The Midnight Ghost Train understand that they’ll find it difficult to survive in the avalanche of stoner-doom bands in existence these days, so they’ve taken a step back, dressed themselves in a morose southern armor, and decorated their largely hard-rock vehicle with funk, country, blues, stoner and sludge. Consisting of gravel-throated vocalist and guitarist Steve Moss, bass twanglist Alfred Jordan, and the tremendously titled drummer Brandon Burghart, one may expect a rather straightforward sound from this Topekan trio. And straightforward their sound once was. But now, released from the shackles, The Midnight Ghost Train, with more than a smidgen of self-deprecation, have integrated a swathe of musical elements into their sound for Cypress Ave, their fourth full-length.
Compared to their last album, Cold Was The Ground, the sludge elements, mainly found in the deep growls of vocalist Steve Moss, and the Sabbath darkness, have taken a back seat. That’s not to say this isn’t a heavy record, it just reaches into the dark recesses of music from different angles. The Midnight Ghost Train are the depressed, world-weary older brothers of Clutch: jaded with the world and painfully aware of their fading mortality yet still clinging to the glory of the party – conflicted. The groove and funk still runs through their veins but the pent-up anger channeled through their sludge sound has settled; their sound mostly simmers now: a grim steadiness guided by blues starkness and vulnerable lyrics. Opener “Tonight,” for example, carries a subdued and dry tone with Moss groaning about the disharmonious relationships with a once-close lover. “The Watchers Nest” evokes Jimmy Page at the start before seeping into glum and gruff passages of lamentation and self-loathing: ‘And I’m going down/Down into the light” Moss dirges. These stark confessional vocals occur throughout, even seeping into existence during the funkier stoner moments. The lyrics are a focal point, as with most blues rooted sounds, and they guide the songs well.
But, of course, we’re a metal site; where’s the damn metal I hear you complain. There are enough moments of heavy groove to satisfy those thirsty for fuzz. “Red Eyed Junkie Queen” channels the trio of stoner-doom bosses as Kyuss-esque bass tones, funky Clutch-esque semi-rapped verses, and bombastic Melvins-esque chrorus’ merge with aplomb. With a slick guitar tone like race cars pulsing past at hyper-speed “Bury Me Deep” grooves with satisfying fuzz and swaggering drums, cemented by Moss’ textured drawl. In “Lemon Trees” the funk begins to flourish yet the fuzz remains to envelop with the song in a mist of angst. Jordan’s bass, expressive and prominent throughout, sings as limp-wristed guitar chords drift between. A second guitar begins to harmonize with the first as the song intensifies at the 2:35 mark. It’s succinct yet excellently layered, exploding at 3:28 as King Buzzo-essque hoarseness and warping guitars merge to end the song. A strength of the album is the mostly succinct construction of songs, though “The Watcher’s Nest” and closer “The Echo” outstay their welcome by two-or-three minutes.
Variety, however, is the album’s strongest point, and though it might upset some, The Midnight Ghost Train are better when rooted in hard-rock and blues rather than sludge and doom. “Break My Love” is a pure country-blues track: a stand-up bass, rusty drums, and crackled vocals merge with wonderfully dynamic crispness. “The Boogey Down [feat. Sonny Cheeba]” is a purely funk-rap romp. Trombones, trumpets, the funkiest bassline this side of Funkadelic, and – I’m sorry black-metal purists – rapped verses from Sonny Cheeba, make this the most lively and upbeat song on the album. “Black Wave,” though, is the black to the white of “The Boogey Down.” Depressing and confessional, the bass weeps like tar-covered willows and fragile guitars ready to snap combine with the subtlest use of synths. It’s the soundtrack to a hip film adaptation of a Faulkner of McCarthy novel. “The Echo” follows with much of the same, adding little but length to the album.
My issue is with the subdued nature of the album; I just want to see songs completely disentangle and fall into hazy, messy, violent territories with vocals turning to screams and riffs turning to avalanches. There is a clinical nature to the album that I’m not hugely fond of. There are many excellent moments here, though. Songs are well constructed, the album is varied, and it flows well. However, I’m left feeling like The Midnight Ghost Train have left a bit of magic in reserve.