The Ghost Inside’s New Album Is So Much More Than Their ‘Accident Record’
Life is often directed by split-second twists-of-fate that blindside our most mundane moments. Yet it need not be defined by them. Just ask The Ghost Inside.
The journey between Jake’s Sports Bar in Lubbock, Texas and the Phoenix, Arizona’s Nile Theater – stops on 2015’s domestic run dubbed ‘The Locals Only Tour’ for its focus on provincial support – was supposed to be another sleepy slog, surrounded by the desolate beauty of the Southwestern Fall. It only took the blink of an eye on the morning of November 19 for two lives to be lost and all of their futures permanently re-shaped as tour bus collided with semi truck on Highway 180.
1,650 days later – the band count sunrises as if to maintain perspective on that fateful one – their story continues to unfold. Trauma, they have grown to understand, isn’t about those unfortunate few seconds of flip-of-the-coin carnage. It’s the physical and psychological toll taken, the arduous process of recovery, and that scar tissue it leaves behind – simultaneously tenderer and tougher than what was there before. Its learnings aren’t those of pain and hopelessness, but the new appreciation of life and death, humanity and hope, strength and brotherhood that flourishes in their wake. In defining The Ghost Inside in 2020, their self-titled fifth LP is a reckoning on all that and more.
“Why would you write 11 songs about one day,” asks Jim Riley, bassist and self-proclaimed ‘band dad’, with disarming simplicity, “when you have 1,100 days to draw from?”
For Jim and his bandmates – vocalist Jonathan Vigil, guitarists Zach Johnson and Chris Davis, and drummer Andrew Tkaczyk – not every every one in the interim has been characterised by raised-fist defiance. There have been countless surgeries, thousands of hours of agony and too many sleepless nights lost to anxiety, self-doubt and sheer uncertainty. Determination has been a constant, however, to test their abilities and continue as masters of their fate. And there have been towering rewards: the moment in late 2018 where practice resumed; July 14, 2019’s towering comeback in front of 8,000 fans at Los Angeles’ The Shrine; a triumphant showing at Australia’s Unify Gathering on January 11 this year. June 5’s album release promises to be their next.
“Each album, for any band,” Jim continues, stressing the breadth of their scope, “is a snapshot of the time between the moment they finish their previous record and the point at which they turn in the masters to the label on this new one. We had actually started writing before the crash to record in early 2016. The topic on the tips of everyone’s tongues back then was that our founding guitarist (Aaron Brooks), who happened to be our main songwriter, had left the band. Some of those feelings of loss and separation have carried right through.”
“We wanted to take people through the rollercoaster of emotions pre‑, during and post-accident,” Jonathan explains. “Who we were, how we were and what we were going to be in the future.”
READ THIS: 15 albums still to look forward to in 2020
It’s a traumatic template that seems too well-worn in heavy music as of late, and The Ghost Inside are not shy about acknowledging those routes to recovery waymarked by their friends.
“For Architects, [2018 album] Holy Hell is such a dynamic record,” Jim explains. “It deals with their lives after losing Tom [Searle, founding guitarist, who passed away in 2016], but not every song is about Tom. Lamb Of God did the same thing with [2015’s] Sturm Und Drang. Randy explained that obviously this is heavily influenced by his experience of going to prison [following an indictment on manslaughter charges in the Czech Republic in 2012], but he didn’t write 13 Lamb Of God songs about sitting in a fucking jail cell.”
Healing has not been a linear process, nor has it been uniform for each member of the band. In drawing out their self-portrait, everyone has contributed to the palette.
“The conversations that the five of us had – over text, over FaceTime, over coffee – moulded the lyrical content that went into the record. The three of us,” Jim gestures to his guitarists, “were not major contributors to the literal poetry, but it was the collective of the five of us who shaped the themes that became the songs that formed the record as a whole.”
Jonathan nods. “It’s not something you can put timestamps on. Recovery was a long process. some people recovered right away, some people took a long time to recover, some people are still recovering.”
