The Residents have been confounding ideas about music and rock groups for decades now, their anonymity matched only by their adventurousness – this was, after all, one of the first bands to play with CD ROM ideas in such impressive releases as The Gingerbread Man and Bad Day on the Midway. They’ve also used the idea of the concept album to its full – not content to stay within the confines of the three minute single (and when you have a whole album to play with, why on Earth would anyone?), they have stretched the idea of rock music to its very limits.
Their latest album, The Ghost of Hope, shows that they are a long way from resting on their laurels or moving into the mainstream, even as they inevitably shift from being obscure and difficult to national treasures of rock (a process that invariably happens to avant garde acts, even if they never change their sound). Inspired by train travel – or more accurately, train crashes – the album is the work of a band that has aged… well, not exactly gracefully, but admirably. Beautifully packaged with a booklet that details the stories behind the crashes behind the songs, this is startling, potent stuff.
Each track is a collage of sounds – carefully constructed effects that run from the natural to the mechanical, and which build an atmosphere of rail adventure and disaster, with the music seamlessly blended in to create a soundscape that is rather remarkable. The songs themselves have an insistence that is might not seem typical of The Residents, but seems appropriate here. Opener Horrors of the Night, for instance, has a pulsating electronic feel, while the vocals tell the story of horror, death and destruction in a relentless way, before they give way to mechanised chaos, and then winds down to allow the memories of survivor Mrs McCurdy.
This is followed by warped Americana tune The Crash at Crush, while Death Harvest moves from ambient noises and minimalist music to become ever more threatening and moody, until it suddenly rocks out at just past the four minute mark, thundering and hammering with the insistence of a train thundering down the rails. Shroud of Flames, on the other hand, collides a funk feel with a more ‘traditional’ Residents feel, bringing an unsettling intensity to the track.
The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918 has an industrial, crunching sound that mixes with a country ballad and continual sound effects – train noises and the sideshow sounds that have long fascinated the band, while Train vs Elephant is what under other circumstances we might call an ‘instrumental’ – such a bland description hardly seems suitable here though. This is a collision of sound, rhythmic and experimental that leads into closing number Killed at a Crossing, a gargantuan slice of brooding menace.
In the end, you can’t really review The Residents in the way you review a normal band. They are playful, sarcastic, sinister and experimental in ways that make their music something that has to be experienced rather than discussed. Suffice to say that The Ghost of Hope is another impressive entry into their unique discography, and one that is very much worthy of your attention.