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The Residents The Residents
Album: The Ghost Of Hope
Label: Cherry Red
Tracks: 7

Many will recall The Residents as a gang of wilfully anonymous eyeball-headed San Francisco musicians whose avant-garde/art-rock pretensions extended from lo-fi, retro and surrealist deconstruction of musical history and expectation to unfashionably full-blown ambitious concept albums. Fabulous if enigmatic mid-to-late-70s albums Meet The Residents, Third Reich And Roll, Fingerprince, Not Available and Eskimo provided ample "are these guys for real?!" fodder for all manner of debate amongst cognoscenti of the stranger side of independent music-making, and have frequently been revisited for further insights. After which, however, the band produced a large number of storytelling projects over the past couple of decades, which for one reason or other mostly fell outside of my radar, so I admit to experiencing more than a casual curiosity when the advance press release arrived for The Ghost Of Hope.

We learn that this is the first album of new material from the collective since Mush-Room (2013), and that it's the culmination of years of research into the delicious topic of late 19th/early 20th century train crashes, which were an alarmingly frequent occurrence in the early years of the US rail system. The Residents' modus operandi here is to create an audio montage that is styled on the reportage rather than providing a musically literal or programmatic account or even a largely musical equivalent of the event/s per se. There are times when the music (such as there is) feels at best not even incidental - and this can make for uncomfortable listening indeed. Opening track Horrors Of The Night, which documents the crash of 2nd July 1883 on the Pittsburgh & Rochester railroad, has very limited musical content, mostly based around a numbing, repeated "cars are rolling backwards" mantra, is swamped with vérité sound effects and contains a spoken account of a mother's search for her son after the crash which is nothing short of harrowing. The remaining tracks feel altogether better integrated in terms of music and storytelling, and the sheer power and conviction of the delivery - and state-of-the-art recording - often prove quite overwhelming, but in the right way. The sepulchrally authentic vocal on Great Circus Train Wreck Of 1918 possesses a kind of Handsome Family feel, while the frenetic momentum of the train is replicated through the thrashing proto-punk of Death Harvest. In contrast, Train Vs. Elephant is a nigh wordless sound collage built around a simple chord progression and the sounds of nature.

At its best, The Ghost Of Hope contains some thoroughly stimulating musical adventures which really bring home in powerful music and lyrics and gloriously surround-sound the essence of the disastrous events depicted. Most memorable perhaps is the final narrative, Killed At A Crossing, which chronicles the first automotive railroad crossing fatalities in Northern Pennsylvania (in 1915). The disc's accompanying documentation is first-rate too, tangibly real, complete with full lyrics, background notes and stuff encased in a sturdy hardcover-book format. The artwork (typically) includes a wonderful vision of a train with an eyeball-face on the point of crashing into a vintage car which in turn is about to crash into a gentleman stooping to pick something up from the roadway (no cosy Rev. Awdry anthropomorphism here!).

Sure, The Ghost Of Hope will inevitably not be to everyone's taste, and some folks might consider it less than entertaining - and not just because of its determinedly macabre subject matter. And yes, these guys are for all too real by the sound of this project. Frighteningly so at times, in fact. The Ghost Of Hope is an impressively oddball, yet uncommonly enthralling album, nay work of art, which refuses to be taken on anything but its own uncompromising terms.

David Kidman