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Review: Ash Riser's 'Ghosts' Isn't "Contemporary Art," It's Just Good Music

The former TDE affiliate's debut album is one of the most unique and interesting indie releases of 2017.

We’re all haunted by something. Eminem had his closet full of skeletons, Kendrick has a morbid past steeped in metaphors that are maybe part guilty conscious. It’s not at all unusual for artists to wear their demons on their sleeves and confront their peskiest shadows on wax.

But rarely is that confrontation so explicit, so vulnerable, and so downright intriguing as it is on Ghosts, the debut album from eclectic singer-songwriter and former TDE affiliate Ash Riser.

The 27-year-old LA native has been making music for a long time, with songwriting credits and vocal work all over TDE’s discography and a strong solo catalog of EPs and loosies that span multiple, disparate genres and more than a decade of creation. That context makes Ghosts’ status as Ash’s debut LP all the more important and noteworthy.

The 14 tracks and three eerie skits that make up the album present the first fully fleshed-out portrait of Ash Riser the solo artist, as well as a deep musical maturity that’s come from years of exploration and self-discovery.  

A disclaimer: don’t try to neatly fit Ghosts into any boxes. Ash calls the mostly self-produced project a mix of blues, hip-hop and “modernized music,” or, more simply, “contemporary art.” And don’t enter with any expectations of hearing any version of Ash (or his former moniker Ashtrobot) that you’ve encountered in the past, as this genre-bending soundscape feels entirely original, sometimes jarringly so to the uninitiated.

So take a deep breath and dive in head first, eyes open—swimming amongst the ghosts Ash summons and conquers on each lush track is a truly memorable experience.

3 Standout Tracks:

"Moon Cry" ft. Papo & Mike G

With silky smooth production from Jawa, as well as complimentary verses from Papo and Odd Future’s Mike G, “Moon Cry” has all the makings of the perfect addition to any road trip playlist. The content of Ash’s swinging, jazzy hook conveys emotional depth and nuance, which makes this standout selection a lot more than an easy listening jam.

There’s an enticing duality to Ash’s perspective on "Moon Cry," at once triumphant (“I used to think this was impossible / Now I realize that I’m on top the world”) and marred with the disillusionment that accompanies a long tenure in the music business (“Show face, fake smile, act important”). Those layers are all over the project, but “Moon Cry” serves as an appropriate prelude to Ghosts’ often stormy emotional palette. Plus, it’s just damn nice on the ears.

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Classic rock was my first love, and as a lifelong fan of Zeppelin, Jimi and Janis, there’s something about Ghosts' title track that’s so irresistibly nostalgic that it will remain on repeat for a very long time. Sonically, "Ghosts" does a great job of drawing from all of Ash’s varied influences, with hints of The Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes right alongside the deeply bluesy vocal work evocative of rock’s golden age. Since this is Ash Riser, there’s also a groovy “unh” sample—a la Tyler, The Creator or Gorillaz—thrown in for good measure, preserving a hip-hop edge.  

Playing the “sounds like” game here is ultimately reductive, though. Yes, it’s easy to point to influences. But the singer’s unique ear for melody shines through, elevating “Ghosts” far beyond its nostalgic roots and delivering a unique track who's “I’ll be fine all by myself” refrain succinctly captures the project’s recurring themes of defiant independence.

"Lord Don’t Fail Me Now" ft. Left Brain

Take away the head-bobbing verse from close collaborator and Odd Future founding member Left Brain and ignore the fact that TDE in-house magician Tae Beast handles the production, and “Lord Don’t Fail Me Now” feels like a traditional gospel cut. The chorus is rich with vocal layers, booming out a harmony that’s as melancholic as it is epic. Someone, please get Quentin Tarantino on the phone, as “Lord Don’t Fail Me Now” would fit seamlessly into any dark cinematic universe.

Ash’s lyrics here are profoundly personal, and it’s impossible to escape the feeling that each emotive verse is pointed at a real figure from Riser’s past, though, you don’t need to know the subject of Ash’s ventings to feel the power these ghosts possess. Simply give in to the emotional rawness of the track, and it’ll take you places that might feel a little scary.  

In today's musical landscape, there are so many amazing independent projects dropping every week that it’s a fool’s game to pick favorites. Yet, as of now, Ghosts shines through as one of the most interesting and unique indie releases through the first six months and seven days of 2017.  

The sound is so varied and eclectic that no matter your tastes, there’s at least one track on here that’ll resonate. Whether that’s the upbeat, early 2000s rock-influenced “Déjà vu” or the electronic-tinged, grandiose ballad “Hell’s Waiting Room” will depend as much on your musical preferences as your mood when you plug in your headphones.

As a concept album, Ghosts tackles Ash Riser’s demons head-on, working through experiences as varied as friends passing away and homies selling drugs to support their artistry habits. Through each reflective, personal lyric, Ash maintains levels of emotional nuance and thematic variance that give the project a ton of depth and replay value.

As a piece of “contemporary art,” as Ash calls it, the album is just plain good music, with lush sonic landscapes and masterful attention to detail that betrays Riser’s status as a songwriting pro and studio veteran.

Talking to Ash earlier this year, it was clear that creating Ghosts was an exhaustive process. Upon listening, I'm thankful for that work—which birthed a unique, enjoyable offering—and excited to see what comes next for an artist who refuses categorization and fearlessly stares his ghosts in the eye.   



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