Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Album Review: The Midnight Ghost Train - "Cypress Ave"

Well, ain’t this new and different?

The last time we saw The Midnight Ghost Train, they were an effective but nevertheless straight-ahead, up-and-down sludgy metal band, populating their lyrics with beer and the misgivings of adventurous youth. Their previous album, “Cold Was the Ground” was Clutch on steroids, bold and unrestrained by the tempering of that other band’s jam influence.

Now this…..

This is, in layman’s terms, fucking great.

“Cypress Ave” purposefully keeps a close watch on the gas pedal, never applying too much pressure and allowing the car to roll down the street with a dangerous slow burn, prowling along with a rumbling engine rather than screaming down the lane with coal-burning stacks.  We set the pace early with the measured thump of “Tonight,” a song that is both temperamental and yet careful not to give in totally to the promise of unbridled ferocity.

The albums brims with this kind of maturity, whether the dirty nastiness of “Bury Me Deep,” (which, as an aside, reminds us all that Midnight Ghost Train hasn’t forgotten how to deliver a solid masher,) or the punk/thrash roots of an instant crowd favorite like “Red Eyed Junkie Queen.”

It happens again and again throughout the album’s length, culminating in “The Echo,” a blues-y roll up of genre tropes which knows when to punch hard and knows when to fall back to create anticipation.  Worth noting – fans of a certain age (sigh, that includes me,) may hear the opening desert guitar strains and instantly start to call to mind memories of “The numeric transmission five-triple-zero was received, without interruption, for eight full days….”  (if you don’t know what we’re talking about: to the Google machine!)  This kind of meticulous song writing shows a development on the part of Midnight Ghost Train that many may not have seen coming, and arrives as a remarkably pleasant step forward for the band.

If there is a fault to be had in this new step, it’s that the album revels in this new style so much, it may go to the well once too often.  All of these songs work as individual cuts, but as a full-length album, some of the cuts run together.  Make no mistake, however, this is a 1% complaint on a 99% album.


In truth, we’ve only covered about half the experience, cherry picking one theme to discuss it first.  And while that half of the record is brilliant, it is this other face that outshines the accomplishments we’ve discussed above.

The Midnight Ghost Train has thrown caution and reservation to the wind, opening up their music to a hundred new influences that color the record from beginning to end.  Aside from the move away from baseline growled vocals, the first sign that we as listeners are in for a new experience comes from “The Watcher’s Nest,” which still bristles with the band’s idiomatic power, but trades in much of their ferocity in exchange for a borderline acoustic approach that switches on and off with aplomb, adding an emotional dimension to the music that we haven’t seen before.

That’s just the kickoff, though, to a section of “Cypress Ave” that feels more genuine than perhaps any other album this year.

To write the premise of “Break My Love” on paper, it would sound ridiculous.  A loud, smash-y rock band that likes to take…interesting…band photos is going to write an open-mic-blues-club-poetry-slam-style break up song with no lead guitar line and a vocalist who sounds like he swallowed a bag of gravel…and it’s going to be awesome.  But it is!  It’s clever and different and funny and damn it all, it’s honest.

Which gives way to the jazzy rhythm and breakdown of “Lemon Trees,” a song that builds into an explosive second half, which in turn dovetails into “The Boogie Down.”  The latter song features horns and a guest appearance by rapper Sonny Cheeba (as opposed to Sonny Chiba, star of the classic but slightly overrated martial arts film “The Street Fighter.”)  And yet, as odd as all that sounds, once again, Midnight Ghost Train surprises by making every new twist and turn work.  There’s something infectious about the thin horns of “The Boogie Down,” playing a simple hook, that transforms the song from a trial balloon to a genuine experience.

To complete the effect, we close with the dour and emotionally powerful “Black Wave,” coming down from the bright moments that we rode through previously and planting us firmly back on earth.  The entire exercise of this album section has a vibe like we’re experiencing a ‘week-in-the-life’ series of moments with the band – there’s up and downs, and many different styles of experience all still tied together, however loosely, in the musical paradigm of Midnight Ghost Train.

None of these songs, whether what we talked about in the first half, or what we’ve discussed here, is a throw-away, which is even more amazing.  Each cut is a fully developed track that spans minutes and is given its proper time to breathe, create and properly play out.  “Cypress Ave,” as a result, is many things.  The Clutch part is still in there, but there’s also Kyuss, Orange Goblin, The Sword, John Lee Hooker, just a touch of Miles Davis, and maybe a dash of Aloe Blacc or Mos Def (or both.)  And yet, in the end, “Cypress Ave” is irrevocably The Midnight Ghost Train.

You thought we were done?  We’re not quite done.

The record ends with the bonus track “I Can’t Let You Go”...I’m out of superlatives.  The song is out there on bandcamp and Youtube and wherever the hell else.  Just go find it and listen to it.  It’s the perfect ending to an album of multiples phases and ideals – a rolling combination of everything we’ve discussed to this point (okay, perhaps without the rap bit,) compiled into a seamless, undeniably compelling ending.

Find this album.  Listen to it.  Then listen to it again.  And again.  Take it on a road trip.  That’s all I can say.

Now we’re done.

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