A project that combines the talents of Simon William Lord, aformer member of underachieving psychedelic electro-rockersSimian, and DJ/producer Theo Keating, The Black Ghosts havealready made some influential friends. That most irrepressible ofmusical chameleons Damon Albarn provided guest vocals on their2008 self-titled debut album, while the record’s stand out track FullMoon appeared on the soundtrack of the hugely popular vampire filmTwilight. Now back after a three year hiatus, When Animals Starehas been eagerly anticipated as a potential breakthrough for the duo,but ultimately disappoints.
Both Lord and Keating already have established solo careers,recording as Lord Skywave and Fake Blood respectively,and work together remotely as The Black Ghosts, sending one anotherfiles over the internet rather than sharing studio time. Over the lastfew years, it’s been proved that the combination of a dance producerand an indie song writer can work very well – Danger Mouse andJames Mercer of The Shins’ 2010 album as Broken Bellsbeing a good example. Unfortunately, The Black Ghosts’ theoreticallyintriguing blend of Keating’s dynamic techno and Lord’s experimentalweirdness never really materialises. What we get instead is aslightly leftfield brand of smartly produced electro pop, not toodissimilar to Junior Boys in some ways, but altogether brasherand lacking the Canadian act’s subtlety and emotional undertow.
The record starts off confidently with Water Will Find A Way’sstaccato brass riff, but as so often the case with The Black Ghosts’songs, the momentum is lost when Lord’s thin, reedy vocals enter themix. Asked to carry a would-be epic tune on his shoulders, he sagsunder the strain and the opportunity is lost. A further orchestralflourish – a sudden, unexpected wash of strings near the track’s close– add to an initial impression that the icing on this particular cakeis rather more palatable than the core ingredients.
A similar trend prevails throughout When Animals Stare. Walking OnThe Moon’s insipid, weedy disco-soul is partially redeemed by thesecond half’s chopping strings. Even In The Darkness’s infectious bassline and cinematic atmospherics evoke the memory of MichaelJackson’s Smooth Criminal, but the melody sprawled over the top isweak by comparison. Screeching violins and crunching, atonal slabs ofelectronica effectively summon up a musical landscape ofclaustrophobic paranoia on Diamonds, but yet again, the song itselffails to engage with the listener.
Occasionally the collaboration does all come together well. That’sAll There Is, with its funky rhythm, ’80s synthesisers and a lessstretched vocal from Lord, shows what The Black Ghosts can be capableof. Sanguinella has the most uplifting, supple tune of the entirealbum, with some twinkling harpsichord adding the now customary dashesof colour, and Forgetfulness’s warped, gothic vaudeville is strangelycatchy. But overall, the wealth of ideas here are let down by someflimsy song writing, not least on closing track Your Soul Is Free,which brings When Animals Stare to an end with rather a forgettablewhimper.
In one interview, The Black Ghosts describe their new album as “thesound of a robot casting spells in a disco on the moon”, perhaps in anattempt to sum up their ambition to create their own kind of gothic,spacey take on the now tried and tested indie-dance crossover. Thereare times when that vision does come close to being realised, but themost memorable moments of When Animals Stare are generally selected,disparate elements of their music rather than the whole package, whichends up frustrating more than it inspires.