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No-Man - Schoolyard Ghosts CD (album) cover




Psychedelic/Space Rock

3.68 | 208 ratings

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4 stars The art of nostalgic melancholia as practiced by BOWNESS and WILSON.

Looking back at childhood is a common thread in the creative arts: from music to art to literature, there's a fascination with what we've left behind on becoming adults. 'Schoolyard Ghosts' is a compelling addition to this genre.

It's fascinating to compare BOWNESS' lyrics to those of WILSON, his collaborator in NO-MAN, on PORCUPINE TREE's album 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. Here we reflect on 'loving arms and cowboy guns/mothers holding wayward sons', and are told to 'take a taxi through the snow/tell them you love them/Don't let go'. On 'Fear of a Blank Planet', however, parents are held up to ridicule: 'My mother is a bitch/My father gave up ever trying to talk to me', and 'When my mother and father/gave me their problems/I accepted them all'. Here 'kids shout in summer rain', while there '[kids are] stoned in the mall again'. Thus BOWNESS offers a less nihilistic and more positive view of childhood than does WILSON. In fact, the pills WILSON bemoans on PORCUPINE TREE's recent release are in BOWNESS' world reserved for adults: 'The schoolyard ghosts, the playtime fears/You take your pills, they disappear.'

However, what resonates with the listener to this NO-MAN album is, as with all their albums, the atmosphere. Be it a discordant bell in 'Pigeon Drummer' or a simple upward tone by tone progression in 'All Sweet Things', the placement of sound - the mix, the arrangements - is all-important. Stripped of their adornment, these are simple BOWNESS ballads. However, the essence of NO-MAN is STEVEN WILSON's arrangements, evoking an atmosphere of contemplation, of reflection and nostalgia, a bitter-sweet looking back to a past fondly remembered but full of mistakes and regret.

That said, these compositions and arrangements are a step back from the sensational 'Together We're Stranger', NO-MAN's previous album. At their best (Flowermouth, Together We're Stranger) NO-MAN produce some of the most heart-achingly beautiful music on the planet. This album - by design, I'm certain - draws back from the delicious electronic ambience of those albums, using instead strings, acoustic guitars, flutes, and a variety of other analogue instruments. The effect is less blissfully dreamy and more organic, but perhaps a little less satisfying.

There are oddly contrary moments here: the strange samples in the opening track that cut across the atmosphere of perhaps the album's outstanding track (and the way the track comes to an abrupt end a la DREAM THEATER's 'Pull Me Under'), and PAT MASTOLETTO's savage drums on 'Pigeon Drummer' are but two examples. But there are moments of pure NO-MAN exaltation: part 3 of the epic 'Truenorth' is float-away glorious, as is the culmination of 'All Sweet Things'. 'Wherever There is Light' offers an achingly beautiful insight into Jane, a woman on the outside looking in: 'wherever there is light/she follows.' I cannot stop myself crying as the mellotron and flute combine to create such sadness. The theme is continued in 'Song of the Surf', WILSON's trademark desolate aural landscapes dovetailing with BOWNESS' bleak lyrics. No man does it as good as this. The album concludes with the ultimate look back: 'You'd kill for that feeling once again'.

The bonus material is excellent: a DVD with a surround sound version of the album and videos of three songs, and a bonus CD with alternate takes of some of the tracks.

Though without the full progressive feel of their previous album, this record's shimmering beauty is yet another landmark, perhaps the most satisfying nostalgia trip since BOARDS OF CANADA's 'Music Has the Right to Children'. Connoisseurs of beauty and ambience (of the sort latter-day TALK TALK offered) ought to acquire this, and much of NO-MAN's back catalogue, forthwith.

russellk | 4/5 |


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