It’s a cliche because it’s true – no good music is made without a struggle. Compare the Wu-Tang Clan’s nervy, feral debut 36 Chambers to the Disney rap of A Better Tomorrow, or anything Metallica have done in the last 20-odd years. The list never ends.
Zed Penguin’s debut album A Ghost, A Beast is forged out of real struggle, a barely restrained cathartic exercise in dishevelled art-rock free from any self-conscious posturing. The band is led by Edinburgh-based Australian singer-songwriter Matthew Winter, a familiar face and hollering voice on the city’s underground live music scene for over a decade, making the most out of a battered 5-watt valve amp.
The convoluted story of A Ghost, A Beast includes an ill-fated attempt at becoming a fisherman on a trawler, drifting skint through Edinburgh, a job in a psychiatric hospital, a few home-made four-track demos on MySpace and an eventual debut single on Song, By Toad Records in 2012 with added members Atzi Muramatso on cello, James Metcalfe on bass and Casey Miller on drums.
The foundations were laid for a debut album, but Winter literally suffered a knockback, left with serious head injuries after a late-night street assault. Unable to play music because of a “neuropathic pain like bolts of incalculable electric agony” and too ill to work, Winter almost became homeless, so this debut album is as much a surprise as it is a triumph.
Instrumental opener Out on the Deadly Hume is a deceptive lure, with sweeping melancholy cello papering over some jagged strums, a slight hint at dread down the road. Song, By Toad label owner Matthew Young recalls first seeing Winter “howling like a banshee” at his early gigs in Edinburgh, and he channels something ‘other’ throughout the album. On Wandering, he sounds like Michael Gira loosened up after a half bottle of Scotch, with a pagan drawl over a stoned guitar delay effect that’s a ringer for Can’s I Want More. There’s another Swans touch on the sprawling eight-minute title track, with its delirious repetition, shrieks, teetering piano and a black heart vaudeville racket you can imagine Tom Waits battering into shape.
There’s plenty more disarming abstractions – the catchy garage stomp of This Town is offset by the prickly lo-fi shuffle of End of Time and the death waltz of Violent Night. And it took some balls to release The Source of My Dreams as a lead-up single and video, with its ghost-in-the-machine chanting, atonal bad trip psychedelia and rusting feedback loops.
But even if Winter leads us down a few dark corners there’s no wallowing, and there’s a sense that over the last six years the album was always there, itching to get out. Sounding relieved in the album notes, he says: “I finished it and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my entire time on Earth.”
- A Ghost, A Beast is out tomorrow on Song, By Toad Records. Get it here.