Ghost Town Riot - Ghost Town Riot Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothGhost Town Riot is a catchy, intense, and well-written album.  The band have a good sound, strong dynamic concepts, and deeply thoughtful music that doesn’t fit any conventional pop/rock mold.

Ghost Town Riot
Artist: Ghost Town Riot
Label: independent
Time: 12 tracks / 41:00 minutes

Today marks the anniversary of Seattle art-rock band Ghost Town Riot’s self-titled debut release.  Possessing unique songwriting and layers of guitar orchestration, this is a musical gem, a haunting mix of atmospheric elements and strong, singable hooks.  The band is comprised of Brian Fleischman (vocals/guitars), Phil Sells (guitars), Steve Quist (bass), Matthew Boyer (guitars/keys), and Jeff Brown (drums), along with Paul Herlihy, the band’s sound engineer.

What is most striking about this album, even from an initial listen, is how good the production quality is, not to mention how each composition is impeccably rehearsed and polished.  Furthermore, beneath these integral production elements, there are no weak sections or throwaway songs: the band have written deeply thoughtful music that doesn’t fit the conventional pop/rock mold.  There are traces of punk, ska, and indie all mixed into this album, and the outcome is a genre-bending collection of songs that keeps only the best elements of each component and discards everything peripheral.  Overall, Ghost Town Riot is thematically centered on the pursuit of the “whispers of truth [that] are softly falling from above and lost,” though its tracks seem too loosely connected to call it a true concept album.  Regardless, the central question here seems to be the pursuit of answers to man’s plight and purpose, and this kind of earnest, soul-searching focus renders it an intimate piece of music.

“Precession,” a short, 1:00-minute track in 3/4, opens the album with a weary carnival melody, a saccharine haze that quickly darkens with the addition of harsh cymbals and secondary guitar parts.  Seamlessly, the song fades into the second track, “Menacer.”  The syncopated, double-tracked guitar parts that give this track its edge are indicative of the guitar playing that will continue across the scope of Ghost Town Riot: utilizing different chord voicings as well as sharp contrast between melodic and distorted guitar parts.  The strong backbone of Quist’s bass and Brown’s drums are the foundation upon which the rest of the composition stands.  The breakdown at 2:28 introduces the concluding passage: a momentary stillness, gentle chimes, and then Fleischman’s vocal threat – “You know I'll find my way inside / It's only a matter of time / You'll be begging for your life” – before the whirlwind trio of guitar parts takes the helm again, driving the final seconds of the track to the end.

The next song, “The Author,” is one of the strongest performances on the album, and also establishes the beginnings of the central thematic concept.  The author himself, an impotent representation of God, is characterized by a sense of his own entrapment – a helplessness inspired by the fact that the characters he wrote took on lives of their own, even though he was their creator, and he could not influence the outcomes of their fictional yet ultimately independent lives.  In that regard, the song seems to suggest that, somewhere along the way, God lost control of his creation as it attempted to discover its own purpose.  “The Author has a penchant for reminiscing with all the characters he had at his whim,” Fleischman sings over the whimsical guitar intro, plucked in steady eighth notes: “He's thumbing through his books, hoping for a different end / Even though the tales were spun from his pen.”  The verses on this track are tapestries of echoing and beautifully enmeshed guitar parts, undergirded by steady bass and methodical drum work.  Structurally, “The Author” strikes me as an unusual piece because it doesn’t really have a refrain to speak of: it exists in a pair of verses, a bridge and guitar solo, a secondary bridge that deviates entirely from material previously covered, and another redefined verse to conclude the song.  The entrance of Sells’ guitar solo following the first bridge, launching at a soaring octave above Fleischman’s vocals, is impeccably executed, pairing beautifully with the singer’s continued vocals as he doubles the guitar’s melody.  The passage that builds out of this solo is a gorgeous mix of guitar parts and vocal harmonies, concluding in a second guitar break.  The emotive outro, beginning at the 4:40-minute mark, finds its dynamic force in Fleischman’s infuriated howl that, if we “can’t know the Author’s lines,” then “we [are] all just walking blind.”

