Pilot Balloon: Ghastly Good Cheer
2.nd rec

Ghastly Good Cheer is an unusual departure from 2.nd rec's normal fare. In contrast to the moody electronica of Nitrada and the melodic post-rock of Giardini di Mirò, Pilot Balloon indulges in an hallucinatory concoction of instrumental hip-hop. On its debut, the group, comprised of Komadose crew members Jud (Judson MacRae) and KaeoFLUX, merges samples, live playing, and singing into an atmospheric voodoo cocktail that's for the most part successful. The music is generally dark, moody, and druggy and, in fact, the record begins as if slowly emerging from some disorientated stupor, only gradually reaching a state of coherence. Tracks hazily drift in and out of focus, their elements exuding a narcotized aura, and the general feel is sketchy and loose-limbed. Sampled voice snippets appear throughout, but otherwise vocals are kept to a minimum with the inclusion of only two raps, KaeoFLUX's on “Hug Dusty” and Stacs of Stamina's smooth flow on “Throe Stasis,” plus some native chanting that accompanies the clanging beats of “Closet Carpetbagger.”

While samples taken from musical sources as well as movies and conversations proliferate, the album features live bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums. That's not generally a problem, but the so-so drumming becomes a weakening factor on some tracks. Specifically, when samples interweave in tenuous collagistic fashion (as they do on “Genco Sister”), that seeming randomness is better contained by beats that are tight, not lackluster and stumbling as is the case here. The drums are similarly loose on “Mister Clicks (Curmudgeon)” and, while the style might bolster the track's improvised bass-drums-guitar feel, it also makes it sound unpolished. The beats on “Testimonial Match,” by contrast, are taut and strengthened by programmed breakbeats that kick it along furiously. (It's a trick that Alias exploits throughout Muted, to cite another example, and accounts to a large degree for its overall strong impression.)

Aside from that caveat, there are many highlights. Following a brief prelude of voice samples, the dystopic title piece rolls darkly in, its sombre string samples paired with a heavy hip-hop beat. “Pavane For Vinchy” is an especially strong piece that opens in melodic electronica mode with pianos and electronics, until a massive beat pushes it into grand hip-hop territory. “A Throng with Sticks,” “Hug Dusty,” and “Throe Stasis” are unified by the recurring appearance of a mellotron sample from King Crimson's “Starless”; how unusual it is to hear Bill Bruford's cymbals and John Wetton's vocals emerge within this context. Pilot Balloon ends the disc powerfully with the fulminating breakbeats and dark keyboard washes of “Vampire Tonic,” leaving the listener with the overall impression of Ghastly Good Cheer as an interesting travelogue, even if a not entirely perfect one.

May 2004