Snow Ghosts’ debut album, A Small Murmuration, opens with a distorted drone, singer Augustus Ghost (a.k.a. Hannah Cartwright) ominously setting the tone with a haunting tale of figurative, or maybe literal, battle: “It’s not so wise/If you try to run/It’s not so wise/You know I’ve won.” At just over two minutes, the song successfully builds tension with little in the way of resolution, with Cartwright repeating, “The hunter becomes the hunted,” ad nauseam atop a throbbing kick drum, leaving you wanting more and wondering where it’s all going, a feeling that recurs throughout much of the rest of the album.
True to their name, Snow Ghosts’ music is chilly and otherworldly. Producer Throwing Snow (a.k.a. Ross Tones) is clearly a student of fellow Bristol natives Massive Attack and Tricky. With a few exceptions (such as “Untangle Me” and, more fleetingly, “Gallows Strung”), he eschews 4/4 beats for those of a more off-kilter variety. Dense, complex rhythm collages reminiscent of Post-era Björk abound on “Secret Garden” and “Covenant,” while the album’s lead single, “Murder Cries,” builds slowly—almost frustratingly so—to a satisfying, stuttery dubstep beat.
With Tones’s production taking center stage, as it does on “Ropery,” with its jazzy percussion and drum n’ bass flourishes, Cartwright’s vocals can seem incidental. Aside from some references to “blood in my mouth,” the lyrics of “Covenant,” featuring electronic artist Blue Daisy, are nearly indecipherable amid Tones’s hypnotic layers of crisscrossing programmed beats and keyboard synths. Cartwright is, however, the star—or at least the co-star—of standouts like “Secret Garden” and the Lana Del Rey-esque ballad “And the World Was Gone.”
With its atypical song structures and abrupt shifts between bass music and string-laden folk songs, A Small Murmuration is the aural equivalent of an erdogic novel (the album was reportedly inspired by Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental book House of Leaves), forcing the listener to be an active participant and recalibrate his or her ears multiple times in just over half an hour. Snow Ghosts might take what they’re doing a little too seriously, and the album’s gothic, macabre undertones can seem silly at times, but it’s hard to resist sinking down into the duo’s melodramatic doom and gloom.