“I,” the fourth track on the album, clocks in under a minute in length, and is structured entirely on two guitar chords, utilizing Fleischman’s constant, self-harmonized vocals to maintain momentum.  This is the first of three shorter, place-holding pieces that act as chapter markers on the album, each of which leads directly into the successive track – in this case, “The Man Who Knows.”  This track is the first on the album to contain noticeable meter variation: intermittent measures of 3/4 and 4/4 during the introduction, transitioning to a steady albeit syncopated 4/4 for the main body.  Steve Quist’s bass is both a prominent and a foundational voice on this track, perhaps more so here than on any other song on Ghost Town Riot.  His work is tightly associated with kick drum, as well as the rhythm guitar parts, moving in tasteful and unpredictable syncopation.  Thematically, the song is built on the central, rhetorical question, “[What] if you could read your maker’s mind?” – a query that ties this track directly to “The Author,” in which Fleischman postulated that, “If we won't believe what isn't evident to the eye, then how can we be so certain that the Author is a lie? / No way to read your maker's mind.”  In that regard, the lyrics of “The Man Who Knows” share Ghost Town Riot’s overall concern with the endless possibilities of knowledge and spirituality that exist above human comprehension.  The dramatic flourish at the song’s conclusion seems like the punctuation mark on the psalmist’s proclamation, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too high for me to attain” (Psa 139.6).

If “The Man Who Knows” was a groovy, funk-rock type of jam, then “Intruder” initially takes a more soulful, swaying approach.  The guitar work on the verses are pure art-rock, harmonic riffs shared between Sells’ and Boyers’ instruments and structured via heavy delay effects.  The breakdown out of the second chorus becomes a bluesy guitar solo, doubled at intervals by bass and secondary guitar.  The song seems to attribute the sense of intrusion to all humanity – “every soul whose inkwell has run dry” – as though the intrusion the speaker personally experienced is something universal, a “discrepancy [that] abound[s].”  There’s a sense, Fleischman expounds, that all of mankind has been robbed of something, and maybe that something was true metaphysical understanding.

“II” is technically the album’s second instrumental piece, counting the introductory “Precession,” and performs its function as the second chapter’s placeholder.  It borrows the back-and-forth chord progression from “I,” and fades directly into “Cheat” on a swell of guitar feedback and semi-audible voices.  Along with “The Author” and “Strange Neighbor,” “Cheat” stands out to me as one of Ghost Town Riot’s strongest tracks.  It is also the song with some of the most scathing yet poignant lyrics: “Your worthless tactics are becoming such a perfect practice / You have perfected what it is to be defective. Contemptible.”  Of course, the idea paired with this intense criticism is Fleischman’s revelatory sentiment that “What I hate in you is what I hate in me.”  This track especially reminds me of some of the quirky material from Panic! at the Disco’s first album.  It treads an unusual path across blues, funk, and pop, employing staccato keys parts and gentle chimes to contrast the lighthearted instrumentation with the grinding guitars and brutal lyrics.  The final verse redefines itself from its previous incarnations, as guitars and keys move through pentatonic arpeggios instead of stabbing chords, rolling beneath Fleischman’s vocals.

“Cinema” begins with the sound of film rolling through an old-fashioned projector, quickly accompanied by strong triplets shared across vocals and instruments.  This track has a lot of motion, borrowing a ska-esque bounciness and blending it with a melodic minor tone.  The interludes between verses are filled with echoing guitars and key patches.  “If you could rewind the moments of your whole lifetime, like a cinema reel in your mind,” Fleischman ponders, “would you want to feel each moment as if you were there again?”  The whimsical sentiment here seems to draw upon the Author’s selfsame sense of entrapment: “Stuck in your mind, stuck in time.”  This paralysis is the result of lost memories, of experience left behind, and a yearning for “sentiments as fresh as the day that they [first] came.”  At the 2:00-minute mark, the verse breaks down via unison hits across all instruments, transitioning to guitars heavily strumming different chord voicings, interrupted by hard stops and breaks for unison parts panned hard left and right.  The instrumental bridge continues with indistinct vocals and octaves in the guitars, and eventually returns to its central riff before the sound of rolling film returns to take the song through its final seconds.

