Despite electronic music's many stumbling blocks—the anxiety of influence or too-strict adherence to all things hip—Austin's sleek two-piece Ghostland Observatory have evolved into a national, albeit underground, phenomenon.
Shaking off the dust of the rural Texas towns from whence they came (though unable to entirely ditch their country-boy accents), Ghostland have released three full-length albums in as many years on their own label, Trashy Moped. But it's their notorious and "very insane" live shows that have earned them a legion of loyal, sweat-drenched fans—a live show that, according to sequencer-obsessed beat-wizard Thomas Turner, "requires hours of setup and very powerful lasers."
And as anyone who's been bathed in the light of those powerful lasers can tell you, Ghostland is mostly spectacle. That isn't to say their music is without merit, and the band has come about its sound completely due to experimentation and self-discovery.
"We have recorded any place we could," admits Turner. "The first record was done in a duplex, the second in an office space, the third in a barn."
On their debut album, 2005's Delete.Delete.I.Eat.Meat, Ghostland Observatory were clearly starting from scratch on a project that was visceral, primitive and moving, but without a blueprint. Guitarist and singer Aaron Behrens' self-assured, swaggering bravado had not yet manifested, and while his fuzzy guitar riffs offered garage-rock charm and meshed well with Turner's beats, the album wasn't consistent.
But Ghostland toyed with their sound. Turner began to stack more and more live drum tracks and throbbing synthesizers, and Behrens' voice evolved into a sassy caterwaul—a bizarre hybrid of George Michael and Zack de la Rocha (with a bit of Freddie Mercury thrown in for good measure). The fluidity of 2006's Paparazzi Lighting and 2008's Robotique Majestique make them functionally a double-disk, and they've established GO's sound, whatever the hell that might be. "We don't really try to define our sound," says Turner. "We let people call it whatever they feel. The last description I heard that I liked was 'rave rock.' "
By any name, Turner demonstrates an innate skill for balancing simple but transfixing synth parts that are undeniably animalistic in their ability to make you dance. Though his stage presence is no match for that of Behrens, who is arguably a better dancer than singer and pops and locks with unreal efficiency onstage, the be-caped Turner (yes, he wears a cape) is clearly the one to keep an eye on.
Turner's rapid evolution and innovation are most apparent on Robotique Majestique. He chops and splices Behrens' voice on songs like "No Place For Me," and the album's drum sounds are full and resonant. This is a product of Turner's new favorite method of constructing drum tracks. "For the Robotique album, drums were recorded live," says Turner, "then sampled to create a unique drum machine sound with live reverb and natural tones."
The story of Ghostland Observatory is one of a man who knows his way around a synthesizer and another man who is a natural showman. It's a dynamic that works, even if their music often feels of the moment and oh-so-2008. But the band has already demonstrated capacity for growth, and their sex appeal-drenched live show and constant experimentation at least make for some damn fine dance tunes.