Some things in life can’t be explained. The Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert; the extinction of the dinosaurs; Piers Morgan – all these things lead to shrugs, ‘what ifs’ and confusion. But what about concepts that can’t even be conveyed through speech? Ideas so large, so multilayered that words would do them a disservice? Feelings of tragedy, the idea of Heaven… these notions aren’t easily translated into English, so why not use a more powerful form of expression?
Enter Iowan post-black metallers Ghost Bath. Instead of using lyrics, they rely on the power of vocal cords. Just as swearing can be a cathartic reaction to pain, unleashing primal screams from deep down in your being will channel real, human emotion into your art. Whether these are noises of joy or anguish, there’s no under- estimating the effects of a guttural release.
Growing up, frontman Dennis Mikula (aka Nameless) was inspired by Icelandic post-rock pioneers Sigur Rós, who invent their own language to fit the music. He’s now been writing music for 15 years, and telling a story without words has become second nature.
“Lyrics can add to the music, but a lot of times they can really take away from what an artist wants to achieve,” Dennis says down the phone from his home in Iowa, sounding surprisingly alert considering he’s just woken up. “It takes away some of the abstractness, instead of letting the listener interpret it however they want.
“Sometimes I do find myself saying actual words,” he admits. “Playing live or in the studio I’ll start screaming and a certain line will come out. It’s never anything random that has nothing to do with it, but it happens. People have guessed at what I’m saying in certain parts and I don’t think anyone has been able to tell.”
Writing with just a demo version of software FruityLoops, so he has to compose an entire song in one session, Dennis goes with his gut when it comes to the tone and length of his shrieks and wails. Painting the air with images of horror and depression, the sonics of abject terror and melancholy come naturally to him.
“I basically play it as loud as I can and scream to it,” the frontman says bluntly, revealing that he reflects on painful events of his past to harness the sound of suffering. “I like the fact that only I know what those moments are, and I purposefully leave it very abstract.”
At Ghost Bath’s UK debut on Bloodstock’s main stage last year, the crowd responded to Dennis’s cries of pain with their own high-pitched howls, although some were taking the music more seriously than others. Dennis is just pleased that his approach is eliciting a response.
“I’ve always thought that any reaction is better than no reaction at all, and I don’t think that any reaction to our music is wrong,” he considers. “When people tell me they’re literally laughing out loud at my song but other people are in tears to the same song, it’s really cool. I love it.”
Dennis is so emotionally entrenched in his music that he finds it difficult to create on demand, and instead waits for inspiration to come, which usually manifests as dark thoughts. It’s clear from the songs that bleak forces are at play.
“If I try to write at any time that I want, I can tell when it’s forced, so I have to wait,” he confesses. “But I find myself sitting at my computer late at night writing a song when I’m in the right mindset. I don’t know if I’m bipolar or what, but I’ll be sitting there thinking, ‘I’m depressed right now’, so I go and write.”
Depression forms a large part of the music Dennis creates, influenced initially by the likes of Agalloch alongside DSBM innovators Silencer. Ghost Bath’s upcoming album Starmourner is seen through the eyes of a “depressed angel”.
“Saying I’m going to make a depressing album is a very boring thing. I take the concept of depression and then I interpret it through different concepts,” he explains.
The record conjures images of celestial bodies, the cosmos, Heaven and euphoria to create something radically different to previous album Moonlover. It is the second album in a trilogy, which is loosely based on Dante’s Divine Comedy; Moonlover is Purgatorio, Starmourner is Paradiso, and the third record will be Inferno. He also drew on the work of abstract painter Mark Rothko, who once said he was only interested in expressing the basic human emotions of tragedy, ecstasy and doom, and each album corresponds with one of those emotions. Starmourner is the ecstatic side – yet Dennis doesn’t enjoy playing uplifting music, and reveals it actually lowers his mood.
“Anything that sounds happy is a little more depressing,” he says. “The happiness and the hopeful sound of the music is happening around me, but that makes me as the vocalist even more depressed because everyone else is happy.”
Drawing on his Christian upbringing (although no longer a believer), Dennis uses his knowledge of Jewish angelology and the Bible to tell epic stories about our beatific protectors, with each song on the album named after a different type of angel.
“I was always told that we’re more privileged than angels, because we have free will and angels are forced to worship, so with each story idea and each song concept I gave the angels free will or the ability to choose something, and then the repercussions of that,” he says. “How the angels supposedly looked in the Bible are crazy, like monsters or something, and I find it really interesting. Whenever I listen to music, I vividly picture things.”
Dennis has mild synesthesia, and the visual side of music is paramount to what Ghost Bath do. “I can hear a song or riff, and I get this vivid picture of some very random things that people might not normally associate with it,” he explains. “I could hear something and then I’m on a planet walking through the streets of some alien city.”
But when listening to Starmourner, he experiences a much more divine vision. “A lot of it is gatherings of angels, and a lot of it is in space; my imagining of Heaven in this album is literally above us, so in the universe and in the stars,” he says.
Dennis explains these thoughts further in the parables that are connected to each of the 12 songs on Starmourner. Posted on the band’s Facebook page, these poetic tales of angels’ suffering are accompanied by original illustrations from a variety of artists, depicting skeletal angels, dark spirits and abstract ideas of paradise, adding more depth and colour to a band already dripping in originality and fantasy.
With the final ‘Inferno’ instalment of Ghost Bath’s trilogy already mapped out, Dennis reveals he’s already plotting the band’s direction after that; he has mysterious ideas for ambitious live shows using his passion for art, and is planning to relocate to Japan to immerse himself in a culture he fell in love with years ago. This chapter is really just the beginning. The alpha. The genesis.
Starmourner is out on April 7 via Nuclear Blast. They tour the UK with Katatonia in May