The Ghost of Galapagos is a heady title for an album. It says a lot in a small bit of alliteration. It alludes to something both haunted and strange — something evolved, but weirdly, unexpectedly so. Something lost and found. Discovered and relinquished. As the title of the new release by local indie-rockers The Hermit Kings (Zaq Suarez, Zack Hayes, Zach Dier, Dave Milan, Ben Woodward, Brad Rogers and Alex Finlay), it fits.
This is a song cycle that whispers and screams, tiptoes and stomps, waltzes and slam dances. This is songwriting that doesn’t shy away from blood and guts, or the dark, or bad dreams. Nor does it fear tender emotion or human frailty. And, as such, the songs are (like the album title suggests) haunted and strange.
Perhaps the best example of this is “Flesh and Blood,” which rails against bad parenting and imposed ideas of normalcy. This song is the album’s longest (nearly seven minutes) and devolves from a loping beat into a spooky carnival of percussion and menacing guitar. Not that it ever totally deconstructs. This is a point at which the Hermit Kings excel: controlled chaos.
But not every song is so unflinchingly introspective. “Paul Westerberg” is a jazzy, poppy tribute to The Replacements’ singer and the aesthetic that he represents. An unself-conscious cool lost to a bygone era. An era that The Hermit Kings don’t necessarily seek to reproduce yet certainly tap with Galapagos.
Only the album is self-conscious. And probably more successful for that kind of awareness. It’s not just a collection of smart song writing, but thoughtful instrumentation and orchestration. It moves, but it isn’t hasty. Each song is composed of moods, all based in rock know-how but infused with blue notes, Van Morrison-esque soul (“Tropical Fishes”) and tipsily unbridled piano-rock (“Yankee Whalers”).
If it seems like Galapagos suffers from an identity crisis (it does veer from Jerry Lee Lewis mayhem into the breathless, starry swoon of “Forlorn”), that’s sort of but not quite the case. The Hermit Kings do cast a wide net, influence and style-wise. But there’s also a thread throughout — a beacon of agile (often gorgeous) lyrics paired with Suarez’s capable vocal; the experimental but deft musicianship of the band is carried by super-tight percussion.
About the gorgeousness: “Appalachia” is a stand out. It opens with “I give my blood, for the Appalachian mud” and runs through a syncopated poetry of kudzu and dogwood, the landscape almost scenting the very music with green air and damp forest floor. If WNC had its own TV drama, this would be the theme music. (But seriously, some savvy filmmaker should snap this song up for a soundtrack.)
The Hermit Kings hold their album release show at The Grey Eagle this Friday, Nov. 16. Alarm Clock Conspiracy and Deep Chatham open. 9 p.m., $5.
Read a review of Alarm Clock Conspiracy here.
Read a review of Deep Chatham here.