When going to see a band live for the first time, it’s easy to let your expectations get the best of you. A band you’ve listened to, especially one whose reputation precedes them, can carry enough baggage to a point where anything less threatens to diminish the experience. So it nearly was for me when I went to see Ghost Bath at the Soda Bar in San Diego.
Ghost Bath has certainly built a name for themselves over the last few years. And although not as zany as other costumed bands by a long shot, I was already guilty of having some preconceived notions to what they’d be like live. Their social media bio sections claim that “Ghost Bath writes and creates music under the assumption that music is an extension of one’s own soul.” That kind of statement, however earnest it may be, created an air of pretentiousness to them that I couldn’t shake.
Don’t get me wrong — I wanted to be on their side. And since they happened to be coming through town, I didn’t want to miss a chance to add ammo to my belt for anyone who wanted to slam them. I just had to see for myself.
Gettin’ Fizzy Wit’ It at the Soda Bar
On El Cajon Boulevard, a few blocks just off the 805 freeway, lies the Soda Bar. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss it the first time — it blends in with the shabby row of closed-down businesses festering along that street. The inside feels even more homely — simply squeeze through the entrance, and you’re immediately flanked by booths on your left and a modest bar on your right. The room wraps around, the stage nestled into a tight back corner, before leading into a darkened corner of the bar, where the only dim light comes from the hazy glow of old game cabinets for “Street Fighter II” and “NFL Blitz.” Believe me, it took considerable effort not to blow my modest merch funds slipping quarters into the arcade all night.
The Soda Bar’s tiny stature reminded me of my old gigging days at other endearing SoCal holes like The Jumping Turtle (RIP) or the Royal Dive. Amplifiers and cabinets stood onstage in rows or stacked on top of each other — the telltale sign of too much gear in too small a venue. Even the word “venue” is generous — hell, the Astronoid merch booth occupied a literal booth. Without a clear central area (the bar effectively divided the place in half), the crowd stood dispersed, not gathering in any one area until the first band began to show signs of playing. The night was about to begin.
Punk with a Groovy Twist
Kicking the night off was Ash Williams (San Diego), who describe themselves as punk with a pinch of black metal. I describe them as the thing that drew the crowd from their dark crevices toward the front of the stage. All joking aside, that’s a genre-fusion I’m all about these days, and I was eager to hear the locals’ take on it. I was expecting to like them quite a bit — and I did, but not exactly for the reasons I anticipated.
Their playing was damned solid — I could feel the power behind the kick as the drummer propelled his bandmates forward with rapid d-beats while the guitarists whirred away with raucous rhythms. The bassist/vocalist manhandled his instrument with impressive tapping passages, while also tapping into both genre’s various vocal stylings of rabid barks and the occasional blackened screech.
I’d done some research on their March full-length “Pulsar,” which had some quality tunes — however, the songs I wasn’t familiar with were the most memorable. I was expecting them to sound like Ancst or Wolf King — or even Cult Cinema, my latest obsession — but I’d failed to identify much of their touted black metal influence on “Pulsar.” But I enjoyed more than a few frostbitten melodies that night, including one standout track that sounded like a Danzig-fronted Darkthrone song.
Ash Williams ended their set with an unexpected yet impressive display of theatrics that had the bassist hopping off the stage and onto the floor. Overall, I was impressed by their energy, as well as the drummer’s half-measure hammer blast. I ended up nabbing a shirt from them — they ended up gaining a fan.
Far-Out Fun or Crash ‘n’ Burn?
I’d found Astronoid (Boston, MA) by way of a top 10 list of 2016 in which the author audaciously picked their 2016 full-length “Air” over Devin Townsend Project’s “Transcendence.” Although nowhere near as artistic in my opinion (“Transcendence” was my AOTY for 2016), I thought “Air” was a worthy attempt at conjoining two seemingly disparate sounds — the dreamy prog production and riffs reminiscent of Hevy Devy himself with high, boyish vocals ripped right from Dashboard Confessional. Like I said — novel at the very least, and I was curious to see how it all came together live.
The crowd had moved closer to the stage, invited by Astronoid’s gentle insistence, and were now just a few feet from the band’s drummer, bassist, and three guitarists. The band was cloaked in darkness — they’d requested the house stage lights turned off — occasionally silhouetted by two rotating floor lights, which cast colorful circles and whimsical star patterns upon the ceiling of the Soda Bar, circling like searchlights in a cloudy sky. Stale, machine-generated fog billowed up from the floor, filling the venue with hazy atmosphere (and even set off the smoke alarm once or twice), which complemented the active lighting nicely. Again — novel ideas, and ones I’m sure they’ll only evolve with time as they play bigger venues. They’d clearly given their live show a lot of thought — and money, as the stacks of Orange crates and expensive guitars attested.
“Let’s have some fun!” vocalist/guitarist Brett Boland declared, and the melodious, airy tones of Incandescent, the opening track off “Air,” began flowing from the house speakers. Right guitarist headbanged with jubilant glee, while left stood locked in a perma-power stance. Drummer was effortless, his translucent kit a familiar playing field. Boland sang in astonishingly perfect unison with pre-recorded harmonies, his voice never cracking or out of key to my humble ears. But for all his talent, I can’t deny how much I selfishly wanted those vocal harmonies to be organic.
Unfortunately, I had a hard time discerning their intricate guitarwork. I’m no soundsmith — I can only guess as to why that was. Perhaps the Soda Bar’s sound system was simply stretched to its capacity, unable to handle Astronoid’s attempts to shoot for stars with three guitars and such robust backing tracks. Either way, the live sound was lacking in a way that didn’t do the purity of “Air” justice — the high-school heartache of songs like Homesick and Up and Atom didn’t pull quite as hard. All in all, I came away from Astronoid impressed more with their well thought-out performance than their overall sound.
