Another Stepping Stone
By Cory Healy
Photo by Arvel Hernandez
A lot has changed since Cool Ghouls’ sophomoric outing A Swirling Fire Through The Rye in 2014. We’re at peak psychedelic-revival on a global scale in 2016, which may or may not be directly linked to the ongoing Cold War 2.0 we find our world leaders repeating.
Despite borderline aggressive resistance by PR kits, being labeled ‘retro’ is no longer a dirty word for a band, due in part to both how many players are currently in the revival game, and how well-received the genre is by indie purists and casuals alike. Cool Ghouls is made up of four high school friends from San Francisco, and their third studio album, Animal Races, showcases a lifetime’s worth of immersion within the Bay Area cultural mecca.
Animal Races kicks off with its title track, an uplifting surf-rock vamp that crescendos into guitar virtuosity by Pat McDonald and Ryan Wong. Echoes of garage rock and psych bands of lore can be found all throughout the album, yet Cool Ghouls, with the help of fellow Bay Area producer Kelley Stoltz, are able to go beyond merely paying tribute in order to carve out their identity and put themselves on the map.
‘60s psych is best known for using drone, an effective way to put the listener into a ritual-like trance. Cool Ghouls does their whole album this way while putting a modern, original flair. Even their most psych-rock-heavy song, cheekily titled “Time Capsule,” is an assertion of modernity that uses a bygone era to beckon to the future: “Attention people of the future / I’m talking to you now / There is already heaven / It is happening now.” It begins with an extended drone and guitar reverb, and weaves outwards with capsuled, timed releases of bass by Pat Thomas and some excellent drum work from Alex Fleshman.
“Sundial” and “Just Like Me” show off the band’s impressive vocal range as a unit while also infusing pop elements into the mix. There’s no single lead singer in Cool Ghouls, as all four members alternate the position. “Just Like Me” especially showcase the group’s ability to harmonize and sing high without having to resort to falsetto, and they even conjure up an old-school Beatles vibe.
On A Swirling Fire… Cool Ghouls kept close within the retro psych moniker to establish themselves, which resulted in bouts of repetitiveness here and there. While Animal Races doesn’t quite escape its own bouts of repetition (and, honestly, what psych-rock act doesn’t), there’s a greater sense of freedom to experiment and play off the foundation they’ve built. With the addition of steel guitar, “When You Were Gone” gives off a little country twang and dives headfirst into Bay Area folk roots; it also makes an appearance in the melancholy ballad “(If I Can’t Be) The Man.”
Animal Races represents a mature, paced developmental journey for Cool Ghouls based on fundamentals. On their first release, they discovered themselves, then polished what they’re primarily known for, and now joyfully pokes holes out from the structure they’ve built themselves in. It’s a fun, delightful 11 tracks that perpetually keeps us in a trance while reassuring us it’s all in the now. I predict that Album #3 is but another stepping stone, and that we can continue to expect even greater things from Cool Ghouls going forward.