If you’ve been keeping an eye on the thematic trends occupying the landscape of western pop fiction over the past couple of years then the concept behind Delta Sleep’s most recent album Ghost City might not strike you as being much to write home about in terms of originality, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in thinking that. It’s a dystopian narrative centered around a futuristic super-city whose ideology is based upon a faux social collectivism as established under the rule and for the benefit of major tech corporations, having replaced concepts of individuality and personal agency with a rigid daily schedule centered around interactions with the city’s technological foundations. To top it off, all of this is perceived and relayed through the eyes of an unnamed female protagonist. Perhaps that description just bought a few titles with similar settings and themes to mind; however, the experience Delta Sleep offers here is so distinct within its genre that any and all potential comparisons will be long forgotten by the time you reach its conclusion.
The UK progressive math rock group kicks off the record with “Sultans of Ping”, a slow building anthem characterized by gorgeous cyclical guitars leads that swirl and develop as lead vocalist Devin Yuceil repeats the chorus that serves as the connecting thread of the album’s thematic arc:
“Soft sound so soothing, something that sits so deep in the back of your head while you’re asleep/I caught you running for something so far away knowing you could not spend another day (you cannot stay forever).”
The song slowly begins to take form, steadily escalating with embellishments of reverberating choir vocals and a subtle drum buildup, and just as the tension reaches its peak it’s released it all at once, allowing the listener to gently fall into the enveloping sounds of soft guitar leads and rolling toms, but this respite lasts only a moment before the track takes flight once more, continuing to branch out and expand until reaching its conclusion.
The technical skill and structural prowess displayed on this winding and adventurous opener are exemplary of the band’s most notable strengths; careful balances of tension and release, gorgeous melodies enhanced by odd time signatures and eccentric rhythmic flourishes that rarely fail to engage and captivate. While Delta Sleep takes a relatively straightforward and conventional approach to math rock here, relying on many of the soundscapes, melodies and structural elements typically associated with it and doing little by means of exploring new musical territory, to criticize their musical style in isolation from the highly conceptual lyrics would be to completely discard the significant thematic cohesion and interplay between them. For example, tracks like “After Dark” and “Single File” utilize repetition and constricting time signatures to convey its thematic ideas of mundanity and the tedious daily routines of a society devoid of individual consciousness. “Single File” does this especially well, coupled with lyrics such as “Meagre sleep to spend time in tall buildings in front of scrolling numbers on computer screens”. In the bridge, the vocals dramatically shift to passionate outcries as its lead character expresses her frustration with the the sheer effort required to simply function within the city without going insane, all whilst remaining trapped within the song’s constricted rhythm. However, just after the narrator determinately announces “it’s done”, the song gives way to a free-flowing chorus, a moment of musical respite causing a genuine release of catharsis in the listener. Similarly, tracks like “Dream Thang” emphasize simplistic, dreamy guitar melodies that build up to an effective crescendo, capturing the track’s theme of discontent, and then the overwhelming sense of anticipation leading up to action. “El Pastor” is another immediate highlight from the tracklist whose bright, colorful textures and enrapturing sense of energy make for a moving climax to the story as the protagonist discovers and explores parts of her world that she had never known existed, thinking to herself, “this could end the suffering”.
It’s in this way that Delta Sleep’s stylistic leanings converge with the weighty thematic concepts they aim to convey. If the album were more experimental on the sonic front then perhaps it would be more likely to claim additional critical accolades, but in sticking to their guns and allowing their skillful performances and gorgeous melodies to bolster and amplify the album’s narrative the band cultivates a rich listening experience that’s immediately coherent and immersive. And while we’re talking about Ghost City’s narrative, it’s worth pointing out that while not particularly original for its genre, it’s firing on all cylinders start to finish, being one of the most effective and cohesive concept albums I’ve listened to this year. The subtle emphasis on world-building spread out across its eleven track run does an excellent job of introducing you to the story’s universe and the conflicts of its lead character, and as such it rewards repeated listens as it continues to unfold and reveal itself to its audience.
While Ghost City is impressively consistent in its delicate and detailed handling of its narrative and instrumentation, it’s not without faults. Its lyricism tends to be very on-the-nose, which isn’t necessarily bad in of itself but paired with the incredibly subtle and technical musicianship it makes for a bit of an odd contrast that occasionally serves to remove me from the experience. While the vocals are good and adequately sell the various emotional highs and lows of the record, I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to call them memorable. Additionally, the album’s two instrumental tracks “Ghost” and “Glass”, while containing some pretty melodies that fit well within the context of the album’s structure, don’t offer a lot to chew on in of themselves. However, Delta Sleep’s approach to storytelling is so effective that even while being imperfect they still manage to be impactful, presenting some genuine challenges to their listeners along the way.
The second to last track “Floater” seeks to explore and speak to the ways in which we interact with technology in this modern digital age. It begins with the lead character’s pained laments at all the time they see themselves as having wasted trapped within the “joyless routine” of the city, living “a life that consists of getting by under all those flashing lights”. She later realizes that all she had ever wanted was to “find a place where she could sit and watch the sunrise in real time”, away from the society that harnessed technology as a shackle to suppress the dreams and ideas of its citizens. Following the joyous and cathartic “El Pastor” and a brief interlude, this track cuts like a hot knife, asking the listener to consider the ways in which they’ve lived their lives within the context of the increasingly dominant presence of technology in modern society. Are we living from behind computer screens and under flashing lights? Have our interactions within online spaces changed our perceptions of ourselves as individuals and the ways we interact with others? Are we capable of finding satisfaction and acceptance outside of those spaces, or are we forever doomed to be sucked back in? To what extent are we, too, trapped in our own “ghost cities”, and how do we escape them?
In many ways, I find myself relating to this unidentified protagonist. I’m certainly not one to decry the ways we’ve come to understand, utilize and interact with technology, far from it; however, I also can’t deny having experienced the suffocating effects that it can have on those who abuse it. The loneliness, the tedious routine, the inner need for human connection while feeling unable to access it and the desire to escape while being unsure of how to do so. These are all things I’m intimately familiar with. What Ghost City offers may be a fairly simplistic commentary on an increasingly broad subject, one that might beg for a more detailed exploration than what the band has to give; however, it’s effective and unavoidable, and as such, it is challenging.
The story Delta Sleep tells with this record might come off as being rather grim and cynical of our society’s future, but the final track “Afterimage” manages to close the album on a positive note. Here, they reiterate the melody from the intro track with a new set of lyrics that, while open to interpretation, would seem to imply an optimistic ending for its lead character and, by extension, a genuine placement of hope in the ability of humanity to one day find the answer that will “end the suffering”, before we become ghost cities ourselves.
Delta Sleep. Ghost City. Gorgeous math rock melodies, painfully challenging and immersive thematic lyricism. Decent-to-Strong 8/10.