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Holy Hell! Snuffbox Immanence Turns 20

Holy Hell! Snuffbox Immanence Turns 20

Snuffbox isn’t made from answers but riddles and hieroglyphs.

Now that the legendary Drag City label’s put much of their best work on streaming services, you owe it to yourself to check out Ghost. No, not that pop-metal Pope Emeritus and his nameless Swedish ghouls. This is the Japanese band active from 1984 to 2014, with eight albums to their name. Maybe you’ve heard guitarist Michio Kurihara collaborate with Boris or singer Masaki Batoh with Damon & Naomi, but the group mostly exists in a rarified world of robes and incense, cultivating an itinerant pagan aesthetic and making music confounding enough to sell it. If you know their music, you understand how it can be as elegant and unbothered as unfurling hookah smoke or as violent as magma boiling in the earth’s veins. If you don’t, now’s as good a time as any to find out, and you should start with Snuffbox Immanence, which turns 20 this year.

This is neither their most accessible album nor their most avant-garde. It finds the same happy medium as Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain or Prince’s Purple Rain: the meeting of concise form and extreme content. Snuffbox is so ornate it might rub listeners used to stripped-down honesty the wrong way. This is a good test for getting into Ghost. Here is a band that barges through every flute solo, multi-part prog epic, and retelling of Orpheus with such seriousness we don’t find it funny either. Leave your perceptions of prog and psych as inherently ridiculous at the door, because Ghost gives us the closest experience we’ll ever have to hearing that music for the first time before it was eaten alive by cliché and the death of the hippie dream.

This isn’t flower-power music, precisely; it’s headier and folkier than most of what gets billed as “psych” in club these days. In their music we can hear traces of ‘60s bands like Pearls Before Swine, ‘70s proto-Japanoiseniks like Taj Mahal Travellers and Les Rallizes Dénudés, stoned brutes like Blue Cheer, modern weirdos like Charalambides. But so good is Ghost at maintaining monkish mystery we never once read them as enterprising hipsters—not least when we’ve heard Masaki Batoh’s voice. It’s wavery and untrained, and he alternates between Japanese and English so heavily accented it’s hard to tell the two languages apart. The words that eke through are obtuse and magical: “Hades,” “regenesis,” “discovery.” He doesn’t sound like a singer but a vessel through which words from elsewhere are allowed to flow.

All over Snuffbox are mallets. Not Steve Reich mallets that hammer out obstinate patterns, but mallets that leap and skip like fleet-footed rabbits and form filigrees and floral arrangements all over Ghost’s songs; the Japanese vibraphonist Masayoshi Fujita conjures a similar ecstasy in his work. At the end of “Soma” and on the hypnotic instrumental “Daggma” the members of Ghost are all happily hammering away, and we’re reminded how music made through physical assertion—free jazz, African or Native American drumming, the strumming music of Charlemagne Palestine—feels more convincingly spiritual because the act of playing music feels like an active part of the ceremony. The patterns on “Daggma” feel like mathematical codes for unlocking some ancient spell. As on so much great psych, the religious cues on Ghost albums make more aesthetic than dogmatic sense, drawing as much from Buddhism as Abrahamic accoutrements and Greek myth.

Snuffbox Immanence is not an album with much purpose behind to conjure an intoxicating sense of pagan mystery, and whether or not you can surrender to that—and follow it into headier territories, like the humid swamp of 1995’s Lama Rabi Rabi or the gnarled demon-paintings of 2006 swan song In Stormy Nights—determines what you’ll make of the band. Snuffbox isn’t made from answers but riddles and hieroglyphs. We emerge from its syncretic sprawl with the sense we haven’t fully understood what we’ve experienced, and when we return to it, it’s not in hopes of figuring it all out but simply to lose ourselves in the mystery.

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