What does it mean to be alive? What happens to us when we depart? What awaits us, lurking beyond the veil? Perhaps something, perhaps nothing, and I don’t know which possibility horrifies me more. These are but some of the questions I began to ponder as I sat listening to this new Ghost Marrow record. I thought about the oft-regurgitated quote from Orson Welles, ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.‘ I sat alone as a mantle of existentialism shrouded over me, becoming acutely aware of my own mortality, and the intrinsic loneliness of this mortal coil.
A tad dramatic perhaps, but I can only speak my truth, and this was the truth of my experience listening to earth + death, a captivating new release from Aurielle Zeitler, and her third under the name of Ghost Marrow. The project, named for the rare bone marrow disease which Zeitler experiences, began life as a series of improvised minimalist synthscapes using the timeless Roland Juno-60, which were then developed with subtle textures and spectral layered vocals, unerring from the delicate beauty of those initial pulses and thrums. What initially struck me about this album was the limited palette used throughout. Zeitler’s vocals are certainly the dominant presence, yet even they are largely subdued, drawing attention to the slightest of variations, the most fragile of fluctuations. Synthetic whirrs and beeps dance slowly, echoing over a gradually expanding abyss, conjuring the image of a lonely satellite drifting steadily through the vast emptiness of space.
The minimalist approach comes as result of Zeitler’s desire to create something from emotional impulses, it ‘was about liberation of my heart, for lack of a better term, and seeing if something musical would arrive without my intellect complicating the process‘. Indeed it’s fair to say the album’s strength lies in its purity, its reluctance to overfill the spectrum with unnecessary bells and whistles. But despite this there are clear distinctions arising from track to track, whilst consistent in tone, there are plenty of melodic curiosities to plunge into. “sung / conflict” opens as one of the album’s eeriest songs, with Zeitler’s vocals a disembodied echo atop a synthetic wail and a crawling bass approaching and receding with an unnerving persistence. Later, on “might of the small”, Zeitler’s vocals call forth allusions to Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons, her claustrophobic falsetto a vulnerable foil to the sweeps of jarring sawtooth waves and distant yet disarming screams.
Throughout my multiple listens I was repeatedly drawn to the album’s daunting cover art, a primal work from fellow Californian Loren Christofferson. The striking use of chiaroscuro conjures an unearthly image that, to my eyes, appears as an amorphous deconstruction of the human form. Like the music it accompanies, there is a somewhat nebulous quality that affords more questions than answers, forcing the audience to focus on the emotions carried by the sparse, drifting harmonies and melodies, rather than be distracted by obstructive excess. All throughout the album I experienced frequent bouts of melancholy, matched in intensity only by the trepidation brought on by anxious layers of dischord. Closing track “microcosm” is perhaps the defining example, a 10-minute journey that gradually builds in intensity from heavenly microscopic whirrs to the overwhelming din you’d expect of a Sunn O))) record, spearheaded by anguished shrieks, especially the track’s most discernible line; ‘no one escapes‘.
I approached this album with a great deal of intrigue, not least because of a single-word prompt from our editor-in-chief, the word ‘phenomenal’. Truly I’d agree with that assessment wholeheartedly, this is an album the likes of which I had never really encountered before, and will likely never hear again such is its distinction. We can use words such as ambient, slowcore, and experimental to vaguely describe the musical values of earth + death, but what really establishes this album as an essential listen of 2023 is its ability to speak directly from one heart to another, to move one to intense sentiment with an assured mastery of harmony and timbre. This album will surely find me again in moments of emotional burden, an enthralling companion for an unquiet mind. I hope that it finds you too.