As some of you may recall, West Coast legend/inventor of the word “skramz,” Alex Bigman, is back in the game after the dissolution of his classic and revered acts, Seeing Means More and Fight Fair. Aside from his more straightforwardly aggressive act, Tower of Silence, he is also in the screamo act Ghost Spirit, along with members of Lord Snow, Heritage Unit, and other skramz luminaries. Their first record, released on Will Swan’s (of Dance Gavin Dance fame) record label, Blue Swan, was one of my favorite screamo releases last year. A blend of raw early 90s emo, akin to Don Martin Three and Navio Forge, and early 2000s screamo, there was a lot of promise in their debut and I was excited to see how they would further cement their identity as a band with coming releases.
When they announced their split with Nova Scotia’s Frail Hands, I was doubly excited. Frail Hands are easily one of the most electrifying bands operating in screamo right now, a furious and gut-wrenching derivation of emoviolence with unreal drumming and some of the most frayed and unrelenting vocals in the game. Needless to say, putting legends like the skramz alumni in Ghost Spirit alongside the restless energy of the upstarts in Frail Hands would inspire both bands to push the boundaries of their songwriting past their already-stellar prior output.
With Ghost Spirit releasing the second single from this split LP yesterday, “Sick Dreams,” I thought it would be a perfect time to put my thoughts on this record into writing. Ghost Spirit takes the A-side, the aforementioned “Sick Dreams” being the first song on the record, and it immediately showcases their roots in both European screamo such as Daïtro as well as in bands of the American Midwest such as Sinking Steps…Rising Eyes and the Spirit of Versailles, the riffs full of expression, melody and emotionality while still matching the aggression of the vocal work.
Second song (and lead single), “The Guilt of Your Affection,” starts off in a far more gentle way, recalling the lighter moments of bands such as Raein and Suis La Lune, with a bit of a danceable edge a la After School Knife Fight. The music eventually crescendoes into a crunchier, distorted section, while still allowing Bigman to exercise a more gentle vocal range than what he showcases on the rest of the band’s side on the split.
Other particular highlights include the short-but-sweet “Skull,” which features an exhilarating moment of gang vocals (I’m always a sucker for gang vocals in screamo), as well as the A-side closer “In Parting,” a track which shows remarkable dynamic range and a particular skill in build-up. Throughout the entirety of the album, the drumming sticks out as the key force in the band’s sound, dictating each moment’s intensity and teasing out patterns and aggression in tasteful moderation. It would be tempting to completely show off during the more forceful moments of melodic hardcore, but drummer Taylor Jewell exercises restraint and it pays off beautifully, making tracks like the aforementioned “In Parting” feel like a master-class in build-and-release.
I would of course also be remiss not to mention Niko Zaglaras and Evan Henkel on guitar and bass, respectively. Their chemistry on these tracks is undeniable, and their fluid transitions during songs like “Dark Winter” make each moment feel seamless. Zaglaras in particular has an excellent grasp of tone and knows exactly how to make certain moments feel light, others oppressive, others melancholic. Meanwhile, Henkel’s skills shine equally bright whether they’re providing a thick backbone to each song or when the music quiets down and gives Henkel a moment to show off their subtle prowess, such as in the intro and outro of “A Hollow Peak.”
The Ghost Spirit side of this split is one of the most cohesive screamo releases of the year so far, packed with boundless enthusiasm as well as the artful, measured ear of pros who have become genuine experts in songwriting. The B-side also shows the maturation of Frail Hands, whose debut LP last year blew me away with its aggression and songcraft, firmly rooted in hardcore and yet desperate to push past those boundaries. Their side of the split here does not disappoint and proves that there is some truly interesting shit to come from this band yet.
“The Image of You” opens with a softer moment, along with some softer vocals, before segueing into some of the most brutal and chaotic screamo I’ve heard yet this year. Follow-up track “Mortar and Pestle” maintains the impressive momentum while simultaneously introducing some incredibly groovy riffs and showcasing yet more of the band’s insanely eclectic and compelling drumming.
In fact, one of the only potential flaws of Frail Hands’s side of the split is that, unlike Ghost Spirit’s side, it almost never relents. The atmosphere is unceasingly bleak and the music is heavy in the same way as a weighted blanket, practically suffocating you. Of course, I don’t think this is a flaw at all, so I’m all for it, and it also provides Frail Hands with a strong identity as one of the most unconscionably dark and sad bands working in an already dark and sad niche of hardcore. If you can stand up straight while facing the onslaught, you’ll be met with some of the most memorable riffs in screamo as well as potentially my favorite vocalists currently working in the scene. The songs get in, make their point, and then get the fuck out with reckless abandon, especially the swift banger “Collateral”, and songs like “Atonement” and the absolutely thunderous “In Conclusion” feel inescapable and cacophonous in the best possible way.
The closer, “Every Volatile Thing,” is my favorite song on this entire split. It moves through each segment of itself with an extreme effortlessness, and manages to feel heavy and visceral even when the guitar onslaught briefly stops for a bass-heavy, emotionally ravaged bridge. The punctuated, staccato guitars at the end of the song just absolutely ruin me; I must have listened to this track at least twenty times while trying to write this review.
Ghost Spirit and Frail Hands have put together one of the most essential splits in recent memory. If for nothing else, get your hands on this record for “Every Volatile Thing,” and stick around for what can only be described as a seminar on how to write a screamo split. Each band has a clear identity and point of view, and each band expresses those things with a deft hand and complete commitment. I have nothing but respect for this split, and it comes highly recommended— snag your preorder here.