It’s been a whole year since Delta Sleep released their sophomore album Ghost City. Insincere exclamations of how quickly the time passed aside, in this time, Delta Sleep have enjoyed transatlantic success and found themselves no longer having to play the early slots of sweaty math rock all-day festivals confined to the gloomy and oppressive basements of Shoreditch bars.
This is down to how Ghost City has cemented the band’s reputation for being able to consummately blend their aptitude for technical complexity and intricacy with more mass-appeal styles of guitar-based music. This is best demonstrated in the stand-out moment of the album, where the storming wall of sound ending to ‘Single File’, is layered with a sublime pre-Red Album era Weezer-esque guitar and vocal hook. Incidentally, this part was fortuitously added last minute during the album’s recording process.
The album’s resonance with its fans could also be partly attributed to its vivid and compelling presentation of the dichotomous worlds of the quasi-dystopian urban sprawl and the pastoral idyll. This is a well-worn cultural trope, but Delta Sleep endows it with a fresh, hypermodern edge.
In a lyrical sense, Ghost City is preoccupied with the theme of the inertia of routine, rigidly enforced by the incarcerating and unforgiving world of the metropolis. The tight snares, and choppy, precise stacatto guitar lines in tracks such as ‘Dotwork’, and the nuanced multi-meter wizardry in ‘After Dark’, draw upon the classic stylistic components of the math rock genre to provide an apposite backing to this. In effect, much of the record exudes a somewhat sinister crystalline, futurist aesthetic- in line with the dystopian atmosphere the band is trying to create.
There is also a disjointed, but discernible, narrative arc to this album, which switches between perspectives to explore the pyscho-geographic tension inherent in an unnamed protagonist who tentatively edges towards fulfilling their overwhelming urge to escape the alienation of city life into the freedom and authenticity of nature.
‘El Pastor’ which stands apart from the rest of the album and demonstrates Delta Sleep’s stylistic versatility, is an ebullient indie ‘banger’. (As an obscure point of trivia, the song also allowed the band to transiently cross into the forbidden realm of the mainstream by being featured in ITV’s coverage of the 2018 World Cup). Lyrically, it is a paean to the “full colour” of the natural world, where the “air is so clean” and “cat, bird and deer all live together”.
This sense of pantheism, which was possibly inspired by the band’s time touring and recording in Italy, finds its antithesis in the numerous descriptions of living inside the looming panopticon of the metropolis, or the ‘ghost city’, interspersed across the rest of the album.
Those who stumble every morning like somnambulists into the lugubrious and grey-scale corporate world will easily empathise with the lyrics of songs such as ‘Single File’. Its musings on air pollution, unaffordable housing and anxiety-induced insomnia fall a bit too devastatingly close to home for its target demographic- “Wake up to a world overcast in concrete skies, where the smell of exhaust is a factor in people’s daily lives”.
The opening track, ‘Sultans of Ping’ also captures this conflict well, starting with a dreamy and swirling guitar line, overlaid with a sanguine and alliterative vocal round from lead singer Dev, “Soft sounds so soothing”. This slowly builds up into a crescendo, where the initially tranquil melodic motifs are distorted and fragmented like shards of glass, over the rumbles of a double bass pedal.
Between the two distinct halves of the song, the listener is synesthetically pulled from a peaceful and bucolic world, shimmering under the haze of the Mediterranean sun, into the Vorticist and existentialist nightmare of the ghost city.
Ghost City closes with a perfect cadence in the form of ‘Afterimage’, which provides a neat epilogue to the narrative being developed throughout the album, by way of a gentle and acoustic transposition of the melodic and lyrical motifs of ‘Sultans of Ping’.
In ‘Afterimage’, the scene is set with the listener able to visualise themselves insouciantly coasting away and out from the long shadows cast by the jagged outlines of stolid skyscrapers, (similar to those pictured in the album art), towards the freedom of the surrounding countryside, but with the occasional tentative and almost voyeuristic backward glance at the ghost city left behind.
Since the release of the album last year, we have seen Delta Sleep issue reworkings of the some of the songs, in the form of Ghost City Rarities, featuring appearances from tricot. This is another great example of how the output of the math rock community, with its international sweep, is constantly being shaped and renewed across borders.
It has been positive to see the band keep up their creative momentum in this way, and after waiting three long years between their first and second albums, let’s hope the next record is already on the horizon.