Tearing apart hearts and comment sections since 2014, the career of
China’s North Dakota’s Ghost Bath has been deceitfully brief. The 14 months between debut Funeral and follow-up Moonlover catapulted the crew from the depths of obscurity to the position of most hyped (and most hated) band in recent memory. I’ve seen the band treated like the Second Coming, and I’ve seen the band described as “such a bag of ass.” Whatever your opinion on the matter, Starmourner puts the polarizing magnetism of Ghost Bath on full display.
If Moonlover greedily lapped up all those Sunbather fans looking for a little more atmosphere, Starmourner follows New Bermuda in trading that atmosphere for aggression. Awash with violence like never before, the album will satisfy dedicated fans of Moonlover’s atmosphere only if they take no insult from the accompanying aural assault.1 “Astral” welcomes friends old and new with the patient reflection of Nameless’ piano passages. But as “Seraphic” slowly unfurls, this sense of reserve is supplanted by blackgaze riffs marked by a fluid duality of mourning and hope. Post-black’s trademark snare pummels join the blackened riffs pervasive on the album, but never more traditionally than here. “Seraphic” and follow-up “Ambrosial” might feel like extensions of Moonlover, but for their crushing inability to yield. Neither has the internal breadth of “Golden Number” or “Happyhouse;” Ghost Bath instead pull out blackened strands that leave window dressings behind. If its first act is to be believed, Starmourner represents a concerted shift away from Moonlover’s musical dynamism.
Fear not: what Ghost Bath lose in depth, they gain in scale and diversity. Starting with fourth-slated “Ethereal,” the album begins an ascent that improbably sees each track top its predecessor. In spite of a trend toward stylistic homogeny, at least on paper, each song feels whole and easily identifiable. The chord-work of “Ethereal” trades in Deafheaven positivity, while “Celestial” flaunts a triumphant, airy melody that sounds downright, well, celestial. Even when ramping back into the black metal fold, the track only relinquishes that theme at the very end. Unfortunately, it is here that Starmourner’s lack of restraint becomes quite apparent. Track lengths balloon over the album’s 71 minutes, thanks mostly to an unwillingness to pare out unnecessary repetition and dilution. Aside from the free-flowing “Cherubim,” only the album’s piano bookends clock in under five minutes. The somber acoustics of “Angelic” offer revitalization at the album’s halfway point, before “Luminescence” provides pace and memorability at the edge of a knife. Its clanging bass thrums in the deep, a constant presence alongside Ghost Bath’s three guitar manifesto. When fully ensconced in Starmourner’s moonlit veil, I find difficulty in pulling away from this mind-numbing rapture.
The tri-pronged attack of “Thrones,” “Elysian,” and “Cherubim” caps the album with aplomb. In succession, Ghost Bath further embrace elements of thrash metal, show off Alcestian ethereality, and emulate the summery, poppy warmth of Astronoid, each achieving heights grander than the last. De facto finale “Principalities” wells up from subterranean depths, its down-fret caverns impervious to the album’s rather loud production. Though Starmourner provides enough interludes to avoid suffocating, tracks like “Thrones” suffer from modest clipping and sonic impenetrability when they lower the boom. The drums in particular hinder the level of clarity. Its standard post-black bustle is too boilerplate for how far up in the mix it is, especially in a band with three separate guitarists. Likewise, Nameless’ anonymous howls near “supporting instrument” territory, but regularly commandeer too much space for that standing. His wordless cries play well at times, especially when backed by Ghost Bath’s full assault, but feels mismatched at others. Lowlights range from distraction (“Ethereal”) to “Oh my, that flambé has set Julia Child’s hair ablaze, won’t anyone put the poor dear out before the bananas burn?” (“Cherubim”).
Despite this, don’t focus on the negatives; Starmourner deserves better. The album handles its newfound size like a field general deftly outmaneuvering an unworthy opponent. The immediate eclipse of Moonlover may put off fans unhappy to see Ghost Bath succumb to heavier desires, but it should delight those less rigid in their stylistic adherence. Starmourner shatters the already-high expectations in Ghost Bath’s young career, and if you’ve got ears, you should hear it for yourself.