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Demystifying Ghost Bath, the Chinese black metal band that's not actually Chinese

Demystifying Ghost Bath, the Chinese black metal band that's not actually Chinese

If you paid attention to the indie music sphere of 2013, you would've noticed Deafheaven, a band so steeped in black metal non-conformism that no one cares anymore now that they're not wearing corpse paint, or that their frontman wears leather gloves and takes regular stage dives.

Their riveting 2013 album Sunbather was all over every music publication, and even Apple ads, at one point — it was amazing to witness the audacity this band had to make black metal music sound joyous and, hell, accessible, drawing as much praise from new fans as they did from staunch metalheads.

This relatively new sound took the emotional catharsis of black metal and washed it in a sea of guitar pedals, birthing an impenetrably melancholic sound previously exclusive to shoegaze — making music that is all at once, radiant and fatalistic.

Deafheaven weren't the first to do it — that distinction arguably goes to French art-metal band Alcest — but they defined the sound for a new crowd.

Following Deafheaven's unexpected crossover success, there was an expected wave of bands following in the band's footsteps, but more importantly, there were also hordes of listeners finding bands of a similar party. This is where Ghost Bath comes in.

The induction of Ghost Bath is an interesting, albeit clumsy, facsimile of black metal's illustrious tendency for shrouded mystery. The band presented themselves to the press as a Chinese black metal band who had their 2014 debut album, Funeral, previously released on Chinese extreme metal label, Pest Productions. They've sent out emails rife with grammatical errors, a Bandcamp page with a location of Chongqing, China, and a band photo with the Mandarin letters "无名", leading journalists to believe the band was from the mainland Asia country. 

As they began the PR machine to promote their new album, Moonlover, in 2015, quick comparisons were made to Deafheaven due to their similarly hazy production, uplifting crescendos and tortured howls.

But more prominently, compared to Deafheaven's central location of sunny Los Angeles, Ghost Bath presented a wealth of fresh content for websites eager to find the next big metal crossover band — even more so when they're apparently from far away China.

The album cover for Moonlover, which features the photograph 'La Luna' by Luis Gonzalez Palma.

While writers and listeners were instantly head over heels for Moonlover, some of them became suspicious of the band's origins. Rumours spread of the band not actually being a four-piece of brooding Chinese metalheads, but the brainchild of a musician from North Dakota named Dennis Makula.

As it seemed, the idea of Ghost Bath belonging to China was part of an "attempt to bring such mystery into the band", leaving journalists and even Pest Productions to believe the illusion until cracks started to appear.

The band claims that their appropriation of Chinese imagery and language is part of their aesthetic, proclaiming China as a "land of immense beauty", and while many artists do that with reverence — UK ambient artist Hong Kong Express wonderfully delves into the recesses of 80s Hong Kong through the lens of Wong Kar Wai — Ghost Bath's approach is problematic.

To be asking, "why didn't we personally correct anything" is sort of looking at the problem wrong. There need not be a correction. Just maybe an acceptance that maybe people aren't sure of where members reside. To truly listen to Ghost Bath as intended, we must stop making associations outside of basic human existence. Maybe we aren't from where you believe. Maybe we are. 

— Makula on why he did not correct journalists on the band's true place of origin, in an extensive feature by Noisey.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter that the band actually doesn't sing (or howl) in Chinese, or that they didn't bother to correct journalists of their proper location. 

The American band's choice of using elements from Chinese culture to piece together an enigmatic, other-worldly image reeks of lazy appropriation that was either the unfortunate result of Makula's genuine fascination over the forested landscapes of China — which, otherwise, could've been translated more artfully — or a self-serving way of setting his project apart from a brigade of Deafheaven-lite projects. Either reason takes away the spotlight from the burgeoning amount of promising Chinese metal acts, especially ones on Pest Productions.

But how is the music itself? While Funeral is a rough-around-the-edges, serviceable depressive black metal album, Moonlover is indeed uncannily similar to the best of Sunbather, while it also presents a palette of unpredictable moves — ranging from moments of bursting melodies to a hardcore breakdown on 'The Silver Flower, Pt. 2', something highly unusual from most extreme metal bands.

Ghost Bath recently announced a new deal with premier metal label Nuclear Blast Entertainment, and they're going ahead with a new album amidst the controversy. 

Along with the announcement, the band released a music video revealing the band's true appearances — albeit draped in celestial robes.

With their real identities somewhat disclosed and the veil fully lifted, time will tell if Ghost Bath will be recognized for their strengths as a band, or simply a theatrical farce.

Read our compact guide to the history and evolution of black metal. Stream Moonlover below:

 

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