by Greg Baise
Good omens haunt the record shops when not one but two records by Japan’s masterful and mystical musical travelers, Ghost, arrive simultaneously. Ghost’s mixture of cosmic Krautrock, medieval song forms, ethnic psychedelia and fragile balladry has placed the group at the forefront of underground sounds ever since its 1990 debut. For this set of recordings, the core of singer and guitarist Masaki Batoh, keyboardist Kazuo Ogino and the peerless electric guitarist Michio Kurihara eschews a conventional rhythm section, working instead with vibraphonist Setsuko Furuya and cellist Hiromichi Sakamoto.
The more refined of the two records, Snuffbox Immanence is itself a music box filled with surprises. For instance, the band transforms the Rolling Stones’ "Live With Me" into a plaint fueled by upright piano, nimble marimba and fried guitar leads. Aside from Kurihara’s incendiary work, the group decidedly favors acoustic instrumentation in the creation of its "heavy chamber folk," a genre that’s all its own. Ghost also displays a bit of avant-garde sensibility, such as on the unique instrumental "Daggma," which means "tower of silence." Here lute, chimes and tubular bells intertwine in precision patterns that echo Steve Reich.
Free Tibet, composed and recorded rather quickly after Snuffbox, has a more spontaneous feel. A protest record, it comes complete with a liner note message about the Tibetan situation straight from the Liaison Office of the Dalai Lama. After the distorted, electronic declamations of the first track ("We Insist" — shades of Max Roach!), Tibet finds Ghost presenting a handful of spare ballads, including a Pearls Before Swine cover. The last half — the epic title track — is an unprecedented free-form jam which conveys both the mountaintop beauty of Tibet and the suffering of its people under Chinese oppression. It’s an expressionistic soundscape, filled with passages of placid repose and harsh experimental electronics. In all, it’s quite an intriguing point for Ghost to leave off in 1999, howling in fields of abstraction not unlike the free-form freak-outs of the band’s genesis. Longtime listeners will find much new musical territory covered amongst the more familiar Ghostly scapes. And if you’re a newcomer to these amazing acid folk sounds, now’s the perfect time to leave your own tower of silence.