Music Review: Apes' Ghost Games

by Hilary Crowe

Remember when The Decembrists launched the oh-so ambitious “Long and Short of It” tour and played D.C.’s 9:30 club four nights in a row last fall? Of course not – the charlatan hucksters of indie-pop schlock, full of hot air and themselves, crashed their bloated tour boat on the rocks following that siren song of a guaranteed full house at $25 a pop and realized that – gasp! – they were human and could, in fact, be stretched thinner than their transparent virtuoso veneer could withstand. The tour collapsed after two dates in New York.

I do remember, however, the 9:30 club’s scramble to fill the empty slots and local label Gypsy Eyes Records’ subsequent showcase of its signatories’ talents. So it was that a handful of local bands banged out set after set in the cavernous club to a crowd that mostly resembled a middle-American corporate Christmas party – there were more people in attendance who had organized the event than those who had braved the cold weeknight to check out the bands, and photographers in fans’ stead lined the stage.

As such, the night would have been a complete snoozefest (as are most office parties) if it weren’t for the apoplectic set of D.C.’s increasingly beloved Apes. The guitar-less quartet was like nothing I had seen before and everything I’d dreamt music should be: visually as well as sonically stimulating; off-beat in charisma, content and chord progression; and endlessly entertaining.

That’s quite an achievement, considering frontman Paul Weil (amicably) resigned in 2005, leaving the band without a commander in chief and a problem on their hands. Thankfully, the three remaining Apes (bassist Erick Jackson, keyboardist Amanda Kleinman, and drummer Jeff Schmid) met visual artist and vocalist Breck Brunson in D.C. and, long story short, they have recorded and are touring happily ever after.

Live, Apes command their audience like no other modern band I’ve seen: suddenly, the near-empty 9:30 didn’t seem so spacious as the band filled the previously empty air thick with bulging bass, tribal drums, and meticulously meted warrior wails. Lucky for the many die-hard and would-be fans not present that night, “Ghost Games,” the band’s fourth full-length recording out on Gypsy Eyes, captures perfectly the band’s onstage apoplexies and quirky charm, in what is easily their most interesting, fully developed, and uniquely Ape-like work to date.

All the songs – even the slower, instrumental “Fade Out” – are hard rocking and soul thumping, without the heavy-handed homogenization of overproduction usually found in hardcore/indie/alternative recordings. No. Layers of sound and kitschy chord flourishes remain detectible, highlighting Brunson’s ethereally beautiful, slightly androgynous crooning and affecting ambience in line with the album’s title (Apes albums are always theme-based, but not in a D&D, Star Trek convention way).

“Beat of the Double” and “Which Witch Wuz” are the most interesting compositions, the former incorporating Egyptian keyboard riffage and the latter an intro of imagined dialogue (two witches discussing dinner options) before launching into alternately heavy bass splurges and searchingly high-pitched howling of wordplay, as the title alludes. But the standouts on the album are “Dr. Watcher” and the ’60s-flavored psych-sludge jamfest “Green Grease.” And as far as closers go, “First Light” is perfection of the ballad – Ape-style. It seems the addition of Brunson, another creative mind in the mix of madness, has reinvigorated the band’s pursuit of greatness onstage and on record.

Fans residing in Apes home territory can celebrate the Leap Year with them next Friday night (Feb. 29) at D.C.'s The Black Cat. For the rest of us jealous ex-pats and foreign fans, the album is, pleasantly and surprisingly, an adequate consolation prize.

(Apes promotional photo from the band's previous record company, Birdman Records. The band will perform tonight – Feb. 19 – in Rochester, NY, as part of their U.S. tour. To see the band's video for "Dr. Watcher," please check below.)

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