Willard Grant Conspiracy – Ghost Republic
First things first: this is an absolutely blindingly brilliant album. You can buy one here, and I strongly recommend that you do.
Compelling, fascinating, beautiful and harsh. It perfectly harnesses some pretty nasty noises, and uses them to twist and distort an otherwise beautiful album of minimal, gorgeous acoustic music.
The mixing is really unusual as well – something you wouldn’t think would be possible with so few instruments. But the viola sounds almost completely untreated, and sits so high in the mix that every last squeak of the fingers on the strings is delivered with perfect clarity.
It’s an odd effect, almost like staring so intently at an advertising hoarding that all you can see is the pixellation, while the image itself drifts out of focus.
The Willard Grant Conspiracy used to be one of those bands I automatically cited when reeling off a list of my favourite bands, but their last record was released in 2008, with another album of re-recorded versions of existing songs following the year after.
Consequently, they sort of fell off my radar, something about which I felt a little guilty given that Robert Fisher granted me my first ever interview for Song, by Toad, and rather graciously encouraged me along through a conversation which I can only assume he found more than a little amateurish.
I suppose I also haven’t listened to all that much of the band’s output recently because of my vinyl fixation – apart from this new record, none of their stuff seems to exist on vinyl at all.
Wrapped up with all that, it’s difficult to really describe my first reaction when I settled down to listen to their first album in about five years, but there was certainly a lot of apprehension. I was a bit nervous of not liking it, and a bit nervous that they might have lapsed into that smooth but unremarkable incarnation of themselves which seems to plague so many bands when they reach a certain point in their development. Middle-aged flaccidity, I suppose you could call it – Around the Sun by REM being a prime example.
Consequently the sheer rawness of this came at first as a shock, and then as a delighted vindication. Then, as I listened to the album again and again and realised just how absolutely fucking brilliant it is, I just became happier and happier – like reuniting with an old friend after years apart and realising that, actually, you get on better than ever.
A minimal acoustic album is, almost 100 percent of the time, a more beautiful, easy to enjoy sort of affair too, but not this one. This may have many beautiful moments, but the core of its character is how those moments are corrupted by harsh intrusions of noise and snarl.
The opening tune, Above the Treeline, is as good an embodiment of this as you’ll get, I suppose. It starts out with a beautiful acoustic guitar and Fisher’s voice, which is always a lush and beautiful thing. The viola nudges you instantly into ‘ah, a lovely acoustic ballad with strings’ assumptions, but slowly but surely it begins to dawn on you that that really isn’t what you’re listening to at all.
Firstly, as I said, the viola is unusually high in the mix, giving it unsettlingly clear definition all the way through – squeaks, squeals and all. What is being played gradually drifts as well, starting out fairly conventional and nice, but getting more and more shrill and uncomfortable as the song progresses.
Throughout most of the album the music is underpinned by fairly gentle acoustic guitar and vocals, leaving the harshness to wash across it like little eddying storms. The record itself was inspired by a poetry project about an abandoned mining town, and there’s a sense of the banal everyday aspects of what is left behind being represented in the normality of some elements of the music, whilst the more unforgiving and heartbreaking reality of what would cause a town to be abandoned makes itself known in waves.
It reminds me, in a sense, of the interplay of normality and horror in the photos of abandoned classrooms in Chernobyl.
There’s something in the hard edge that this record has which makes casual listening seem to be rather missing the point. Fisher has written records in the past which you can derive as much enjoyment from in a casual listen as you do by pouring a strong gin, shutting the curtains and turning it up loud, but I don’t think that works here.
From the title track onwards you can feel there’s just a bit too much intensity here for that. For a lovely record there is so much snarl and needle to this that proper listening feels like the only kind of listening to which it is suited. I’ve heard the damn thing dozens of times now and every single time I’ve had to pretty much stop what I am doing and pay close attention.
It gets nastier and nastier as it progresses, and really is just so very good I’ve not been able to stop listening to it since the first moment the promo was sent through. Now the vinyl has been ordered and the gin is waiting!More: willard grant conspiracy