When not doing all in their power to deconstruct and defy the West’s most sacred of musical conventions, anonymous American avant-garde art collective, The Residents, are crafting complex and often ground-breaking conceptual pieces presented as part of albums or multimedia projects, with their latest work, The Ghost of Hope, falling into the latter category. Along with the likes of Captain Beefheart and The Shaggs, The Residents are among the oldest and most influential musical acts to be associated with avant-garde sensibilities and the infamous outsider music label, an umbrella term used to describe musicians who work outside of the commercial music industry and the values associated with commercial music. Having now released over 60 albums, much of the band’s output during the 1970s, with records like Meet the Residents, The Third Reich ‘n Roll, Duck Stab/Buster & Glen and Eskimo, The Residents boast a fruitful history of surrealist art pieces that have influenced future generations of innovators to push genre boundaries, poke at lyrical and musical taboos and test the limitations of music writing and production. Even five decades into their existence, the experimental troupe is still creating ambitious artistic works and experimenting with new ideas. This latest record of theirs arrives four years following the release of its predecessor, Mush-Room, which marks the longest gap between the release of two studio albums for the prolific band. In keeping with the eclectic conceptual nature of much of the group’s previous material, The Ghost of Hope is a thematic record whose narrative is based around common occurrences of train accidents in the US during the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the band utilising sound effects and spoken word performances of accounts of such incidents from the era as a means of recreating these tragic events. Given the history of the American railway system, with the rapid technological development of the early 20th Century engendering frequent instances of derailment, collision and telescoping that began to spiral out of control, The Ghost of Hope seemingly acts as a lesson regarding the risks of unchecked technological progress that can lead to problems emerging faster than humans can develop solutions for them. In this regard, The Residents craft a compelling exploration of a particular point in history as a means of commenting on the present day, with The Ghost of Hope effectively encapsulating the horrors of such catastrophic disasters.
The opening track, Horrors of the Night, adequately sets the scene for The Ghost of Hope, with the noise of crickets chirping giving way to the sound of a train pulling into a station and being serviced, accompanied by a faint melody before a squelching synth flutters around the mix. The piece abruptly takes shape as the layered vocals burst in, chanting a repetitive nursery rhyme-like refrain of, “Cars are rolling backwards / Down the tracks”, whilst the synth continues to swirl around the cut, accompanied by some distant industrial clangours. The Residents music is often menacing in how abstract it is, and, whilst Horrors of the Night is certainly ominous, this bubbling feeling of impending disaster is created by the song’s straightforwardness, which is played to have a creepy, circus-like inflection. As the lyrics begin to tell the story of a train crash that occurred in 1892, in which six men were killed, there ensues a small instrumental break, featuring an eerie xylophone melody as some obscure rhythmic embellishments rattle away. As the story concludes with those surviving the accident being freed from the carnage only to “gaze upon the heartless horrors of the night”, the instrumental is enveloped by the clattering of scraping metal, roaring engines and colliding carriages, before fading to silence, only for the same ghostly vocals to softly sing, “The horrors of the night / Burn hot and white”. In keeping with The Residents’ dedication to their albums’ narratives, the track comes to an end with a delicate piano melody and a haunting, ambient instrumental arrangement, which sets the mood for a dramatic reading of an account from the only woman aboard the train, who tells of her and her four-year-old son’s escape from the wreckage. After the spoken word excerpt, the vocals appear alone, with no instrumental and no multitracking, to offer their final comment, “Life is a lonely train / Wrecked by God”, which almost seems to be a sardonic response to the closing retrospection of the woman who survived the train wreck, as she recalls her son telling the conductor of the relief train that God had saved him and his mother. Ultimately, not only does this opening track encompass the morbid and tragic themes of the record, whilst also conveying them with a tangible sense of dread, The Residents exhibit their cogent storytelling abilities and the way in which they are able to interact with these tales, both lyrically and sonically, as the narrative of the album progresses.
