Unto Ashes: Ghosts Captured

Listening to Ghosts Captured by the so-called “darkwave ensemble” Unto Ashes, I picture a rag-tag collective roaming desolate wastelands in a post-apocalyptic near-future and sharing with the communities they encounter songs from the late-20th century. Their mission bolstered by their conviction, misguided or otherwise, that without their doing so the songs will vanish, the members deliver Medieval folk-drone renderings of classics by Blue Oyster Cult, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Current 93, Sisters of Mercy, Van Halen, and others as they undertake their slow pilgrimage.

Unto Ashes, incidentally, is no new kid on the block. For fifteen years, the outfit has been bringing its unusual brand of apocalyptic gothic-folk material to the world and has released to date seven full-lengths as well as singles and compilation tracks. Led by Michael Laird, the band performs its songs using acoustic guitar, flute, cello, keyboards, and French horn as well as unorthodox instruments such as the harmonium, viola da gamba, hurdy-gurdy, saranghi, autoharp, and dulcimer.

On Ghosts Captured Laird, Ericah Hagle, Natalia Lincoln, Sarah Newman, Melody Henry, Bret Helm, and Sonne Hagal are among those who contribute vocals, and the album benefits greatly from the diverse mix of male and female singers. According to Laird, “We've always enjoyed the challenge of making covers, but obviously it can be very risky, even to try, because in so many instances the originals can never be surpassed. However, our only intention has been to pay homage to the original creation, to show our respect and admiration ... The new album presents the vehicles of our release from songs that have been echoing relentlessly through our minds for so long. They are all ghosts, captured.” Recorded between 1999 and 2014, the project's twenty-five songs (eighteen on CD plus seven downloads) total ninety minutes of music.

What's so endearing about the collection is that, consistent with Laird's words, Unto Ashes doesn't treat the songs with irony or as tongue-in-cheek excuses to lampoon the work of other artists. That's made clear at the very start in the group's earnest handling of Blue Oyster Cult's “Don't Fear (The Reaper).” No cowbells appear in Unto Ashes' gorgeous folk-ballad rendering of the classic, and the result is a haunting re-imagining so dramatic it enables the listener to hear the song anew (the same applies to the band's re-work of Van Halen's “Runnin' with the Devil”).

Ericah Hagle contributes stirring vocal takes to the dark lullaby treatment of Apoptygma Berzerk's “Kathy's Song” (also featuring strong backing vocals by Natalia Lincoln) and Neil Young's “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Unto Ashes' heavier side comes to the fore in its feverish, harpsichord-driven version of Christian Death's “Cavity (1st Communion),” while a dark gothic-folk persona surfaces during the group's Syd Barrett-styled rendering of Lycia's “The Kite.” In addition, the trippy psych-folk-drone treatment of New Order's “The Him” evokes the late-‘60s era in its harmonies, Qntal's “Fruhling” and “Palestinalied” become stately, choir-driven exercises, and the dark gothic tone of Depeche Mode's “Fly on the Windscreen” (“Death is everywhere....”) proves to be a natural fit for Unto Ashes. And if the CD's eighteen tracks aren't already enough, the seven downloads include versions of “Devo Corporate Anthem” and Flipper's “The Way of the World.”

January 2015