With its swelling strings and razor-sharp beat production, a blindfold test would suggest that the title track from Pilot Balloon’s Ghastly Good Cheer is a long-lost Massive Attack release. The telltale sign that it is, indeed, someone else comes with the odd spoken-word samples and, as the track moves further along, some experimental Japanese-sounding strings. The harsh guitars and breakbeats of “Testimonial Match” suggest the same. Within Ghastly Good Cheer‘s first twenty minutes, you have a good idea where the duo is coming from: a gluttonous diet of trip-hop with an obvious reverence for the fluid and complex drum programming of Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and an appreciation and understanding of the cut-up Akai MPC manipulation of DJ Shadow.
Pilot Balloon is comprised of producers Judson MacRae and KaeoFLUX (at least give us a real name; this isn’t 1997 drum ‘n’ bass). The former studied classical composition and conducting, the later deejayed and produced. Realizing their musical visions were closely aligned, the two began to work together in Massachusetts four years ago; Ghastly Good Cheer is their first record.
The album’s strongest quality is its beats; it’s evident that a lot of time, thought and editing went into them. This emphasis gives the record a hip-hop/breakbeat platform on which to experiment. It then delves into post-rock — think Fridge or the aforementioned Four Tet — jazz and electronic music. Synths are used to excellent effect on the record. The two also used guitar, bass, drums, turntables and a sampler to piece together their collages, which at times seem chaotic but manage to come together and sound coherent.
But the record’s downfall is its inconsistency. There are moments of sheer production brilliance and clever arrangements, like on “Mister Clicks,” which has engaging beats, a distinctive jazz element, and synths that add a subtle tinge of background ambience. But then terrible stoned-out vocals come in, and the duo proceeds to completely overstep its bounds, further evidenced by KaeoFLUX’s flow on”Hug Dusty” or the vocals by Swedish Stacs of Stamina on “Throe Stasis.” The rapping feels unnecessary and contrived, and if you are going to take things that route, at least get a guest emcee who is going to augment the stellar groundwork you’ve laid.
It pains me to speak badly about this record, because the beats are truly well studied and special. It’s just that they’ve tried to do too much. A more sparse and paired-down approach would do, like they used on the final track, “Christian Stirfry.” Its excellent guitar line floats over syncopated and complex drum programming and rich textures. Pilot Balloon stays within its bounds on that track, and the result is fantastic.