Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Snapsongs: “Free Heart Lover” by Ghostland Observatory

Friday 28 March 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

One of the last CDs I bought before leaving Austin, Texas for good in 2008 was a disc by a local band, Ghostland Observatory. Ghostland Observatory is the brainchild of two guys who decided that they would forgo any notions of pandering to the popular crowd and just make music that they wanted to make. And the music they wanted to make was an unapologetic mix of machine-precise beats, analog-infused synth sweeps, a bombastic sonic philosophy and a level of vocal style and showmanship that brings to mind Greg Lake and Freddy Mercury. Their earlier albums were good, but Robotique Majestique was perfect. It was both throwback and up-to-date, and it was pure awesome. I’m pretty sure that the sound is not for everyone, but I enjoyed it immensely. Even though I name-check “Free Heart Lover” here, the individual songs are somewhat immaterial: it’s an album-oriented piece of music, and the album flows through song after song without pulling a punch or missing a stride. It’s sick beats from the 70s without hip-hop nuances; it’s the colors you can achieve in timbre with nothing but basic-wave oscillators stacked atop one another; it’s the suspension of disbelief you can allow a singer if he assumes a commanding tone with no measure of irony, self-consciousness or insecurity.

It bridged a time in my life that was full of discontinuities and modifications. I was newly-married; I was in the middle of my MFA program; I had left the city of my youth and had moved to a completely different section of the country. I was trying to fit in to a series of new situations without roadmap or indication; I was trying to figure out exactly what a professional artist was supposed to do; I was moving away from printmaking as my primary focus and feeling surprisingly guilty about it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised by that last — I had come to art through the vehicle of printmaking, so there was a feeling that printmaking had mentored my conversion and moving to different avenues for my focus was somehow a betrayal — as if one could “betray” a completely non-personal discipline of art-making. To be sure, the printed image and an edition of multiples still is and probably still always will be part of my practice, so I shouldn’t have worried so much. At the time, though, it just felt wrong.

So, Ghostland Observatory was part of the disconnect I felt navigating my way through far South Boston on the way to the printmaking co-op I was renting from. My heart wasn’t really into it, I was spending money and not using the facilities, and getting there was a bit of a chore. As someone who learned to drive in the Car Culture of an expansive western city, driving in Boston was nothing but discontinuities. Roads curved back on themselves, changed names at each city boundary in the metro area, switched from two-way to one-way and back again, and basically acted just like a paved series of cowpaths and bridle paths would act. I discovered that driving in Boston takes patience, forbearance, resilience and a highly-developed sense of the absurd. You learn that the rules are more of a guideline than a law. You allow someone to make a completely illegal left-hand turn in front of you because there is the high possibility that down the road somewhere you will need to do something just as annoying, because there simply isn’t any other way to get where you’re going. And after an hour of this, I wasn’t really in the mood to print when I finally got to the studio.

So Ghostland Observatory was also the disconnect I felt sitting in a large warehouse space in Dedham, spinning a plastic disk around a pushpin in order to draw a drunkard’s walk on Mylar with Prismacolor markers, while all around me, ignored and unused, were the presses, mordants, inks, plates and paper of the craft of printmaking. Making a drunkard’s walk involves long stretches of mindless labor, somewhat akin to needlepoint actually, so having a jambox around was definitely a blessing. As the songs played, I would occasionally stare out the wide warehouse windows at the commuter rail trains chugging by, the Diesel smoke heavy in the moist overcast spring air, and wonder exactly where I was going and what I was supposed to be doing. The random skittering pathway across the Mylar felt like a mirror of my own situation. I didn’t realize I was basically carving out my own reality, groping my way toward a system and a schedule for including the manufacture of art into my normal everyday life. Just like the two guys in Ghostland Observatory, I was going to have to do it without notions of pandering to the popular crowd, and I would have to somehow learn to generate the suspension of disbelief you can allow an artist by that artist assuming a commanding tone with no measure of irony, self-consciousness or insecurity. And this is an apprenticeship I am still learning to this day.

2014-03-28  »  Edward Semblance