Ghostland Observatory – Robotique Majestique

Without having heard of the group, I saw a DVD of Live From Austin, Tx. featuringĀ  a duo called Ghostland Observatory. I was naturally curious, and read the back of the box, and one of the things the box made sure to mention was that the band is from Austin, and that they recorded their albums in Austin, and this made me suspicious. I know Austin’s reputation for being awfully proud of itself, so I had no choice but to cast a gloomy shadow of doubt and pre-judgment on this flamboyant-looking duo. I mean, come on, it’s a guy singing dressed like a disco indian, and another guy standing in front of a stack of synthesizers wearing a cape.

It should come as no small surprise that I love these guys.

It's like a robot making love to a tree!! is how the band describes their own sound. Robotique Majestique is the band’s 3rd “studio” album, created only 3 years after their first album (I can’t help but dig prolific artists, being a Radiohead fan, I keep getting fooled into thinking that it should take 4 years to create an album of 12 songs). It was loaned to me by a Starbucks employee with which I was engaged in a discussion of music (before this blog I didn’t have any other outlet by which to talk about music in 1000+ words a day). I since purchased the album and sought out the other two, but decided to write up this one since it’s the first one I heard.

The sound doesn’t deviate far from the band’s established sound, and really, it shouldn’t, since the albums have all come in such quick succession. It’s described on Wikipedia as being “difficult to classify” (great job, encyclopedia of the internet), so I’ll try to do that here. The “instrumentation” (provided by Thomas Ross Turner) is a combination of reverb-laden heavy drum beats (or, occasionally, reverb-laden real drums) that bring to mind 80’s electronic music with the bass turned up, and really warm-toned synthesized loops that bleep and bloop along to the band’s simplistic chord progressions. Against all this is the occasional bought of random noise or the lead singer (Aaron Behrens) playing power chords on a guitar. The singer tends to sing really high, far above what seems comfortable for him (I say this because I have yet to see a live performance where he can recreate the high notes on the song “Heavy Heart”), and it’s in a style not atypical of electronic bands, a mix of soul and not being able to sing along to any discernable melody. If one were to classify all this, I’d say “Electronic disco in minor keys”, or just “Electronic”. There, easy stuff, Wikipedia!

Now onto this album, it starts with an instrumental called “Opening Credits” which is kind of like the synthesizer version of a sci-fi movie soundtrack (either a really cheesy one or a cartoon). It’s a fairly fun track, but doesn’t stick around too long, which is good because this is not a progressive rock album.

The first “real” song on the album is also my favorite, which makes things rather convenient. It’s called “Heavy Heart”, and as you may could tell from my comment above, has a vocal melody full of high notes. What are the lyrics? Who knows, there’s no real effort expended in making them understood, but they seem fairly motivational. The bassy synths are particularly pleasing in this song, as I tend to not go so much for higher-pitched electronic music. The melody is also catchy, bordering on addicting, and really what more can you ask for in a song?

The next song, “No Place For Me”, starts off with more bassy synth that is joined by a very 80’s-tastic plodding beat, the kind used by AC/DC in at least 1200 of their albums. This song also introduces some noisy things that I promise you came from some kind of keyboard device, and some vocal pelvic-thrusting “HUH”s, which are entertaining. The fake ending is pretty great too, so again no complaints.

The next song, “Freeheart Lover” almost replicates exactly the ploddy beat from the previous song, but is saved by the multitude of overlayed “fills” which keeps the thing interesting. The melody in the high-pitched synthesizers reminds me a great deal of the intro to Ninja Gaiden II on the NES (not the X-Box 360 you damned heathen), and for that reason, I can’t help but love this song.

“Dancing On My Grave” actually starts with vocals instead of the beat, which is like the planets aligning. Really, the title kind of says it all about this band, it’s like dance music but with the dour minor chords of death! I guess it’s dance music for dead people. Either way, the “dance” meter is turned up for this track, so there is more emphasis on the beat and less on the oppressive sludgy synths that have taken over the mixes in previous songs. A breath of fresh air!

Then we have the album’s title track, which keeps up the same beat with different things in it, and by this time I should think the average listener might start to get a little tired, possibly sleepy, maybe unable to control large vehicles, but above average listeners will still be dancing at this point. The sludgy synth makes a return to this song, and with the reverb turned up, so that there is no escape.

We then move on to “The Band Marches On”, which is a lot of fun on bass-heavy headphones, as it features that crazy random low-frequency bass behind the beat that is so popular in car audio stores. The drums sound like they’re probably real on this track, but it’s hard to tell through all the reverb. It’s not until about a minute and a half that the “real” melody comes in, so it’s like having to fight Dr. Wily again.

The next song is another favorite of mine, “Holy Ghost White Noise”, which is actually anything but “white noise”. The thing I love about this song is the beat, it’s not just a 1-2 punch like the rest of the album, it’s got a slight bit of swing to it, but not so much, after all, you wouldn’t want to derail the synthesizers. I should point out at this point that I really dig Aaron Behren’s voice, and it’s really one of the things that won me over to this band so quickly, so the fact that I picked an instrumental as “a favorite” doesn’t mean any detraction from the songs with vocals.

Another song I consider a late-album success is “HFM”, where the speed is actually turned way up and more of a punk element is brought in. The vocals are distorted and really who cares what the guy is saying, it’s a track I can’t help but enjoy, and if you don’t enjoy it, at least be thankful it’s one of the shorter tracks on the album. There is a lot of low frequency and high-frequency playing around in the mix, as well, so really this is a joy to listen to.

Finally, the vending and opening of a canned soda introduces another 1-2 beat against which the last song plays. It’s called “Club Soda”, and I guess it’s meant to be a dance club hit, thus the imagination and variety of sounds is hugely compromised to keep that beat going. Still, it’s hard to keep a good band down, and about a minute and a half in, the guys switch the beat around and introduce layers of sound that keep the song interesting. This song is the 3rd of the instrumentals, and really it would probably had been better titled “Ending Credits” because that is a bit more what it sounds like.

Robotique Majestique is really a good album, so if you’re in the mood for good electronic music, I say you can do way worse. Just ignore the fact that they’re from Austin and that Austin is very proud of them; that stuff gets irritating quick.


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