The Residents: ‘The Ghost of Hope’

❉ 45 years on, the Residents are still producing  strange, compelling, and challenging work.

It’s never really accurate to describe San Fransisco based collective The Residents as a band.  Their work has always been conceptual and throughout a career spanning almost five decades they have incorporated a unique sense of the visual, from pioneering videos, innovative stage shows, podcasts, computer art, and detailed album design into their unique work.  The Residents are much more than just a band.

Their latest release, The Ghost Of Hope, is no different.  It’s a series of pieces, which the band themselves describe as tone poems, based on the accounts of a series of railroad accidents from the late 19th and early 20th Century.  The work was inspired by the accounts they found in a book called Death By Train: Terrifying Yet True Stories Of Train Wrecks & Accidents 1879-1927, a collection of accounts documenting through local newspaper reports of railway crashes; often in the most lurid of detail.  Anyone remotely familiar with the work of The Residents could not help in concluding that such subject matter would fit perfectly into a Residents record.

The album takes 7 of these stories and weaves them into their strange world.  It’s a dense and immersive listen with the pieces unfolding in the same graphic manner used in the newspaper reports themselves.  Opening track Horrors Of The Night takes the listener deep into the narrative and, like the rest of the album, there’s a restraint in the music included here unlike some of their more recent works.  The vocal is surrounded by a musical soundscape which embellishes the story as it unfolds using sound effects and actual quotes from the incidents as well as music.  Throughout the album the music complements the stories perfectly, carnivalesque on The Crash At The Crush, and epically macabre on Death Harvest, whilst Shroud Of Flames sounds like it has been transported in from their classic early period.

Throughout the album the lyrics are delivered in the usual Residents nursery rhyme style which only underlines the very Victorian Gothic feel of their subject matter.  The band have clearly done their homework and include many details of subsequent events surrounding the accounts of the incidents themselves.  Yet it’s their inclusion of small details, such as strawberries scattered, in the wake of the train hitting a car at a railway crossing, on Death Harvest which linger in the mind.   This, even by the standards of The Residents, is a particularly dark and disturbing listen.

The beautifully designed packaging is another highlight.  Here the background information to each track is outlined and the lyrics included along with archive photographs of rail crashes with The Residents, in their classic eyeball head costumes, posing amongst the wreckage.  Like the pieces themselves it’s apparent that a lot of care has gone into its construction.

Usually The Residents create their own worlds giving space for their weird and bizarre creations, so it’s fascinating to listen to something based on historical fact – however lurid and grotesque its source material.  That they’ve made this into something quintessentially their own merely adds to what an impressive piece of work this is.

To simply report that The Ghost Of Hope is just another record by The Residents does none of their extraordinary catalogue justice.  That they’re still producing strange, compelling, and challenging work capable of measuring up to their very best whilst having been doing so for over 45 years is a stunning achievement.

❉ ‘The Ghost Of Hope’ was released on 24 March 2017 by Cherry Red Records, RRP £12.99 (CD, MVD9754A) / RRP £19.99 (limited edition 12″ vinyl, PR010)

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