Normally when we think of pop groups the configuration that usually comes to mind is anywhere between three and five people playing on a variation of drums, keyboards, guitar, and bass with either a separate vocalist or one of the instrument players taking that duty as well. There have been exceptions to that with bands that had extended line-ups such as Lighthouse, Chicago, and Blood, Sweat, & Tears.
In the past it was very rare to find pop groups fewer than three members, aside from folk duos. With the advent of technology that allows for the pre-recording of a variety of instrumental tracks, the potential now exists for even one person to climb on stage and create enough sound that he or she could do a performance. Still, there are very few pop groups that have taken this approach. (One that springs to mind readily was Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, a mid 80s electro-pop duo)
So I when I heard that the band Ghostland Observatory was made up of two people I was intrigued enough to check out their DVD release on New West Records, Ghostland Observatory – Live From Austin Tx., part of a series taken from concerts given on the television show Austin City Limits
If you're at all familiar with the show Austin City Limits you'll know that saying their usual offerings are country influenced, is like saying Johnny Cash had a fondness for black clothing. While they may have had Stevie Ray Vaughn and even ZZ Top on the show in the past, Merle Haggard, and Willy Nelson are more what the average Austin City demographic would be expecting when they tuned in.
I wonder if they put disclaimers in their advertising for the show on which Ghostland Observatory appeared. Something along the lines of not being responsible for any heart failure or strokes that the evening's content may cause. The first clue that someone tuning in that night would have that something might not be quite right is when singer/guitar player Aaron Behrens was followed onto stage by the silver cape wearing, drummer/keyboardist/producer Thomas Turner. Perhaps it would be they would notice a distressing lack of Stetson's in the studio audience and how young everybody looked.
If they acted fast enough they could have still turned off their televisions at that point and escaped relatively unscathed. If not they would soon realize that this was not going to be your typical night on Austin City Limits. It's difficult to describe what Ghostland Observatory does, but they definitely have nothing in common with the Country, Country Rock, or even the Southern Rock or Texas Blues that have been broadcast in the past.
Try to imagine a tall guy wearing a long silver cape with a high collar bending over a keyboard and half hidden behind stacks of processors and effects boxes. Stroking a key here, twisting a knob there, he first generates the throbbing pulse so familiar to dance hall habitués. Then, with an adjustment and a tweak it veers more towards punk/funk. Finally, he's hunched over the keyboards churning out the melody for the first song.
While Thomas is setting the controls and preparing for launch, Aaron is beginning to stalk the stage. As the music defines itself his movements begin to synchronize with the beat from the speakers until he is in full flow. With a fluidity that is reminiscent of martial arts and jazz dance, he builds his movements to match the increase in the density of the music. By the time Thomas has seated himself at the keyboard, Aaron is in full flight and ready to sing.
Although the music doesn't lend itself to any particular style of singing, it was still something of a shock to hear him sing in up in the high range near falsetto that is the home to hard rockers a la Axel Rose, the former Guns 'n Roses front man. Perhaps it's only because he is dark complexioned and wears his hair in braids, Aaron's singing reminds one less of hard rockers and more of the sound that Native men achieve when they are singing around big drums at pow-wows.
That impression is compounded by the fact that a great deal of his movement and dance are reminiscent of the Fancy Dancers who dance to the beat of the same drum. There's the same sense of him being one step away from losing complete control of himself while dancing that you get from those flamboyant males who strut and parade in seeming abandonment, yet who never once missing a step or going off beat from the sound of the drum.
Musically Ghostland Observatory is a strange mix of hard rock and electro-beats that is not going to be to everyone's taste. There's no denying Aaron Behrens charisma as a front man and performer or his skill as a vocalist. Thomas Turner is far less flamboyant, aside from what is apparently his signature cape he makes no effort to perform but is no less skilled than his musical partner. It appears that none of the music he creates during their performances is the result of tapes or samples. He gradually builds the sound that forms the backbone for each song from scratch using various processors, effects machines, keyboards, and even a full drum kit. Not only does this provide the intro for each song, but it allows the audience the rare opportunity to see the artistry involved in the creation of this type of music.
Like the rest of the DVDs in the Live From Austin Tx. series, the sound and video quality of this disc is quite wonderful, with the option of either 5.1 DTS or HD PCM sound available to the viewer. At 65 minutes in length it's the perfect opportunity for those who don't have any previous experience with Ghostland Observatory to be introduced to their sound and decide whether it's for them or not. For fans of the group it's a chance to see them perform in a controlled environment with great sound and a better seat than any live venue could offer.
Austin City Limits deserves a lot of credit for not only showcasing local talent, Ghostland Observatory is from Austin but for being willing to take a chance and present music outside what people would normally associate with them. It's that type of attitude that will make an already wonderful showcase for talent to become even better.