Perhaps the most impressive display of The Residents’ storytelling prowess, however, appears on the song The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918, which is apt given that it revolves around the most disastrous train accident covered on the album. In fact, the crash in question, the Hammond Circus train wreck, is one of the deadliest train wrecks in US history, killing a total of 86 people and injuring 127 more, after a locomotive engineer fell asleep at the controls and ran his empty train into a stationary circus train, killing a large amount of its passengers upon impact, with the remainder of the casualties resulting from the ensuing fires that ignited, as was a common occurrence at the time due to the wooden cars being heated by coal-burning stoves and illuminated by kerosene lamps. As to reflect the tumultuous and tragic incident, The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918 weaves through many different sound palettes and many different emotions, all of which make for an epic tale and perhaps the most pivotal song on The Ghost of Hope. The track is introduced with a creepy collision of dark ambiance and cheery circus music, before breaking out into some strange, metallic chord stabs as the vocalist sings from the perspective of a passenger aboard the circus train, in a style that mimics an early American folk singer. The narration on this track is so thorough that there is even included some interesting references that only make sense after researching the incident. The mention of “elephants of solid stone” who circle the graveyard wherein workers for the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus are buried, for instance, references the five mourning elephant statues that surround Showmen’s Rest, a cemetery for circus performers. Indeed, the detail of the storytelling on The Ghost of Hope is very impressive and displays a degree of expertise close to that exhibited on some of The Residents’ most remarkable programmatic projects, most notably their classic 1979 album Eskimo.
With regards to the musical side of The Ghost of Hope, The Residents opt to craft loose, ambient soundscapes that lend themselves well to the use of sound effects and sample recordings, as has often been the case with the band’s conceptual records. Whilst such arrangements are often very effective for setting the mood for these pieces, there are occasional instances wherein the instrumental progresses in a particularly slow or disjointed manner, as to arguably lose some of its impact. Killed at a Crossing, for instance, being the longest track on the album at nine minutes in length, flows through several passages that range from trudging chord progressions accompanied by erratic percussive flourishes to sparse ambient sections. Whilst most of these diversions serve an obvious purpose, there are instances in which the listener can get lost slightly in the loose, atmospheric walls of noise. Conversely, however, there are some more coherent and conventional instrumental arrangements that are used to good effect, with the syncopated funk rock beat of Shroud of Flames being a prime example. Of course, despite the bright horns and gentle guitar strumming being very accessible, there nevertheless remains a healthy dose of The Residents’ usual wackiness, primarily courtesy of the group vocals that are delivered as if the singers were possessed. With such startling vocal performances, lines such as the description of train wreck victims being “recognised only by fragments of their clothes / Clinging to their limbless trunks like the scent around a rose” are as powerful as they are chilling. The stylistic diversity of The Ghost of Hope is reinforced further by what is perhaps the most enjoyable instrumental passage on the entire record, that being the bare-faced rock jam at the end of Death Harvest. The pounding, industrial drumming and meaty bass line convey a definitive post-punk vibe that accompanies the steam engine samples incredibly effectively, whilst the crunchy guitar comes through with some classic rock licks and wailing incidentals that quite simply sound great. Indeed, The Residents certainly take many musical risks on The Ghost of Hope, as one would expect, and whilst some of them don’t quite pay off to their full effectiveness, the album’s musical highlights fortify its narrative sufficiently and even occasionally shake things up with some indulgent jams.
For The Residents to still be putting out material of this calibre this far into their career is impressive enough as it is, but the troupe have yet again proven themselves to be amongst the most innovative, unrestrained and audacious musical acts of the past half a century. Indeed, the band have once again chosen an incredibly specific subject around which to base their concept album, but nevertheless display an astute awareness of the context surrounding the topic and manage to apply it in such a way as to reflect on the modern world. Whilst there are odd instances in which the narrative of the record may be lost slightly in the unconstrained song structures and loose instrumental arrangements, the album’s broad sonic spectrums are used largely successfully to arouse in the listener a sense of morbid enthralment regarding a particular slice of American history which most people will know little about. The Ghost of Hope, therefore, further fortifies The Residents’ artistic credibility not solely as musicians, but as storytellers and innovators.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10