1. Stations of the Ghost (2:22)
2. Dark Horizons (7:32)
3. The Last Hurrah (9:20)
4. Child of the Harvest (14:26)
5. The Halloween Tree (3:39)
6. Night of the Scarecrow (13:30)
7. Lola Daydream (6:45)
Fred Laird – guitars, vocals, keyboards
Jon Blacow – drums, percussion
Luis Antonio Gutarra – bass
Joe Orban – keyboards (2, 4)
Ellie Willard – backing vocals (2, 4)
Ian Wright – saxophone (4)
Formed in 2004 by guitarist Fred Laird (also behind the project Moon of Ostara, whose debut album was released in May 2012), Earthling Society hail from Lancashire, in north-western England, and the rich body of history and folklore of this region has offered plenty of intriguing subject matter for the band’s 6 albums (released in almost as many years of activity, with Laird and drummer Jon Blacow the only constant members).
Stations of the Ghost, Earthling Society’s sixth studio album, is a concept of sorts, inspired by the writings of Welsh author and mystic Arthur Machen (whose novella The Great God Pan was highly praised by HP Lovecraft), and dealing with the band’s favourite topics of paganism and the occult. Clocking in at a well-balanced 57 minutes, the album features 7 tracks of varying length, from the 2 minutes of the evocative title-track (strategically located at the opening of the album) to the 13-14 minutes of “Child of the Harvest” and “Night of the Scarecrow”.
Unlike jam-oriented bands such as Öresund Space Collective, Earthling Society write compositions that are obviously structured, though not in the painstakingly detailed way of the average prog band. Even when the running time exceeds 10 minutes, none of the tracks come across as sprawling or unscripted, and their occasionally regular, hypnotic texture is nicely offset by subtle but unmistakable changes in tempo and mood. Fred Laird’s vocals, which appear on the three longest tracks, are pushed into the background rather than to the forefront, with an almost opaque effect that renders the lyrics nearly unintelligible, increasing the music’s mysterious allure; while the combination of eerily beautiful chanting, buzzy sound effects, tolling bells and recorded voices, creates an intensely cinematic atmosphere.
As is the case with the majority of psychedelic/space rock bands, the influence of early Pink Floyd is never too far, and the first half of the 9-minute “The Last Hurrah” may bring to mind Syd Barrett’s unique contribution to the legendary English outfit, with gentle acoustic guitar and tambourine overlaid by echoing electric guitar, and Fred Laird’s oddly filtered vocals conjuring a hauntingly mellow late Sixties mood; while the second half of the song gets a robust injection of energy from the whistling synth and electric guitar before reverting to the initial theme. Keyboards are used more as an accent, for textural purposes, than as the main event as in symphonic prog. Rather than shine in solo spots, they provide eerie, haunting washes of sound that bolster Laird’s guitar exertions, or the usual array of weird sound effects that are part and parcel of the psyche/space rock subgenre. However, in “Dark Horizons” the keyboards play more of a starring role, with Laird’s contribution supplemented by Joe Orban, and electric piano and Hammond organ adding their distinctive voices in contrast with the rawer, riffy guitar sound.
The two “epics”, while similar in terms of running time, are quite different in conception and structure. While “Child of the Harvest”, with its many twists and turns, riveting quiet-loud dynamics and wistful saxophone (courtesy of guest Ian Wright) tempering the harshness of the distorted guitar, is the most likely to appeal to traditional prog fans, the decidedly heavy “Night of the Scarecrow” veers into stoner rock territory, propelled by Laird’s unleashed guitar work peppered by chanting and howling; the final section of the song, with its sitar-like steel guitar and Eastern-tinged mood, made me think of Amon Düül II. The steady, hypnotic surge of the highly cinematic instrumental “The Halloween Tree” is also pure Krautrock, while album closer “Lola Daydream”, driven by ever-changing guitar over a slow, measured rhythm, reprises the vintage Pink Floyd vibe of the opener.
Rooted in the Seventies, yet with enough of a modern attitude to avoid overt nostalgia, Stations of the Ghost has a potentially broad appeal, Even though built on atmosphere rather than technical skill, and therefore lacking in the pyrotechnic displays that many progressive rock fans appreciate, it nonetheless manages to balance rawness and delicacy in quite a remarkable way. The beautiful, haunting cover – suggestive of pagan rituals at summer solstice – provides a fitting complement to a very intriguing album.