The Ghost Choir – “The Ghost Choir” (2020)

It seems like coronavirus has been in our lives forever, but if you’re in the US like I am, it’s been more like a couple of months. The first reported case here was reported on January 21 in Snohomish County, Washington, which is fairly close by – it’s the county just north of where I live. And then on Saturday, February 29 the news broke of a suspected 50+ cases of the virus in a nursing home in Kirkland… which is less than two miles from my house. All of a sudden we went from feeling like the virus was something “over there”, impacting only Asia and Europe, only to find out it wasn’t just in our country or our state or our county… but within walking distance of where we live and shop and generally make our lives. Since that date I have only gone into the office to work one time, and as the government restrictions became tighter and tighter there have been multi-day periods during which I haven’t even walked outside of my house.

I’m not seeking anyone’s sympathy here. Our situation is not remotely as dire as it is in Italy and Spain and New York City. Not by a long shot. Holly and I both have jobs that allow for virtual work, and both of our employers were at the forefront in getting all their employees the equipment and technology needed to work from home in short order. We’re not sick and we’re still getting paychecks, which is way more than a lot of people can say. That being said, the situation is making things a bit weird as we all try to adjust to the new normal of quasi-isolation and social distancing, of meetings by Zoom and having “happy hours” with your friends in which you Face Time each other and drink.

Without an hour commute each morning, I’m starting work when it’s still dark out, despite the days getting longer. And the best listening for those quiet, dark mornings with a hot cup of coffee and the only light coming from a pair of computer monitors is chill musical fare along the lines of Brian Eno and Kiasmos. But my current go-to is the brand new release from the Icelandic ensemble The Ghost Choir. It’s been on constant rotation and I’ve recommended it to a number of folks since it’s available on Spotify. So far everyone is giving it rave reviews.

The Ghost Choir is comprised of an impressive group of musicians. Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason has been part of the scene for years through his uniquely flavored hip hip project Epic Rain and most recently as part of Hvörf, and in The Ghost Choir he joins Hannes Helgason on the various keyboards. Guitarist Pétur Hallgrímsson was part of Cosa Nostra back in the 1980s and has been involved in projects with the likes of Páll Óskar, Bubbi Morthens, Quarashi, and John Grant. Magnús Trygvason Eliassen’s percussion stylings have contributed to ADHD, Tibury, and Kippi Kaninus, just to name a few. Bassist Hálfdan Árnason is part of Pain of Salvation and Horrible Youth. Those are some impressive resumes.

I feel Pálmason’s influences immediately, right from the opening bass of “Vanishing Hitchhiker”, its cinematic darkness harkening to an earlier time when the macabre was less about overt gore and violence and more about setting a mood, generating tension, and creating a sense that something is going to happen very soon and it will probably be bad for someone. With instrumental tracks you only have the music and the titles to go by, and the name “Vanishing Hitchhiker” gives the listener an almost unconscious frame of reference for the David Lynch-esque music that follows. The Ghost Choir’s eight instrumental tracks all have similarly themed titles, names that set a scene – “Man In Grey”, “The Watcher”, “The Murdered Peddler”, and even “William Mumbler”, which conveys an image of the kind of guy you probably don’t want to encounter on a cold, rain-soaked night.

There’s a smoothness here as well, perhaps nowhere as more perfectly realized than on “The Watcher” with its light-touch jazz drumming, slowly walking bass, pretty guitar, and subtle organ. The western guitar opening of “The Murdered Peddler” is sublime, the drums hit a bit more stiffly and the bass acting like the slow voice of an old man telling a story he’s told hundreds of times before, but you still ask him to tell you again. Every song has its own character, both sonically and in terms of the person you envision while listening. It’s a mood. It’s the people who live on the fringes of society, those who are more comfortable in the late night hours than in the bright light of the day. It’s the sense that most nights nothing untoward will happen. But every now and again… something unexpected, and probably unfortunate.

The Ghost Choir is pressed on beautiful white vinyl and released by our good friends over at Reykjavik’s Lucky Records. I’m not sure how many were pressed, but my guess is it’s pretty limited. You can give it a listen on Spotify, then when you fall in love with it you can order a copy from Lucky HERE.