Dark, haunting, and multi-layered are the first three words that come to mind when describing Inside the Ghost Machine, the debut album by Boston-based singer-songwriter Anda Volley. She blends the downtempo, trip-hop, electronic, and indie rock genres into a surprisingly cohesive whole that makes for a very engaging album. It’s not often that you find a debut album that has such a complex sound. Anda’s sound is tantalizingly difficult to describe.
Whenever you feel like you’ve pigeon-holed it into, say, electronic, it shifts into more classical, indie rock, and then into downtempo, and then into some other, wonderfully dark and stark sound that keeps you guessing to the album’s last note.
Inside the Ghost Machine is very much a thinking man’s debut album.
‘Water is Heavy’ starts off the album, and right off the bat, you can tell that this isn’t going to be your run-of-the-mill, quasi-experimental, introspective debut album that most literate, nebbish, indie artists usually put out. It starts off with distorted beats setting the slightly off-kilter, pensive mood of the track. Anda’s voice seems ideally suited to this sort of almost laid back, contemplative track. She manages to sound both fragile and brutally honest at the same time, making listeners feel almost as if they’ve intruded on a sort of private confessional. The surprisingly frank lyrics – “When I was fourteen, a neighbour kissed me in the rain / He said: ‘don’t tell anyone he’s seeing me'” – combined with the experimental, almost avant-garde instrumentation make this the perfect first track on the album, which listeners will feel compelled to listen to several times over, contemplating its meanings and themes.
‘Laura Inside the Ghost Machine’ sees the album swinging around to a more traditional indie rock tone. Bear in mind that when I say “traditional indie rock tone”, I actually mean, “traditional indie rock tone as filtered through Volley’s typical experimental, distorted, baroque-lyric-filled sound”. The processed backing guitar tapestry, combined with the driving backing beat (which might be the only, truly “conventional” element on this track) serves as the song’s impetus, creating a solid (if slightly quirky) vehicle for the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics; boy oh boy. While ‘Water is Heavy‘ might have been a sort of a calm introspective, ‘Ghost Machine‘ gives listeners plenty of abstract imagery and somewhat abstruse word paintings to ponder over (imagery such as: “Laura, from a Brooklyn family dying / The worm in your throat is rising / While your friends regard more newsworthy fat / To mock about, to laugh about, to cry about”). I’ve gotta say, there’s obscure lyrics, and there’s reeeeally obscure lyrics like these, and ya know what? I love it. There’s something to be said about a song that can keep you coming back over and over again, puzzling over meanings and imagery. This, is how you get people talking about you.
‘If I Turn Into a Black Rose’ is perhaps the most out-and-out indie rock track on this album. No distortion, no offbeat clangs and clinks in the background. The lyrical imagery is still very strong (it seems like Anda is dead set on making our brains explode from trying to figure out what she means), but this time the backing canvas is a simple guitar and tambourine. I find it somewhat odd that this song reminds me vaguely of a more experimental version of a Simon and Garfunkel song (weird, I know). The track is almost dirge-like, and it seems almost to dissipate into distortion around the two minute and forty seconds mark (kinda like the titular black rose’s petals drifting off into nothingness). The emphasis here is quite clearly the lyrics, which are the same evocative blend of slightly macabre, and personal introspection, with overlays of metaphors and inlays of vivid imagery (huh, never thought I’d use my carpentry skills to review an album).
‘King Yellowman’ leads us off into a completely different direction, trading distorted, American Gothic guitars and drums, for a smooth-as-silk texture of synths and acoustic guitars. The track is so engaging, and flows so easily that you’ll wonder where the past three minutes have gone. The song’s still pretty experimental, and the lyrics are, if possible, even tripper and with a weird sort of Beatles-circa-The-Walrus-era endearing oddness to them. ‘Yellowman‘ reminds me a bit of Massive Attack’s ‘Man Next Door’, with the same smooth, driving beat and flow.
Being a massive fan of downtempo and trip-hop music, this is probably one of my favourite tracks on the whole album, and I can easily see it featuring on a Thievery Corporation, or Portishead album. A great track, and also a great deviation from the album’s norm that adds a lovely bit of variation to the whole thing.
‘Day Unfolding Within’ keeps ‘King Yellowman’s trip-hop ethos, and again, it works to great effect. The song is divided into dawn, day, and dusk, with each section’s theme being reflected in both the lyrics and music. It’s a great concept that Volley pulls off perfectly. The sonic background is also something very interesting to analyse. The whole thing starts off with a beat that, as of yet, I can’t place instrumentally, but which I absolutely love. Synths and beats intermingle and blend in the background. What’s more interesting, is how the accompaniment changes to reflect the song’s sections. The dawn section has the sonic background take a bright, radiant tone, making for a very evocative aural painting. Day holds and evolves the brightness of dawn, including slightly minor strains here and there, perfectly evoking the passage of the day. Finally, dusk comes around, and the whole sound becomes suffused with cooler, more transparent sounds that call to mind the hues of purple and the orange of sunset. All this is held together by the essential, core beat that remains constant, underneath the evolving and modulating sonic canvas. Volley’s voice is superbly suited to this track, holding everything together with a sort of clear, wide-eyed, brittle beauty.
Avant-garde, engaging, and at times dark, this is an album that will leave your brain-gears whirring, and keep you coming back to find yet another riddle hidden either in the music or the lyrics.
For being an awesome journey into trippy, experimental, and quite frankly cool sounds, Inside the Ghost Machine gets five gratuitous kittens.