In The Garden Of Ghostflowers

by Black Happy Day (2006, Silber Records)

Black Happy Day describes their music on In The Garden Of Ghostflowers as “ambient roots music”.  As with all ambient music, Black Happy Day’s amorphous, drifting sound often leaves the listener with very little point of reference.  But unlike the typical ambient approach, which leaves the listener within a somewhat blissful place, Black Happy Day leaves the listener smack dab in the middle of a foreboding, constantly shifting environment.

The duo’s vocals are layered and shifted slightly out of phase with normality thanks to generous portions of reverb and echo.  Adding to the harrowing, dreamlike tone are exotic drones, amorphous metallic tones, and shuddering walls of dripping sound that ooze, reverberate, and shimmer within and throughout the duo’s sculpted vocals.

Such an approach can be intriguing and even enthralling at times, but it can also become tedious.  In The Garden Of Ghostflowers has a very solemn, plodding air about it, which is only enhanced by the often portentous lyrics sung, chanted, and intoned by Vanflower and Renner.

Not surprisingly, In The Garden Of Ghostflowers‘s strongest moments come when the album is at its most roots-y.  Here, the band’s sound warms up slightly and strands of more traditional instrumentation (guitar, banjo, dulcimer, harmonium) drift within hearing range, offering something a little more solid and substantial to lean on.

But Vanflower and Renner certainly don’t adopt a purist approach to the traditional ballads and hymns that appear on the disc.  The same drones and other haunting sonics that permeate more abstract songs such as “Whore” and “How Many Hours ‘Til The Spider’s Work Is Done” are still present on “The Leaves Of Life” and “A Lyke Wake Dirge”.

This approach to traditional, beloved hymns and ballads, an approach that “roots music” fans would probably characterize as “odd” (at best), does bring with it a certain authenticity.  It seems appropriate that an ages-old hymn, or a medieval text calling for repentance, should sound removed from modernity.  Such songs should, in some ways, sound like they’re relics; as if they’re cracked and weathered, missing pieces, barely holding together as the years go on, and coated with the same sort of patina that casts old photographs with a golden haze.

“Edward”‘s Appalachian tale of bloodshed, brothers killing brothers, and guilt becomes especially affecting thanks to the droning guitars and dulcimers, while the gloomy, reverb-laden call and response between Vanflower and Renner makes them sound like the ghosts of two old lovers separated by oceans and guilt (Renner’s stark voice is aptly chilling for a man recounting a tale of murder).

This “odd” approach results in the album’s high point, the eerie rendition of “Be Thou My Vision” that comes at the end.  The song has a warmer, more intimate tone than the rest of the album, thanks to Renner’s rich acoustic guitar and the more subdued dronework. But as the duo winds their way through the beloved hymn, the many echoes of Vanflower’s voice take on a life of their own, drifting upwards to form a strange little spectral choir that continues on after the duo is silent.  It’s a lovely, albeit unsettling piece, these disembodied voices chanting fragments of the hymn on top of eachother, until all of the words blur together and become one sacred sound.

For all of the pretense that often characterizes In The Garden Of Ghostflowers, there is something that Black Happy Day seems to understand almost intuitively at times.  When the duo’s love for antiquated tunes meshes with their ghostly drones, effects, and vocals, the results can be mighty affecting.  The duo’s cold, disconcerting sound is given the warmth and humanity that it may not otherwise contain, and the otherworldly sonics tap into and highlight the mystic weight that old ballads and hymns often possess, but which is often forgotten.