Avant-Pop: A Primer on Ghostly International

Ghostly International Logo

I have never before pledged loyalty to a particular record label. (Hyperdub, you were close, but ended up being a little inconsistent.) That changed several months ago when I dug deeper into the catalog of Ann Arbor-based electronica label Ghostly International. It’s rather unlikely that you’ve heard of many (if any) of the labels artists (Matthew Dear, School of Seven Bells, Phantogram, Daestro, Gold Panda…), but the group keeps up a high quality and a focused agenda which puts them at the top of the game in their particular niche. The label describes their artists as falling into two categories: SMM, an intentionally undefined acronym which they claim represents “gentle, texture-focused instrumental music;” and avant-pop, a simultaneously pretentious and brilliant term which describes the segment of the label’s work I find most appealing.

Avant-pop. Let the term soak in for a minute and what comes to mind? Digital or organic? Fast and jittery or smooth and soothing? Familiar or alien? This quirky descriptor is a rather succinct self-portrayal of the music published by the record label. Despite the fact that almost no one uses “avant” without saying it in a mocking tone, I find that when listening to their music, there really is no term quite as apt.

I came to discover Ghostly though a series of free sampler albums that slowly worked their way into my brain and led me to learn more. I started with Ghostly Swim, (a collaboration with Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim), and then later picked up Ghostly Essentials: Avant-Pop One (sadly for you, no longer free). A few of these songs just kill: “Triple Chrome Dipped” by Michna, “Light Powered” by Deastro, and “Ithaca” by Cepia off the first album; “Half Asleep” by School of Seven Bells, “Night Court” by Mux Mool and “Don and Sherri” by Matthew Dear off the second… If allowed to keep going, I’d probably just list the “highlights” as both albums complete.

However great this all is, though, it’s not the whole reason why Ghostly has been scoring points. Music is only part of the label’s mission, with the group strongly devoted equally to visual arts/design and, perhaps most interestingly, the interplay and overlap between. Besides the standard digital downloads, CDs and vinyl that most labels offer, Ghostly serves up limited edition signed prints of cover and original art, DVDs on typography and gorgeous coffee table books in a wide range of subjects.  The label also partners with outside sources to engage in cool creative endeavors like the Visual Music Collaborative Workshop (with Eyebeam Art & Technology Center) which brings together visual and musical artists to create interesting, attractive and inspiring shorts.

With that, let me just dive into some of my Ghostly favorites (in semi-random form).

Lusine – Two Dots

I heard this song on one of the Ghostly International compilation CDs and quickly fell in love. A few months later when I stumbled onto the video for it, I was won over again. The geek in me loves the math (and not just that it uses math, but that it correctly and interestingly uses it) and the dancer in me loves the groove.

Solvent – Loss for Words

Solvent is the stage name of Jason Amm, an electronic artist who has been active for more than a decade now. Despite the light, fun synth sound of the music and the funky, futuristic characters and setting of the video, this song is actually quite melancholic when you listen to the lyrics. This is the song which switched me from “casually aware of Solvent” to “fan of Solvent,” and I was happy I got to catch a lunchtime live set from him earlier this summer when he came through Chicago.

Solvent – “Loss For Words” from Ghostly International on Vimeo.

Renaud Hallée – Sonar

This video is by an independent artist (not affiliated with Ghostly), but was featured on the Visual Music blog I mentioned above. It is not a music video in the usual sense, but instead it is an art piece, a synchronization of music and animation which explores that overlap between sound and sight I described above. Each time I watch this video, I discover something new in it. (This past round, for example, I just noticed that a few of the streamers have decimal times.)

Sonar from Renaud Hallée on Vimeo.

A Minute with Mux

This short video introduction to Mux Mool (one of my absolute favorite Ghostly finds) is a masterwork showing how to do a quick, punchy interview that is advertisorial and informative, yet entertaining even to those with no real interest in the subject. It’s kind of beautiful art, yet looks like it was done fast and dirty.

I keep exploring Ghostly International and keep finding more gems. Though I’m often prone to fads and hyperbole, I think this is a label for which my love will not fade.

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Filed under Art, Music, Music Videos

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