instant instrument factory
On December 1st, 2013, the band Red Martian, itself in existence since 1999, released what my research estimates to be their 16th album (depending on what is counted), titled "Ghost into the Fog." Red Martian is a post-rock ("alternative rock"?) band somewhat in the vein of Sonic Youth or The Pixies or Polvo. However it's possible that the lion's share of authorship belongs not to "the band" but to Stephen Jones, a musician who makes lots of other stuff, and that "Ghost into the Fog" by Red Martian basically amounts to Jones pretending to be a rock band for a little while. I don't know that this is relevant, though, or good to say; the reader can keep it in mind or ...
It's nice that music like this is still being made. That might have been a backhanded compliment, because "Ghost into the Fog" does sound dated -- as I said, like old post-rock. But these days -- after Nirvana's "Nevermind" -- it seems all right to look back. "Ghost into the Fog" sounds like it came out, well, in 1999, which is when Red Martian started up. So in a way it's a credit to the band that its style has been consistent, although I like to hear bands evolve in most cases, which brings me back to the following difficult subject:
I don't know how much "writing credit" the other members of Red Martian can claim, and perhaps it's not my place as a reviewer to speculate -- maybe I should just report on what I hear. Nevertheless, and with reservation, I will say that Red Martian is probably, mostly, a specific Stephen Jones project, and that it might be in his creative interests to keep a given project consistent and stylistically identifiable as a particular named category. If he were to put out everything as "Stephen Jones" then there might be a more organic evolution of forms, but as it is, channels have been artificially laid down that corral his output into different projects that each enjoy a kind of artificial stasis. I ain't sayin' that's a bad thing; I think Mr. Jones intended -- "artist's intent" -- to make 1999'ish post-rock, under the name "Red Martian," and that's fine. It is what it is, as they say. And again, it might be that Red Martian is more a collaboration than a one-man effort.
"Ghost into the Fog" is nicely mixed...it all sounds very tightly put together; the production is good. But relatedly, I hear a lot of potential for melody that could be explored more. As it is, melody and harmony -- contrapuntal and harmonic complexity -- tends to be obscured by production that is so smooth that it blends things together too homogeneously. I can't help but think of the "volume wars" (see: Metallica's "Death Magnetic"), and how all music nowadays is so THICK WITH SHIT (to re-use a phrase I first used when doing 4-track stuff with my friend when I was 19) that it ends up closer to white noise and less like, for example, 1920's jazz. To put it another way, a spectrogram of this music would be a block rather than a mountain range. The music makes less "sense" than it could or should, aurally and logically, and is kind-of degenerating into soup, or, into a ghost in the fog (hah). This is frustrating, because potentials for harmonic emotionalistic concepts that want to be heard are being drowned in a spectrographic porridge and not executed as confidently as they could be. But this is a point that could be countered with "it's supposed to be that way." Fine; of course it would not be correct to criticize a peanut butter by saying "this did not taste like mayonnaise."
Jones's vocals are more adventurous and have improved since I last heard them, but I think he's still a little shy about his voice and he could stand to get even crazier with it. It's more or less in tune, but he's no Mike Patton. Rock might ultimately be about the soloist, I think, which is a bit antithetical to the conceptual intent of Red Martian or maybe even "Shoegaze" (a rock music style defined and described by a concertgoer's trance-like gazing down at his shoe while listening). But as I implied, the rock genre is problematic -- sub-genres even more so. Is the critic supposed to write about how the sound sounds compared to all other sounds sounding? How it sounds compared to rock? How it sounds compared to other Shoegaze? What is the standard that allows for meaningful critique?
I quite like the short-ish song lengths in "Ghost", maybe only because they're around the same length as many of my own sound projects. But no -- I like them because I have a short attention span, and it's a nice change from 11 minute Rush anthems, if that's what one happened to have been listening to. It's a bit like avant-garde cuisine being served on tiny little plates -- there's an implicit modesty, as well as the communication that the consumer should only sample rather than satiate, and concern himself with quality over quantity.
I'm trying to contrast these songs to stylistically similar ones I appreciate..let's take a Sonic Youth song -- "Against Fascism" -- that is always playing in my head, because it features a vocal hook that keeps the listener interested (I guess it's also a bit of a joke song). This might be what Red Martian needs. I think it's kind of a cop out when Shoegaze musicians say "it's supposed to be boring"; in order for something to be "boring" in the sense that they mean (really, hypnotic and captivating), then it still has to be interesting and good. It's also possible that I didn't have "Ghost" turned up loud enough (of course I listened to the whole thing), and that this style of rock is supposed to overwhelm you and put you in a sort of trance -- something that can only be accomplished with a pristine six digit bit-rate and high volumes. But, that stance is sort of cheating; it reminds me of the "this webpage is best viewed with 'Browser X'" meme, also harkening to the late 1990s.
I like the use of the pitch-bending whammy bar in the guitar tracks, but it's done maybe too subtly. Again, a "hook" would be nice -- something to alleviate the drone of the Shoegaze. My sweeping crit is that this Red Martian album is not wild and expressive enough -- it feels and sounds very planned and cerebral; it's probably the same problem I would have if I tried to make a rock 'n' roll album. But there are some moments of creativity and intelligent fun, especially if you listen closely and pick them out from the wall of sound. But, I think these could be dressed up more and presented better.
This album was given to me for review in two parts: the main part on bandcamp.com, and a bonus track on soundcloud.com. I listened to the bonus track, and got a very different feel; maybe it was the melodicism of the arpeggios. Ha, that sounds funny and pretentious, but I'm serious; "Ingenting" is a very pretty song, and it moved me. Maybe its production was slightly different from the rest, or perhaps the fact that I listened to the album on Bandcamp and the bonus track on Soundcloud has something to do with my perception. Regardless, I felt myself emotionally affected by the bonus track in a way that I mostly was not by the rest of the album. Furthermore the bonus track features a stand-out synth line, which alludes to one of my points about the rest of the album: overall there's no stand-out, or hook ...
Overall I will give "Ghost into the Fog" a 6.5/10, although this number seems to come up an awful lot for me in my ratings of things. Maybe it's better to say I kind of liked it, which I did...I like it, but it is what it is. In other words, it seems unnecessarily culturally constrained within its genre (post-rock rock music), and I know from my own experience that the artist can and does do more varied work, so that makes it all the more mildly frustrating; Jones is certainly capable of doing more than Shoegaze. But really I don't know that I'm not making a grave mistake in performing these sorts of analyses -- second-guessing the psychological and creative position of the artist, and even the nature and number of the artist himself (did the bass player write one of the songs? Who knows?). In the art world, the artwork and the artist are always conflated, so maybe, if that is appropriate there, the paradigm can work here, too, in rock music land.
Matthew Teigen has an MFA in Visual Art with focus on A/D Media Art. He is currently studying Medical Technology. He likes to write and task his crock pot.