Art about ghosts, spirits, and the afterlife can quickly become trite and unnecessarily serious, but Marena Whitcher and her Shady Midnight Orchestra ensure that subject matter doesn’t get in the way of good music and fun times on Ghostology. This album gets really weird without getting pointless and always manages to somehow stay aesthetically focused even as it moves through vastly different sections and songs.
It doesn’t take long for Whitcher and company to bring the unexpected. After an ominous and lyrical front half of the first track “Ice Soldiers”, drummer Nicolas Stocker barges in with an odd yet brilliantly juxtaposed march beat joined by a ponderous and sparse bass clarinet and wordless vocal accompaniment. “Last Chance For A Ghost Dance” begins with a beautifully exposed a cappella bit from Whitcher joined by vocalists Lisa Hasler and Isabelle Ritter before the rhythm section kicks in with a vigorous groove. Like a cross between musical theater and a Mr. Bungle album, “Transformation Train” twists and turns through seemingly unrelated sections.
On track after track, Whitcher ruthlessly finds the appropriate expression. As she careens between yelling and talking on both “Last Chance For A Ghost Dance” and “Coniunctio Oppositorum”, she boldly and rightly disregards singing in tune in favor of capturing the fierce essence of the moment. Though, it’s not as if she’s incapable of beautiful intonation; her vocal accuracy is apparent on the delicately flowing “Lost In Time” and also on “Midnight Raven”–a lyrical/melodic mashup of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight”.
All of this music discussion is not to diminish the lyrical content of Ghostology. Partnered with her spellbinding melodies and resting on top of lush musical accompaniment, Whitcher’s words fabricate beautiful stories and actualize chilling characters and scenes. And if you’re into lyrics, then “Coniunctio Oppositorum” is the track. In addition to borrowing language and a story from Poe in “Midnight Raven”, she also makes use of the phrases in the pre-recorded spoken word piece in “Transformation Train”. First the spoken word is used to create an eerie handoff to sung lyrics, and then the pre-recorded narrative informs the lyrics for the rest of the song. There’s also the little details like using multiple voices to artificially create an echo after the word “echo” in “Ice Soldiers” and halting the musical accompaniment on the word “still” in “Lost In Time”.
From abrupt transitions and general silliness to intricate vocal harmonies and pensive instrumental solos, these recordings cover a lot of ground without taking themselves too seriously. The overall structure (interludes, repeating themes, etc.) implies that much attention went into big ideas like aesthetic and direction–letting the listener feel more comfortable with the wild places this album goes. If adventure and weirdness are your thing, it’s likely that Ghostology is also your thing.