Ghost of the Russian Empire - The Mammoth
Record Label: Thirty Ghost Records
Release Date: May 13, 2008
Being led on or teased by your girlfriend really sucks. She'll always be there to make out with you, but even when you're on the verge of exploding (pun totally intended), and you feel like she is too, she'll say something like, "Oh, I think we should wait. I'm not ready for yet." The pain--both emotional and physical--that this causes is severe and can have lasting implications for any guy.
That's how I feel about this album. Ghost of the Russian Empire is the biggest indie rock tease. In almost every song I found myself begging for the band to let loose and rock my world, but instead all I got was a kiss on the cheek. Don't get me wrong, this music is by no means gentle; the sonic landscapes this band creates are harsh and bleak, and the noise rock aesthetic becomes them as it did Sonic Youth; however, Sonic Youth would go places. This all sounds harsh. Let me explain.
Album opener "A Decade Without a Death" is almost a good song. I say almost because it starts off promisingly, with bass and guitar trading off notes in what feels like a vast Siberian canyon. Then a pretty sweet guitar riff comes in, followed by drums. The noise rock sound emerges as the band gets going, and without Mike Plata's drumming, they'd never have gotten off the ground. The problem is that after the song starts galloping along, it never goes anywhere else. The band starts out sparse 'n slow, kick in the drums and some decent riffs, add the vocals... and flatline. The production remains constant, and doesn't allow Ghost of the Russian Empire to burst into the obvious frenzy that they so desire. It is a thoroughly frustrating opener.
The acoustic "Hammer Hands" plays on that sparse atmospheric feel with nothing but an acoustic guitar and Brandon Whitten's haunting vocals. The problem is that the song is nothing but atmospherics, acoustics, and singing until almost 3 minutes in. If these guys were Opeth, that'd be okay, but the song is not a 12-minute epic; it's four minutes. That means that the build begins 3/4 of the way through, and then... it ends! I couldn't believe the next song had started by the time this was over. I was rather upset, as Ghost of the Russian Empire had the potential to really nail that song. In fact, it came really close. The vocals are phenomenal, and the lyrics deserve a nod as well:
you've got hammer hands
and an iron will
leaving dents and scrapes
along the way
The biggest issue is that these lyrics can never achieve their full potential if Ghost of the Russian Empire don't let loose and rock. It hurts because I know these guys can rock. "Bleeding Machines," which starts off with clarion call synthesized effects, is both atmospheric and rocking. The song is one of my favorites on the album. The lyrics are great: "You'll have to kill us better / Than that / We've got hydra's live / And always grow back." These are great lyrics, and in this song, the band nails it. The song is intense, the energy constant, and the whole aesthetic feels just right. Sonic Youth would be proud. The next song, "The Black Mark," is also a sign of hope. I thought of it as Cassino with atmosphere, or perhaps a song off Opeth's Damnation. The acoustics are simple but never boring, and the electric guitars are tasteful and beautiful as they create a nuance that wafts gently above Whitten's very Mikael Akerfeldt-esque (but in a singing way, not growling) delivery of the album's most beautiful song.
Don't get me wrong; this band is talented and has a lot to work with. The band can play their instruments well; "Mammoth" features excellent guitar work, and Mike Plata is a damn good drummer. It isn't the band and it isn't the songwriting; the songs have potential. I wouldn't compare Ghost of the Russian Empire to Sonic Youth if I didn't think they had a lot of talent. They need to fully use it by varying their dynamics some to add more depth to the well-written songs. Dragging down the songs further is the production. I feel that Erik Wofford stymies the efforts of the band to burst forth and rock. As I listen to "A Decade Without a Death," I see the indelible cartoon image of an infuriated youngster rushing headlong at an opponent, fists flailing wildly, as a tall and smug enemy stands with his palm on the forehead of the charging youth, holding him at bay mere feet away. Ghost of the Russian Empire need to get the hand of the production off of their foreheads so that they might burst forth and, well, really rock. Don't simply write this album off based on the scores. It's really good. There's a lot going on for these guys, but there's also a lot barring them from becoming the next Sonic Youth. With a few tweaks and a little less atmospheric sludge on top, this band could blow me away. As it is, I'm left wishing Ghost of the Russian Empire would be less of a shade and more of a poltergeist.