“III,” the most developed of the three bookend tracks, introduces the album’s final chapter.  This short song closes with the poignant lyric, “Into a sea of time we fall, without a name / as different as we are, we all end up the same,” and the guitars build directly into “Bird Loses” without stopping.  The first 40 seconds of this next track are tense and instrumental, with two guitars plucking a droning melody while the third drives through grungy octaves, doubled by bass.  Deviating from some of the unusual structures of previous songs, “Bird Loses” follows a standard verse/chorus pairing, in which the lyrics are repeated, before a jangly breakdown, wailing guitar solo, and final refrain.  Formulaic, perhaps, but yet another showing of how good this band is: capable of writing conventional pop/rock songs while still retaining enough character, finesse, and motion to maintain the art-rock sense of unconventionality.

At 6:00 minutes, “Strange Neighbor,” Ghost Town Riot’s final track, is also its longest piece of music.  The introduction begins with a solitary guitar, weaving the central theme, before drums and secondary guitar parts join the mix.  A dynamic false start anticipates a huge first verse, but immediately recedes to ambient guitars, accompanied only by bass support.  The second verse incorporates steady drums, tightening the forward momentum.  “When you want it all without the consequence,” Fleischman sings, “disappointment is imminent.”  I love the way these tiny nuggets of universal truth find place among the otherwise enigmatic lyrics, shining through the cracks to the moral philosophy undergirding the album’s content.  At this point, the 2:55-minute mark, the track deconstructs itself: improv vocals, furious tremolo strumming across guitars, and crashing cymbal work.  The melodic chaos resolves into guitar parts, one of which takes the lead, and touches on the musical theme that will carry the song to its conclusion.  The album’s final lyric is one of the most poignant on Ghost Town Riot, effectively tying the bow atop its impassioned story: “The mysteries of the universe are swirling in your eyes, like you've almost seen the answers.”  Almost, but not quite.  And so the quest continues.  The remainder of the track is a double-timed instrumental ride, full of guitar lead and thrumming bass, all the way to its hard-stop ending.

I have a whole lot of appreciation for this album.  It is full of hooks and memorable melodies, but still manages to retain such an art rock atmosphere that it doesn’t lose its way in pop territory.  One of the strongest aspects of the band’s sound is the tight cohesion between instruments: Steve Quist’s bass lines up flawlessly with Jeff Brown’s kick drum, and all guitars represented work in careful tandem.  Orchestrations make careful use of all instruments at GTR’s disposal, and song structures are almost never predictable.  At times, especially during breakdowns, instrumental bridges, and guitar solos, the album’s sound texture could be described as a “wall of guitars,” as the band capitalize on all three axes in their arsenal.  However, what is most telling to me about the band’s supreme compositional ability is that each guitar is nearly always playing a different part: there is no unnecessary doubling anywhere to be found on Ghost Town Riot.  Where doubling is used to beef up a chorus, it is done intentionally and only to positive effect.  Fleischman’s vocal work is also superb throughout this album.  His voice is supremely suited to the band’s sound, and contains the pop sensibility of Brendon Urie (Panic! at the Disco) and Nate Ruess (The Format, fun.) combined with the power of Brandon Boyd (Incubus).  Another strong feature of this album is the fact that its chapter breaks (“I,” “II,” and “III”) bleed directly into the tracks that follow, creating longer stretches of non-stop music and enabling the album to maintain an overall pop/rock, short-track mentality while still allowing the band experimental freedom.  There are also very few moments of true repetition: a chorus might occur three times throughout the duration of a song, but it will always be in a different incarnation, be it through varied dynamics, instrumentation, or playing technique.

These are just a few of the reasons I can’t recommend this album enough.  Accessible – that’s the word for this band, and I don’t intend that to be in any way demeaning.  Ghost Town Riot is a catchy, intense, and well-written album.  I love the band’s sound, their strong use of dynamics, and their compositional approach to utilizing each instrument in their employ to maximum efficiency.  If you like anything from the art-rock scene (Lovedrug, Sparta, As Tall as Lions, Gomez, or Anberlin) or more pop-oriented prog (Moon Safari, Godsticks, Mew), then Ghost Town Riot will especially appeal to you.

Justin Carlton