North Dakota’s Ghost Bath have indeed changed their sound to offer a decidedly “not so black metal” type of release. Starmourner is not a sequel to Funeral or Moonlover and instead sees the band trying something a bit more post-y and arguably more indie rock and hipster-ish. Now I know that the band gets a metric ton of comparisons to Deafheaven and even the Metal Archives review board seems to unanimously agree on that; but this is not the kind of record that sees the band pushing for the opposite either. That being said, it is far from a terrible listen and actually quite an enjoyable experience. I know what you’re saying, so just come right out with it – “Why would a band that has reveled in sorrow and despair choose to make a sappy record about happiness and joy?” In truth, it even puzzles me and I cannot say for sure. After listening to Moonlover just a few days ago, I noticed just how familiar the compositions sounded to our own material, which was in fact something I had not expected – and like other reviewers, I found myself struggling through the vocal lines as well. But I didn’t choose to write this review to take jabs at the vocals and to be honest, he does deliver them with a lot of passion. Even if you can’t really get into them, there is still thought behind these lines and nothing on the previous album sounded phoned-in. Unfortunately, there are a few moments on this album that do feel out of place with even it’s opening moment seeming like it came from a different band altogether.
So how does it start? To answer that question, I have to ask you how much you enjoy the happy guitar melodies in JRPG battle music, because some definite nods have been made there. After a cheery little piano intro called “Astral” the band seem to mix what sounds decidedly like Japanese melodic metal with drum blasts and extremely out of place vocal lines. This actually excited me at first and I was curious as to whether or not the whole album would feature similar, as the mixture of blasts and Japanese influenced melodies worked wonders for me. It does seem to move into slightly different territory with “Ambrosia” which seems to follow almost a style of staccato that brings with it the sound of Italy. It still contains a rather heavy fare and feels like a metal song, but calling it black metal will certainly not fit the bill. “Ethereal” brings with it a slight return to the JRPG melodies, but feels again like a completely different kind of band. The melodic tones resemble something of a starry night sky, with only a touch of what I would consider despair. There is also a light, heavenly hum of atmosphere far removed from anything the band have done prior, at least to my knowledge.
“Celestial” comes in mightily, like a fanfare for a courageous hero. It is definitely beginning to feel like these guys put several variations on some of their favorite classic video game themes and just added in black metal touches here and there. If you think of this record as something of a mix between the cold landscapes of black metal and every cheery video game theme that you can drum up from your childhood, then that’s pretty much what Starmourner is. I’m actually really upset with the vocals on “Celestial” because I feel it is a missed opportunity for a fantastic performance. The song quickly switches out to something that feels like classic dub (not dubstep) as some beats and synths work an Ulver-like atmosphere not too dissimilar to Perdition City. Then we come to “Angelic” which is not a heavy metal track at all. It is a light, melodic acoustic piece that stretches almost to six minutes in length. It’s beautiful and quite calming, showing a much different side to these guys. “Luminescence” seems to mix more of those cheery melodies in with colorful prog-rock, only punching it up to add spots for the vocals which in all honesty do not need to be there. I think many of you will agree with me here that Starmourner is an album that would have been better as an instrumental and it’s proven quite well here.
“Thrones” also throws that Japanese influenced melody line work in, which makes me think the band would have been better off writing a soundtrack for a game than crafting a heavy metal album. I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys perform a bunch of Black Mages’ covers in their practice space, and maybe we’ll get to see them take on some classic Final Fantasy themes later on. It’s also odd that the ending of “Thrones” literally sounds like a darker variation on the Final Fantasy theme itself, perhaps played in a different key. Seriously, gamers are going to catch these references pretty quickly and I don’t know what the world will think of the band at this point. They’ll probably get thrashed even harder by metal elitists, but I do think the gaming community will really dig it when they hear these references. That could really work towards the band’s favor, regardless of what some metalheads will think when they hear the album. “Elysian” sounds nearly as triumphant as The Legend Of Zelda theme and I do apologize for this, but I can’t honestly help making video game references with the album so far. I actually have an 8-bit tune stuck in my head right now that reminds me heavily of this particular piece, but I can’t recall it for the life of me. Perhaps you can?
Moving on towards the end of the experience, we have “Principalities” which might be one of the few tracks on the record that doesn’t sound like anything related to a game. It does not feature any vocals and more or less shows us that the band can craft some wonderful melodies with the help of all three guitarists. The final cut here is “Ode” which can be definitely compared to the sorrowful soundtracks found in utsuge (a game where the intention is to make you cry) or even some of the moments in Undertale, which has a surprisingly good soundtrack despite it’s somewhat uncomfortable fanbase. The piece is mostly made up of keyboards, synth nodes and even some shimmers that sound like stars. Upon further examination, it does feel like the kind of music I would hear in a visual novel or possibly at the end of a game. Which seems fitting, because Starmourner has felt very much like that. You see, Ghost Bath produced an album that was a complete turn-around from anything they have done in the past, and since the whole “band from China” gimmick has long worn itself out, they have an opportunity to shine and evolve their style into a new direction.
Starmourner is very much a hipster-friendly kind of black metal album. That being said, if you’re looking for something in the classic realms of black metal or black/thrash, black/death and even the occult or avant garde black metal styles, you will absolutely not find them here. If you are looking for cold and angry DSBM, you will absolutely not find it with this release. If you don’t like it, then don’t support it and please don’t give the band such a hard time about it. Again, I will admit that it is even a bit much to call this album black metal as it differs so much from what we’re used to and at most, it feels like a slightly blackened take on Pelican with major video game/anime influences. Obviously, this won’t appeal to everyone and I don’t think that it should. In all honesty, I would love to have it as an instrumental recording and would hope that maybe some sort of pressing will be made available where such a thing happen. It often feels like the kind of melodic metal album that has bite, which you don’t often hear in video game covers that mostly stick to a thrash or core influence. Thankfully there are no instances of breakdowns, hardcore shouts, dubstep incursions or anything else that I seem to have been getting a bellyful of in recent years and we can all be thankful for that. Even if you’re not a fan, remember that this could have always been worse.
Coming from a man roughly the same age as myself that has more than likely played through some of the games that I have and who found influence in those games, perhaps it is within those compositions that he found joy and decided to express that emotion here. Obviously, the record itself doesn’t seem to be a depressing affair which will probably upset a couple of people, but you just can’t please everyone in this genre. Ghost Bath took what I think is a very risky, yet very wise decision and chose to follow up their heavily publicized sophomore with something a little – different. I think it would say less of me if I didn’t respect that vision, but at the same time this is very hard to consider a type of black metal experience and I will leave that up to you, the listener to make a final decision. After all, the fate of a release lies where it always has; in the hands of the listeners who purchase it. Will you also mourn the stars? Or is it just too horrible of a night to have a curse?