There are new additions to the London-based crew. The performing line-up of full-time members Andii on guitars/banjo and Al on drums remains intact. Skeleton Coast introduces AJ Hollywood on lead vocals, Win Detleiv on bass/backing vocals and Les Murphy on backing vocals. Nathaniel Johnstone (formerly of Abney Park) guests on violin on three of the four tracks.
My expectations were thrown off when the first song, “Fire in the Hole,” began. Why was I taken aback to hear a woman on vocals? It’s surprising to hear a different lead singer when you’ve come to expect a particular voice. For the band to add a new vocals of the opposite sex initially made me think, “What the hey?”. After all, the name “AJ” doesn’t drop any hints. I actually wondered whether this would be a one-off for the song or if she would sing on all four tracks on the EP. She’s in for the long (keel) haul.
The change matters and it doesn’t matter. It’s obviously a big change up. It alters the arrangement of the songs. There’s less roughness and more sweetness in the vocals. At the same time, it’s not really an issue because her voice works. It retains Ghostfire’s drama, which has to do with songwriting and structure, but adds a counterpoint to the walloping, galloping rhythm section. The change serves the band well.
It’s also interesting to note that this comes at a time when Ghostfire has decided to write some seafaring songs. Is it a nod to pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read? With “Masters of the Sea” on Drunk Lullabies and The Tyburn Jig, it’s not like nautical songs are uncharted waters for the band. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, AJ’s presence helps the songs. They become pirate-friendly but gender-free.
This is immediately apparent on “Fire in the Hole.” It’s a rousing call to pirate action. The battle cry of “Drums on the wind/Sails on the water/Guns on the deck/Fire in the hole” drops you on a pirate ship, but narration gives no gender. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of ambiguity. It adds an all-encompassing quality for a shanty sing-along.
“Nothing Right Here” sports twanging guitar and a creepy crawl lurch. I’m a sucker for those. It adds the Skeleton to the Coast and plays to the Old One on the cover artwork.
“Servants” ups the epic factor. Approaching six minutes, it begins with a driving acoustic strum and moody violin, then the martial beat kicks in. Halfway through, the tune breaks down to feature AJ’s vocalizing. It serves as a parallel to Johnstone’s guest violin. Then it stirs again.
“Griminsky’s Soul” ends with a gypsy bounce. Perhaps a hussar has decided to commandeer a vessel for the Barbary Coast.
Skeleton Coast expands on the nautical theme that they explored on their earlier song “Masters of the Sea.” Shanties suit their folk side. The addition of AJ on vocals and Nathaniel Johnstone’s violin broadens their scope. Where will the voyage take them?
The Skeleton Coast EP became available digitally on September 30, 2013, at iTunes and http://www.ghostfiremusic.com/