Indie rock trio Bela & the Ethermen formed in Melbourne, Australia during what they’ve considered to be “the longest lockdown in the world.” Prior to their formation, Damian Pitcon and Steve Mayhew had been active in the music industry for quite some time, but it wasn’t until the global COVID-19 pandemic that they had the idea to create music “through the ether, hence the moniker ‘The Ethermen.’” They enlisted Sam Irving to play drums and cello for them and decided to work on the entirety of their debut album remotely. That album turned out to be the fourteen-track odyssey, Ghosts of the Sea.
Understandably, Ghosts of the Sea was entirely self-produced by Pitcon himself, although he and Mayhew share songwriting credits. It was then mastered by Tan Kim Poh over in Singapore. Whereas Pitcon and Mayhew used Ableton for all of their parts, Irving used Reaper for all of his. Despite the different DAWs used along with the fact that everything was done virtually, each song on the record sounds like it was recorded together at once.
Appropriately enough, the first cut happens to be titled “Her Ghost” (there is another one with “ghost” in it that is named after the album itself, but I’ll get to that song later). This lush, sweeping song about a devastating loss is not unlike Dark Side-era Pink Floyd, and the downbeat music suits the theme of grief and sorrow quite well. The twinkling “Fridge Is Still On” adequately complements “Her Ghost” with its indie-sphere vocal harmonies, soft beats and gentle guitars in addition to being the second longest piece behind the title track. Cool waves of watery electrics envelop “The Bay,” a much more upbeat tune with some lyrical standouts (“And all night long the crashing waves / Break upon the stubborn rocks”).
We get more of an earthy twang on “Dirty House,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on some sort of country or Americana LP, only for the album’s tone to turn towards wistfulness yet again on “First Sun.” The lyrics on this one are sparser, which is great in this case, because it allows the music to speak for itself, and indeed, it does exactly that. Bleeding in from “First Sun” is “Colours in the Sky.” Unlike most of these cuts, “Colours in the Sky” rides a post-punk type drum pattern, interestingly enough. However, this is a welcome change in rhythm as well as tempo. It also features both acoustics and electrics along with more gorgeous vocal harmonies.
“Follow Me” is interesting as well. The guitar licks on this one bend and glide like none other I’ve heard from Ghosts of the Sea so far, with mournful stretches of piano only adding to this track’s allure. “Cat Alleyways” hearkens back to ‘70s soft rock, albeit under a very brief runtime, making way for the intensely poetic title track. “Ghosts of the Sea” quite possibly represents everything that makes this album so enduring: elegant words like “My darling one / Now we are just ghosts of the sea” and evocative atmospheres reminiscent of dark skies. It is yet another song to have that sweeping style of instrumentation made complete with its lunar electric guitar flourishes.
“Eyes” offers a more skeletal take on soft indie rock, even if it isn’t as hook-laden as “Colours in the Sky” or “Ghosts of the Sea.” Stripping themselves down to their barest bones was likely a smart idea. “Lonesome Moon” reads like a poem on paper, being three stanzas long and all, but in practice, I get why this was chosen as one of their singles, as it is just as rich and majestic as other Bela & the Ethermen tracks. “Patterns” again purposefully keeps the tempo slow and satisfying. It is also attached to a beautiful swoon of a chorus.
Along comes the pair of tracks closing the record. Bela have never sounded more overtly pop than with “Song of the Birds.” This one along with closer “Stranger’s Trail,” is a lovely resolution to an album about despair. The “ticking clock” snare edges of “Stranger’s Trail” are smoothly produced and mixed, and overall, while not having much of a catchy melody, it still makes Ghosts of the Sea sound complete, nonetheless.
Normally with an album that’s fourteen tracks long, I would just pick and choose which songs I wanted to highlight. That is shockingly not the case with Bela & the Ethermen’s debut effort. Ghosts of the Sea features so many different musical flavors that I have to commend the band for being able to make their remote sessions sound this organic as well as cohesive. All in all, this is a stellar debut. Strongly recommended!
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