Several of the band describe the loss of identity – having been tied so integrally to a band which, for years, simply ceased to exist – as one of the deepest psychological wounds to salve. Who were they, after so many years and so much investment, if not Jim, Vigil or Andrew from The Ghost Inside? As they finally gravitated back together in late 2018 – convening at Andrew’s place – that healing was truly able to begin.
“It was cathartic to start writing again: something I didn’t know meant as much to me as it did,” reflects Jonathan. “To be able to be in the room with those four other guys and play and create and write was something I took for granted in the past. It was hard for me not to get emotional.”
Re-entering the studio for the first time since 2014, they found a host of fresh challenges – from simply feeling-out the songwriting dynamic for this lineup, to overcoming their various new physical struggles – but also the opportunity to take their time, tap into a fresh well of experience and produce a record of which they could be truly proud. Rather than fitting writing and recording around a hectic schedule of 200 shows and 10 months on the road per year, there was finally time to step back and take stock.
“It felt like album five was our first chance to analyse everything going into the record,” Jim explains. “We’ve been a band for 10 or 12 years now, and it felt like time to solidify our sound. We wanted to combine the best elements of our previous three records [2010’s Returners, 2012’s Get What You Give, 2014’s Dear Youth], with an understanding of what works for us and fits within the DNA of The Ghost Inside. This was always going to be an opportunity to push the boundaries and emphasise the things we love.”
Andrew – whose indomitable approach to losing his right leg above the knee continues to inspire all around him, and whose skill with a guitar is reportedly a match for any of his bandmates – bravely thrust himself into the songwriting void left by Aaron’s departure. An impassioned creative and experienced songsmith who regularly drops solo compositions under his ‘One Decade’ moniker, there was no better choice. His fleshed-out vision feels like a powerful expansion of what’s come before.
“We weren’t trying to keep up with the times,” the drummer says, purposefully. “We weren’t trying to cater to any genre. We weren’t worried about making music that was going to satisfy everyone so much as making an album that we were excited about.”
Able assistance was at hand in the form of two producers at the top of their game: A Day To Remember frontman Jeremy MacKinnon (who had previously collaborated on Dear Youth, and whose bittersweet influence bleeds through heavily on anthem One Choice) and Will Putney (who had worked with Chris’ previous outfit, Texas In July, and came highly recommended by a host of their peers, but was new to The Ghost Inside).
“One of the key things Will brought to the table,” Jim explains, “was that he wasn’t intimidated by the magnitude of this record. He didn’t feel like he couldn’t interfere. He fully became like a sixth member of the band. There were producers we could’ve gone to who would’ve been happy to leave us to our own devices. But I don’t think that we were ready. We didn’t walk in there with a record that was 100% done, just looking for someone to press record. We needed someone with that outside perspective to be brutally honest with us when they needed to be. His confidence bled into the rest of us.”
Chris laughs, remembering a bluntness with which the band had perhaps become unaccustomed where, on reviewing their initial demos, “Will could see what we were trying to do, but told us maybe we should do it right.”
With hard truths out of the way, a narrative unwinds of charged creativity: Will and Andrew “mind-melding”, with guitars in hand to complete three songs in the space of two days; Jeremy helping “poop out” arena-ready choruses; a bar being steadily raised from Andrew’s decision to eschew programmed drums in favour of live recordings with the prosthesis affectionately nicknamed ‘The Hammer’ to Jonathan being pushed to face-up to more brutal realities he would’ve previously sidestepped.
“Some of it was really tough,” the singer nods. “But we couldn’t hold back on any part of this process. If we did, we’d be cheating. I have to give Will and Jeremy credit for that. I don’t know if I would have had the courage or the tenacity to get where I did without them.”
For all that, though, the overwhelming memories of their time in the studio are positive. With Chris in Maryland and Andrew in Michigan, while the rest of the band base in Las Vegas, Nevada, getting together – in Orlando, Florida, then Belleville, New Jersey – marked the first truly meaningful time in each other’s company in years, for a band who had previously lived in each other’s pockets.
