You know that if an album is released on Asthmatic Kitty it’s going to be something ambient and weird, a little special and a bit spooky. Sufjan Stevens and his step dad have a knack of hunting down the obscure, but always those using ‘experimental’ to create a soundscape rather than a quick reaction.
DM Stith is no different. He is theatrical and moody, weird and wonderful. Much of his debut sounds like Edward Scissorhands trapped in the Sleepy Hollow woodland under that towering spooky tree dripping with gooey blood. Either way, Tim Burton would love this guy.
From starting with a short intro track showcasing the wonders of what sounds like a knackered pub piano, the ambience soon changes into something much deeper and more complex. Take Pity Dance and its Rufus Wainwright style orchestration as big as Kilimanjaro. It’s layer upon layer of fantasy, darkness and mystery due to its eerie backing, meandering melody and giant piano sound, with notes cascading up and down like Rachmaninov in his practice room. It’s beautiful and truly superb musicianship.
What’s interesting about this album is that Stith doesn’t use this epic sound as a gimmick. After Pity Dance, Creekmouth creates an altogether different emotion – darker still, with Stith’s creepy vocal recorded so close it rattles inside your head and the fairy tale dream is replaced by repetitive percussion and an almost evil choral.
This operatic chorus, which appears on most of the songs, it what makes Heavy Ghost truly special, contrasting with Stith’s interesting and versatile voice, sometimes cracking with weakness as it slides up to a soulful soprano, sometimes creaking at its soothing deepness. On Pigs, it’s like an orchestra’s string section, weaving like butterflies in the forest to Stith’s spine tingling melody.
BMB brings a taste of a softer and slightly more simplistic sound at its start, nodding to the melodies of Anthony And The Johnsons and featuring a gorgeous oboe, but it ends with terror, like the lost soundtrack of psycho!
It’s not until Thanksgiving Moon that you get a real sense of who Stith is and how he sounds when not wrapped up in such a massive soundtrack, wonderful as it is. With a Simon and Garfunkle guitar, some lovely glockenspiel and a simply fantastic horn section, some sounding like a fog horn warning ships they’re too close to the rocky shore. The choral is still here, but it seems a little more distant. The song structure is a little more ‘normal’ and it makes for a really beautiful and uplifting song that, although using similar elements of other tracks, is a contrast.
It’s the same with Fire of Birds, where violins and cellos set a frantic pace and the ending repeated chorus suddenly makes you sit up and take notice, like Mercury Rev collaborating with the Polyphonic Spree.
Yes, Heavy Ghost is weird, but Stith’s melodies are simple and wonderful, making his experimentation easy to follow and, with his enchanting choral throughout, it’s easy to get lost in every song – or even engulfed into a new fantastical land that you may never want to escape from.