|Ghost of the Robot - Mad Brilliant|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Thursday, 22 May 2003|
Ghost of the Robot is a band with an intriguing mixture of components. Lead guitarist/keyboardist/chief songwriter Charlie DeMars, drummer/keyboardist Aaron Anderson and bassist Kevin McPherson started out as the Sacramento-based trio Power Animal; lead singer/songwriter James Marsters has an acting career (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) and did some solo music before Ghost formed last year; guitarist/songwriter Steve Sellers has played in other bands, deejayed and composes for film and television (including the music for a recent special on “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”). The differing styles and outlooks of the members give unexpected texture and variety to the group’s first full-length album, Mad Brilliant.
Mad Brilliant contains 11 tracks, with three stand-outs and a number of others that linger in your mind’s ear. What’s most interesting is how dissimilar the peak songs are from one another – they’re memorable for different reasons.
The title track written by DeMars, Number 7 on the playlist, is arguably Mad Brilliant’s strongest rocker. “Mad Brilliant” starts with an audio effect reminiscent of the sensory-replay discs in “Strange Days,” before launching into a snarling, Rammstein-like riff, with DeMars’ guitar and McPherson’s bass, pounding keyboards from DeMars and Anderson, Anderson’s solid percussion and growling vocals all putting an industrial grind on an angry plaint to a ex-lover. The rumbling verse gives way to a contrastingly precise, sinister refrain, with singer Marsters sounding as though he’s taking perverse satisfaction in recalling awkward kisses.
At the other end of the spectrum in both rock genre and attitude is “Angel,” Marsters’ mellow songwriting contribution on Track 5. Rolling, strummed acoustic guitar and strains of a melodica (a harmonica-soundalike instrument), both played in fine folk fashion by DeMars, are the cheerful accompaniment as Marsters sings an affectionate paean to a feisty, overburdened girlfriend, with a straightforward tune that invites humming.
“German.Jewish.” on Track 10 brings forth yet another flavor. The song, written by DeMars, has an almost manically peppy beginning, with guitar, bass and drums bouncing along as Marsters enthusiastically sings about wanting to work through his lack of common ground with the object of his adoration. The music gets darker and more drawn out and the vocals (with backing by DeMars and Anderson) become deeper and more threatening as the narrator imagines the woman as a Jew hiding from the Nazis and himself as a good German, showing his devotion by keeping her secret. An instrumental bridge, with an edgy, insistent guitar solo by DeMars, shrewdly reinforces the frustration conveyed in the lyrics. The song is a nifty blend of the psychologically astute (okay, raise your hand if you’ve never envisioned yourself rescuing a crush from dire straits) and the musically catchy.
Catchy is also an accurate description of the springy, guitar-driven “Dangerous” on Track 3, written by Marsters, which has a playful feel that serves the lyrics about a man’s flattered, discomfited reaction to the crush of a girl who’s below his age limit. DeMars’ frisky guitar, McPherson’s brisk bass, Anderson’s unobtrusive but present drums and Marsters’ pleasant, bemused vocals all come together in an upbeat Springsteen-like sound.
Track 6’s “Valerie,” written by Sellers, has a cool effect at its start – the churning of an old LP turntable sets the mood for a song that starts out with a reference to playing a record again and again, with Sellers’ strummed guitar and McPherson’s zooming bass providing some wah-wah mojo, combining with Anderson’s pensive drums to conjure a trippy period ‘60s/’70s vibe. The lyrics are regretful but wry enough to encompass some clever rhymes, while the music builds to some rapturous shouts from singer Marsters that suggest the narrator’s memories aren’t all bad.
Track 4, “David Letterman” by DeMars, may be the highest-profile cut on the album, having gained a bit of notoriety due to its rather whimsical premise – the narrator would like to be the title personage in order to gain more of his girlfriend’s attention and maybe get her to laugh. It’s kind of a sweet sentiment that gets fierce musical treatment. Anderson’s drums start out with an almost martial precision but soon accelerate to heartbeat rate, and guitar and bass join on an instrumental bridge that speeds into a sinister, almost science-fiction sound, while Marsters’ voice (backed by Anderson) is suitably longing and resigned by turns. It should be said that the vocals and instruments on this track have moments where they don’t fit together as tightly as might be wished.
The opening track penned by DeMars, “Liar,” dirties up his guitar and McPherson’s bass, which join Anderson’s slamming percussion to create a sound that hints at Brit-punk, with the instruments warbling like emergency vehicle sirens during the introductory riff before the vocals kick in. The song is mostly a rather generic complaint against a lover, but it’s got at least one good lyrical dig: “She would lie even if the truth sounded better.” There’s an instrumental bridge that’s downright kicky, providing a contrast with the piece’s overall enraged gloom.
Track 2, “Vehicles Shock Me,” with music by Anderson and lyrics by Anderson and DeMars, starts out with an insistently picked single string twanging like an irate rubber band, setting up the frantic mood of the narrator. Vocalist Marsters starts out defiant, then hurt, finally segueing to a trembling plaintiveness (backed by Anderson and DeMars) as DeMars’ guitar gentles for a stretch, then picks up momentum again with bass and drums to reach a crescendo of unhappiness.
“Call 911” on Track 8, with music by Nick Anderson, Aaron Anderson and DeMars and lyrics by DeMars, starts off with an ominous but streamlined guitar pattern so extended that it’s a bit startling when Marsters’ vocals commence. The song is anguished and accusatory (“You killed your only friend last year”), but the main topic here seems to be using music as a weapon: “I’m just a little boy with an untrained voice,” Marsters sings, deliberately breaking his voice, “but I have cannons for arms/I play the guitar and songs/With hidden missiles and bombs.” Lest they be suspected of too much seriousness, DeMars, McPherson and Anderson finish out the track with a rapid, uptempo jazz riff.
“Blocking Brainwaves” on Track 9 has fun setting the environment, beginning with a droll, self-effacing intro, as a Dan Aykroyd soundalike does an emcee schtick, introing Ghost of the Robot to a chorus of “boos.” Marsters’ vocals start off with an appropriately diffident tone in the face of this lack of welcome, but gain in cranky assurance as the song, written by DeMars, picks up the pace. It’s no doubt intentional that the halfway cheerful lyrics at the start (“Do you want to be happy?”) are the uncertain-seeming part. Long before we get to lines like “Nothing to contemplate so I won’t need [a brain] any more” and “When I wake up from seizures …”, everything has solidified in a rhythmic, mournful but pulsing rocker, propelled by guitar, bass and especially Anderson’s percussion and subtly fey keyboard contributions. The music fades away to cricket chirps, maintaining the atmosphere of a mid-nowhere venue where nobody applauds the acts.
Mad Brilliant closes with another stylistic departure by songwriter DeMars. In contrast to his hard-rocking cuts elsewhere, “Good Night Sweet Girl” opens with DeMars’ starkly picked guitar sounding as if he may be about to launch into “House of the Rising Sun,” then turns to strumming for a tune that resembles a lament from a rock opera (it feels something like “Old Souls” from “Phantom of the Paradise”). The guitar and bass keep the chords simple and clean and Anderson’s drumming remains contained as Marsters puts across persuasive emotional agony in the vocals.
Joe Johnston did the recording and stereo mix at Pus Cavern in Sacramento. It’s raw but proficient and suits the material.
Ghost of the Robot’s Mad Brilliant has some thematic sameness on a few of the tracks, but on the whole, it’s a good introduction to a new band that creates songs that stick with you, supported by genuine musical chops.