Where Death is Most Alive
I’ll be frank: I’m not the biggest fan of Ghost Bath. I’m far from a hater (of which the band has plenty), even after I learned they were from normie North Dakota rather than exotic China. I’d listened to “Moonlover” plenty of times in 2015, but I hadn’t ever been over the moon with it. And with my reaction to the singles off the just-released “Starmourner” varying from listenable to boring, I concluded that overall their music just doesn’t do enough to hold my attention. Seeing them live would be a way to redeem them — that’s usually the best way to experience a band, right? Besides, I’d seen the goofy costumes — I was sure there’d be plenty to see during a Ghost Bath show.
Set up was a succinct affair — I’ve never seen a band get their gear ready with as little pomp and circumstance. Clad in simple black band shirts and sweaters (I appreciated one guitarist’s Carnifex tee), the band went through the routine of plugging in their instruments and testing levels with easy, even disinterested enthusiasm.
Ghost Bath seamlessly transitioned from set-up into set with the saccharine melody of Seraphic, becoming a bit more animated yet holding their collective focus on performing their music. I had wondered when they’d retreat to put on their trademark cloaks (maybe they were in the wash that night) — instead, they played with succinct indifference, rattling off one song after the other without a single word of banter. And although the crowd had noticeably diminished after Astronoid (a fact that still baffles me), they were into it.
Their set went on, cruising through Ambrosial and Happyhouse. The guitarists’ plaintive leads cut through a rumbling, bassy bulwark, pushed forward by relentless blast beats. Seriously, the drummer was on fire that night — I’d seen him warming up before Ash Williams went on, so it was no surprise he could endure Ghost Bath’s longer, drawn-out passages. The vocalist — inarguably the band’s lightning rod for his repetitive, indiscernible wailing — belted out scream after scream. Say what you will about his vocal style du jour, but his delivery and pained expression seemed authentic. If this was their first attempt at theatrics of the night, Ghost Bath was doing it well.
Over time, I became acutely aware of how hard they leaned into shoegaze territory. I’d always, perhaps foolishly, considered them as more distinctly black metal than other similar acts like the obvious Deafheaven, due in large part to their imagery and the way they’ve mysteriously promoted themselves — but it wasn’t until I saw them live, their eyes pointed toward the floor in all-too-obvious shoegaze fashion, that I understood. They weren’t here to engage with the crowd or give us a spectacle — they were here to play music, dammit.
I thought Ghost Bath pulled off the three-guitar sound a bit better than Astronoid, but not by much. Stage right guitar was a dominating force, while stage left seemed to struggle to cut through. Again, I have to wonder how much of that could be blamed on the Soda Bar or even where I was standing (tellingly close to a speaker) — but until I investigate other Soda Bar shows, I’m forever going to denounce the triple guitar sound.
Golden Number closed out the set, and I found it hard to imagine anyone in the room not being grabbed at that point. Where other Ghost Bath songs drag, Golden Number has always commanded my attention. As the reflective piano outro washed over the audience, the members of Ghost Bath left the stage one by one, exiting the venue out the back door. When the last notes subsided, we were left with nothing but a dubious silence. A couple jocular calls of “one more song!” were blurted out, but I left before finding out whether they’d come back or not. Sometimes you have to create your own sense of mystery, you know?
Giving It Up for the Ghost
People create a lot of assumptions based on what they know about a band. You can go into a live music setting with certain expectations, and that can be a bummer when they aren’t met. None of the three bands I saw were quite what I was expecting, but I ended up coming away much more positively from it because I chose to ignore what was in my mind and instead chose to see what was actually in front of my damned eyes.
Ash Williams didn’t nearly deliver on the expectations I’d had for a band with a bit more blackened side. But it’s silly to judge a band based on what they aren’t, and once I got over that I could freely enjoy the energy they brought to the show.
With their Jupiter-sized sound, I was excited to see Astronoid perform live. When that fell victim to mostly muddy guitars and the vocal disenchantment, I could have felt utterly disappointed. But I chose to enjoy what they did well, which was a DIY approach at creating their own unique atmosphere, and at that they effortlessly succeeded. Plenty of bands play to backing vocal tracks (even Devin Townsend has recorded help with his harmonies), and it was naive of me to think Astronoid would do things differently just because their vocals set them apart from so many other metal bands.
Ghost Bath weren’t pretentious, as I’d expected them to be — they just didn’t seem to care much about anything beyond playing their music. One fan got a fist bump from the guitarist — the hard-won worthiness for knowing all their songs well, so they certainly didn’t come across as phony. Bands can categorize themselves however the hell they want, and we can agree or disagree with their self-assessment. At the end of the day, all we have to go off is the music itself.
It’s so easy to overlook artistic vision when you get balls-deep into music journalism. You get wrapped up in the review process, comparing this sound to that band, calling songs “bad” and parts “ineffective.” And, true, bands can have ulterior motives beyond just gettin’ together and jammin’ (I’m lookin’ at you, BabyMetal). But live, all we have is ourselves, the band onstage, and the vibrations clanging the air molecules together. It didn’t matter that Ghost Bath had once claimed they were from China, or built a reputation for a live show — their lack of costumes showed me they didn’t need to rely on theatrics to play a compelling show. If anything, this show reminded me to accept and respect a band’s musical choices and take them as is.
I still don’t think I’d recommend Ghost Bath to everyone, but if they ever come back to the West Coast, I’ll be sure to tell folks to at least dip their toes in. The water’s just fine.