Laser vision: Ghostland Observatory cut through the fog

by Ryan Snyder

Few artists have ever been as unfairly maligned in their existence as Ghostland Observatory were after the release of their 2008 album Robotique Majestique. Granted, judged solely on the merits of the music contained therein, it was not a particularly strong release, and neither was its followup Codeman: Rondo. In a total vacuum, the Austin, Texas electro-rock duo of Thomas Turner and Aaron Behrens aren’t great lyricists, neither is a stellar drummer or guitarist, respectively. None of those aspects are especially central to the dance machine that is Ghostland Observatory, however. They do know how to throw a hell of a party, and they came through in full at Ziggy’s on Saturday night.

In their few years leading up to their aggravated predation by the music press, there was hardly a festival lineup that didn’t have GLO cast in some tantalizing late night slot. They are a group that’s built for the dark, after-hours gig: Filthy bass and stonerized computer jams by the ever-caped beat magician Turner smash prodigiously into Behrens’ pseudo-operatic vocals and relentless footwork, all while quivers of lasers reign down on the crowd like bolts from the bow of Apollo. On their records, only part of that equation is represented, sometimes in questionable arrangement, but GLO is something much more splendid than their permanent, physical record that occupies a CD or mp3 player. It’s just populist beat porn that doesn’t take itself overly seriously either in conception or execution.

That mentality certainly has its benefits. Following an unexpectedly great blend of French House and electro-hop by Asheville’s Don Winsley, GLO weren’t even two songs into their show when the smoke that filled the room between sets set off the building’s fire system. Behrens was stomping out the middle of “Piano Man’s” tweaked-out groove when the sound cut unexpectedly, the swath of purple lasers disappeared and the house lights went up.

Neither member got annoyed and stormed off stage; rather, Behrens slowly raised his hands as if willing the show back on, took a hand cue from the lighting booth and exited stage left until fire inspectors gave the all-clear.

They returned, Behrens sporting a surprising look after having shorn his trademark pigtails, cued up his effects one more time and took off across stage mid-song like nothing had ever happened.

Stylistically, GLO don’t make a lot of effort to hide their influences, even live. Opener “Glitter” borrows its downbeat from Gary Glitter and synth crunch from Electric Light Orchestra’s “Hold On Tight,” and the lazy groove of mid-set anchor “Holy Ghost White Noise” recalled a marriage of the Who’s “Eminence Front” and U2’s “Numb.” The title track from Codename: Rondo takes a more subversive path, its spoken word commandments existing snugly in a pocket beat born from the nastiest jams the Jimmy Castor Bunch offered. Their crowds don’t seem to mind such nuances, however.

GLO get a lot of flack from the critical community for their intense light show, but it’s not cheesy. It’s a throwback without the insincerity, much like the band’s own purportedly retread beats recall to antiquated technology. The abundance of lasers make sense to the show, however. It’s as if Behrens pictured this in his bedroom as a teenager dancing to Scritti Politti or Tubeway Army, and now he’s just acting it out onstage. Sure, the music feels familiar even for those hearing it for the first time, but in the throes of a wicked beat, rarely does anyone take the time to consider musical lineage before putting one foot in front of the other. GLO may be reinventing a well-traveled wheel, but so long as Behrens can’t stop dancing to it, neither should anyone else.