Those unfamiliar with how a gig like this typically works might benefit from discovering that most of us make it to around the first of December before pulling the plug on basically everything in order to focus on yapping about our favorite albums of the year. What that amounts to, in a nutshell, is roughly 987 lists across umpteen sites to contend with, plus a handful of neglected gems that have the unfortunate disadvantage of being released in the twelfth month of a long year that get ignored until the List Season hangover finally ebbs at some point in January.
Being released on the first day of the black hole month of last year isn’t the only roadblock standing in the way of Oakland, CA’s The Mass, though. They are a strange band living on the absolute fringe of an already strange realm. If you want to believe a reviewer named Noktorn over at Metal Archives – and for the love of all that’s grim, why the hell wouldn’t you – they’re not the sort of band to recommend to anyone you like. Personally, I’d say that’s a bit harsh, but it’s at least accurate if the people you like spend 99% of their listening time attached to obscure Canadian war metal or Viking folk. If you’ve ever found yourself ensorcelled by the noisier side of rock and jazz, however, you just might be tall enough to ride this here roller coaster. Replace the root Sabbath to Priest to Maiden with Ornette Coleman to Helmet to Breadwinner and you’re headed toward the right neighborhood.
Oh yeah, saxophone.
I feel like I’ve spent approximately one third of my life defending saxophones. I’m a long-time fan of many of the jazz greats who played/play the instrument, and I slaughtered one myself in school because all the cool kids snatched up the trumpets before they got to my name in band class. It’s an instrument I grew to love, and that includes at least a portion of the Lou Gramm-styled arena rock blowers from the 80s. But it’s not a very metal instrument. Heavier than a flute, by a long shot, but somehow the flute gets a pass because of moody doomers such as Forest of Equilibrium.
Anyway, The Mass is a saxophone heavy band. Not exactly in a Clarence Clemons in the E Street Band blowing a 10-minute solo sort of way, but Matt Walters proudly works most of the corners with a healthy blare when he isn’t dusting gravel onto the mic with his howl. And really, it fits the band’s overall style perfectly – big as a Norse god’s arm when the strut is weighty (throughout “Threshing the Light”), angular and cutting like a pissed barracuda when things are violent (late into “Neuronic Channels Driven to Agitation”), and dark & smoky as an old detective novel during much of the quieter moments of the closing 20-minute title track.
But Ghost Fleet is much more than just the record to reach for when a friend asks “Why aren’t there saxophones in metal?” The overall approach clearly pushes a level of intricacy that would probably get labeled “tech” if they were rooted in death, or “prog” if they were tied to King Crimson. The noise rock and punk connection signal a “math” tag, however, and I’m guessing The Mass has gotten used to being labeled just about everything under the sun. It’s worth noting, despite not really having a great familiarity with the -core end of the math class, this band never overemphasizes the angsty end of the spectrum that makes you feel like scratching imaginary microbes off your skin. The fast measures are riffy and thrashy, and the burlier segments are always led by a rollicking bass that sounds as if it’s strung with steel braided cable. So, more of a decidely Bay Area version of Jesus Lizard than anything DEP.
An extended hiatus often ends up working in a band’s favor, and that appears to be the case for The Mass as well. Not to sell their previous records short, but living away from this collective for the last ten years or so and reunifying with a modern focus has brought a sense of freshness and an added shot of vigor that vaults Ghost Fleet to the top of the shelf. Call it proggy, avant-garde, thrashy, rocky, punky, mathy or “heavy music for folks who wear short-sleeve button-downs and clunky glasses,” Ghost Fleet is a gripping, unconventional walloper for the more adventurous heavy music enthusiast, and it really shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the cracks.