum, can have a tendency to ensconce themselves within walls of white noise without any contextual build up. More often than not this indulgence leads to a stunned and alienated listener. Saggers never allows this to happen, his noisiest moments always feel as though they’ve emerged organically without ever being predictable or having required overt sign-posting. For the most part this record stays on just the right side of the noise barrier, often wandering as close as possible to the precipice without ever losing balance. This creates a wonderful swelling of static which forms it’s own distinctive sound and it’s this which seems to be used as a linking device between tracks, elevating this to coherent album status rather than being just a collection of sounds
An Avalanche of Swollen Tongues is an absorbing album which provides a perfect balance of anxiety and euphoria, and another stellar edition to Stray Ghosts increasingly impressive back catalogue.
Stray Ghost on Myspace