James Murray: Killing Ghosts
Home Normal first became aware of James Murray's brand of finely crafted ambient-electronica through the English composer's own Slowcraft Records imprint and his 2012 Floods release in particular. But as those who've been following Murray's output over the years are well aware, he's appeared on a number of other labels, too, most recently Ultimae, which issued his Ghostwalk EP and excellent Eyes to the Height full-length last year. The lustrous sound paintings presented on those collections are distinguished by degrees of nuance and refinement that help separate Murray from the genre crowd, something that his latest, Killing Ghosts, carries on in fine fashion.
In some respects, the new release isn't dramatically unlike its predecessor. The focus remains ambient-electronica, there's again a fastidious attention to detail and texture, and, like Eyes to the Height, Killing Ghosts advances through its parts, seven this time, in a way that feels natural. At the same time, in embracing a slightly more minimal presentation the new material, which Murray recorded in a log cabin in the Black Mountains, is perhaps even more understated than the 2016 set. Though no background details have been included to clarify the conceptual underpinning for the work, track titles such as “Soldier, Returned,” “Grace,” and “Living Ghosts” hint at a narrative involving combat, gratitude, death, and as such the image of soldiers struggling with PTSD in their post-tour lives comes easily to mind. Field recordings that suggest human activity within enclosed spaces help to strengthen that feeling of immediacy and thematic connection.
Emerging out of a willowy mist, “Footsteps” gradually comes into focus when gleaming tones are joined by a delicate, four-note theme, woozy synthesizer flourish, and the metronomic snap'n'click of a skeletal beat. As soothing as that opener is, the album isn't without moments of tension. Vestiges of dissonance surface, for example, during the largely serene “Grace,” not only in the brittle tones that wash over the simple piano accents but also in the deep rumbling that destabilizes the track's foundation; tension surfaces in the closing “Living Ghosts” in a different way by having the material veer into industrial-ambient territory. There are also times when the material belies its minimal designation: with so much detail in play and so many layers operating concurrently, describing pieces like “First Hand” and “Second Sight” as minimal begins to seem like a gross misrepresentation, and much the same could be said about the recording as a whole.
That Home Normal's Ian Hawgood describes Killing Ghosts as “a genuine highlight in our eight years of existence as a label” says much about the high quality on display, and just as he has done many times before, Murray once again demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to texture and balance in his creative work.