They've been called one of China's best metal bands.
And that might be true, if rising black metallers Ghost Bath were, you know, from China. The local-ish band's origins have been a source of contention, strife, and comedy since they burst onto the global metal stage a few years ago.
Back in 2013, a solitary songwriter the world was reluctantly introduced to as “Nameless” was recording fringe black metal by himself in Minot, North Dakota. After making creative compromises in a previous post-hardcore band, Dennis Mikula was realizing his dark vision of marrying post-rock riffing and polished production with depressive suicidal black metal (DSBM) – an atmospheric, lo-fi strain of black metal as drenched with despair as it sounds.
The little headbanger on the prairie created a Bandcamp page for his one-man project, Ghost Bath, as lonesome musicians are wont to do. Inspired by mythic black metal act Silencer, which was shrouded in bizarre insane asylum lore, Mikula wanted to keep his identity and whereabouts a mystery. Unfortunately, “location” was a required field on the music streaming website, so he arbitrarily listed Chongqing, China.
A few months later, a tiny Chinese label reached out, offering to release 50 copies of Ghost Bath's debut EP. Pest Productions, a larger label trading primarily in Chinese black metal, caught wind of Ghost Bath's uniquely blistering melancholy and put out its first full-length, Funeral, in 2014.
By the time the mournfully epic “Golden Number” from its sophomore effort Moonlover lit up major music blogs the following year, Ghost Bath was being erroneously hailed as “China's answer to Deafheaven.”
“I thought it was pretty funny,” Mikula says. “Most of the time [in interviews] I would say I don’t want you to write about our origin or where we’re from, or about the members themselves. I’d say that specifically and then they’d come out with an article that was about Chinese history for the whole article [laughs]. I was like ‘All right, nothing I can do then.’”
Mikula insists the labels were in on the gag (although Noisey reports they weren't initially), with Pest Productions shilling promo billing Ghost Bath as a band “from the ancient East.” The lie afforded Mikula the anonymity he sought, so he never bothered to correct journalists during interviews.
But as the wallowing Moonlover took off, online sleuths and a desire to play live forced Mikula to come clean. With Minot not exactly being an extreme metal hub, he recruited his live band from the Twin Cities (three members play with confrontational prog rockers Alistair Hennessy). After posting a picture of himself and his bandmates for the first time, duped fans and writers gradually caught on.
“People either thought it was awesome, still loved us, didn’t care, or they got really angry,” Mikula says. “That’s fine with me. I like being polarizing.”
Gone is the cachet of obscurity and exoticism the false narrative provided. But the controversy was an undoubted boon to the band's career. Early this year Ghost Bath inked a deal with metal behemoth Nuclear Blast – a label not known for delving into the niche of depressive black metal. This summer Nuclear Blast re-released Moonlover, shining a larger spotlight on the divisive band.
Mikula and Co. cap their breakout 2016 with a late-addition show Friday at the Terminal Bar, ending a North American tour in Minneapolis.
Bogus back story or no, Moonlover is a beautifully somber affair worthy of its praise. The cathartic record, the first in a planned trilogy based loosely on The Divine Comedy, deftly weaves soaring, melodic guitar leads with downtrodden tempos and pained, shrieking vocals. The post-rock influences and beefed-up production invite the oft-repeated Deafheaven comparisons, which Mikula admits he can kinda see, though his main inspirations came from Cascadian black metal vets Agalloch and fellow DSBM bands like Austere and Australia's Germ.
Critics have also noted similarities in song and album titles: see Ghost Bath's “Happyhouse” and “Beneath the Shade Tree” off Moonlover, compared to Deafheaven's “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree” from its Sunbather LP. Last year Deafheaven ripped Ghost Bath in an interview, accusing Mikula of jacking their style.
“They stole everything about their whole shit from us,” guitarist Kerry McCoy told pitchfork.
Mikula doesn't seem too fazed by the natural (if overstated) comparisons to the band that found favor among indie-rock circles. The most conspicuous distinction between the two is Mikula's grieving, panic-stricken vocals, which will likely keep Ghost Bath from similar crossover appeal.
His raw, anti-guttural wail – a common DSBM trait – sounds straight out of a horror film casting call. It's off-putting to even some metal diehards, but perfectly suits the genre's emotional torment and atmospheric release.
After quietly wrapping up this tour with Friday's show, organized by friends, Ghost Bath plans to hit the studio in a few months. Mikula promises the next album will be more uplifting, fueled by ecstasy and hopefulness – the heaven to Moonlover's purgatory, he says.
Since graduating from solo recording project, Ghost Bath's main man has traded one prairie for another, relocating to a farmhouse in Buffalo Center, Iowa – a pastoral border town two hours south of Minneapolis. The cost of living is cheap and his commute to their Twin Cities rehearsals is far shorter than the eight-hour drives he previously endured. “I was driving more than I was actually practicing,” Mikula recalls.
With the dust settling on the China fib that punked the industry, Mikula has no regrets about how it played out. Even if it forced the once “nameless” songwriter to discuss his true origins more than he cared to and pissed a few people off along the way.
“If I would've done things differently, I don't know where I would be today,” he says. “It was fun the whole way through [laughs]. I've always been a fan of the anti-hero, the villain. I don’t want people to absolutely hate me, but I don’t want to be some perfect guy. That’s not human.”
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