When last we checked in on the Colorado blackgaze band Ghost Bath, they had put out Moonlover, their sophomore record, one that could easily be summed up as “pretty good.” While it was well-written and avoided the self-indulgence that far too often pervades the more atmospheric side of black metal, there was a definite trade-off in terms of their inability to step outside the genre’s lines and really differentiate themselves from the pack. Moonlover was about as close as a band could get to breaking out of the genre’s underground into some level of mainstream metal success without actually piercing through. After a couple years during which they’ve toured and worked on building a name for themselves, there’s a lot riding on Starmourner: will this be the breakout hit Ghost Bath needs it to be if they’re looking to make it to the next level?
All told, the answer is a solid “probably.” Starmourner builds on the identity the band has previously established for themselves, making for a natural followup album, while also offering a level of originality that blackgaze doesn’t usually achieve through a trick that’s pretty ingenious in its simplicity. As far as third records go, Ghost Bath has sidestepped many of the problems bands typically face.
Starting off with what’s similar, the most obvious holdover from previous Ghost Bath outings is the vocals: more of a wailing cry for help than a scream of anguish, the vocalist’s piercing shrieks are immediately identifiable as part of the band’s sound. An obvious comparison across genre lines would be the similarity to those of The Body, but the difference in context brings a completely different weight. Coupled with the less nihilistic and more hopeful emotions that Starmourner trades in, the vocals are an outpouring of raw emotion, not a banshee’s dirge. The tone is also certainly similar to Moonlover, and, indeed, plenty of other blackgaze albums; songs tend to start within a more depressive framework and work towards transcendence across the track, each song offers a sublation of both negative and positive emotions into a mood of purely sublime feeling.
The largest difference, though, lies in Ghost Bath’s complete embrace of melody here. Of course, having a crucial part of songwriting isn’t a new thing for blackgaze (or, you know, any genre), but Starmourner‘s presentation thereof is starkly different from their genre peers: melodies are laid completely bare and exposed to the listener, often through the superimposing of catchy leads over relatively sparse backing sections, letting the audience savor the instrumental work by bringing the track’s thematic and emotional constituents forward to throw around their entire weight, something this genre doesn’t do nearly enough. Go to 1:32 in debut single “Thrones” to hear what I’m talking about; a ripping black metal section gives way to a fantastic lead as melody overtakes the track’s upward movement and launches it into the stratosphere. When the ‘actual’ blackgaze sound returns, it’s supercharged with an electric intensity that wouldn’t be possible without the break from tradition. It’s a trick that’s both brilliant in its execution and overall simplicity, and it works wonders for differentiating Ghost Bath from their peers.
Starmourner isn’t perfect, though. Some parts just aren’t as well-written as others, the reliance on the aforementioned structure starts to get old farther into the album, and overall, the record’s hour-plus runtime is just too damn long. More prudence in terms of what makes it on the album and what doesn’t, as well as some general trimming of the fat across the album, would have elevated Starmourner from good to great, but no tracks are complete duds, and songs have enough individual identity that shuffling this record or listening to it in incomplete chunks doesn’t destroy the experience at all.
In terms of the quality of the songwriting, Starmourner isn’t vastly different from either of Ghost Bath’s previous LPs, but their unique approach to songwriting makes this album a more rewarding and original listen than either of its predecessors. Although it’d be a misnomer to refer to this record as a classic or a groundbreaking achievement in the blackgaze genre, Ghost Bath has certainly set themselves apart from their peers in a way that makes Starmourner an enticing and rewarding listen. Will this be the record that breaks them through and connects them with a larger fanbase? Maybe, maybe not, but any blackgaze fan worth their salt should do themselves a favor and at least give Starmourner a once-over. If their trajectory thus far is any indication, Ghost Bath is definitely a band to keep an eye on from here on out.
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Starmourner comes out April 21st through Nuclear Blast Records. Preorders are available here.