Jim smiles. “It reaffirmed that although we had grown separately, we hadn’t grown apart.”
Indeed, although the trust and tenderness that had been shaped by the years and painful experience in the interim was more pronounced, the brotherly mischievousness and shared sense of “garbage” humour was quickly renewed. Creative fulfilment is one thing, but there is almost as much relish in their exuberantly goofy stories of Andrew taking all of Jonathan’s money while playing dice to break the monotony of tracking instruments, various members being forced to throw away entire meals on forfeits, and even Zach scoffing down a bagel loaded with salmon and Oreo cream-cheese.
“It was fucked-up,” the guitarist flashes a disgusted grin, “cruel and unusual punishment!”
“It was kinda’ hard not to have a good time on this record,” Jonathan nudges in. “There was a point where none of us knew if this would ever be able to happen again, so when it did we had to experience it with humility and happiness, a mix of excitement and humbleness.”
There is much to unpack in the finished article. Overloaded with sledgehammer riffs, seismic breakdowns and fiercely affirmative songcraft, it has an explosive, adrenalised immediacy. But The Ghost Inside is a record that rewards time and attention, too.
Jim sees three different “levels of interpretation.” Casual listeners, largely unfamiliar with the band, will be able to crank a tune or two in the gym, and perhaps have their heads turned by some stand-out musical moments. Metalcore aficionados will be able to unpack the layers of musicality, know their favourite song and be sharply aware that The Ghost Inside are back in business. For true fans, though – those familiar with their story who have continually reached out on social media during the years away – the record is packed with symbolism, callbacks and a depth of meaning that could otherwise go unnoticed.
The opening pound of Andrew’s drums and Jonathan’s roar of ‘T.G.I.’ on intro-track 1333 feel like a particularly defiant salvo from musicians refusing to go gently into the night. Lyrical motifs spiral in on themselves and call back to precious records, with particularly impassioned war-cry ‘This is the new sound of sacrifice’ on Still Alive invoking This Is What I Know About Sacrifice from Get What You Give. There is even a discernible narrative arc running throughout, with initial shock-and-awe segueing through passages of darkness and doubt to a conclusion that delicately balances hope and uncertainty.
“The whole record builds towards Aftermath and that final guitar lead fading out,” Jonathan nods. “We wanted to leave listeners with that feeling of being hurt but hopeful. That is the most emotional riff on the record. You hear it and don’t know whether to be happy or sad. That was kinda’ how it was for us. We didn’t know whether to be sad that this had happened to us or happy [we’d survived].”
If Aftermath is the climax of the album’s cathartic process, its deployment as lead-single is also symbolic – of a desire to shift focus as they step out of the studio and back into the world, from that past injury to future possibility. It represents a turning of the page (an opportunity to “answer a lot of questions and get those tears out of the way so that people can actually enjoy the record,” as Jim alludes) and the beginning of a new chapter with eyes squarely on the road ahead.
Fans worrying that The Shrine’s mega-crowd might’ve inspired TGI to follow good friends in Parkway Drive in a “butt-rock” assault on the metal mainstream – chasing the slots being vacated by retiring heavyweights like Slayer – needn’t worry, mind. Although there are some enormous moments on this record, none are at the expense of the serratedness that makes The Ghost Inside.
“We don’t have that same ambition,” Jim shrugs. “That’s not to say that we wouldn’t love to be as big as Parkway – but if we achieve that, we’re going to do it in a different way. We’ve already been offered pretty big pay-cheques to go play shows to which we’ve said no. Sometimes an offer will be circulated on our group-text and we’ll just be like ‘Nah!’ I’ll look again and think, ‘I can’t believe we just turned that down!” But it’s not part of our plan, not part of our vision for what we want to do and what we want this thing to be.”
The aspect that has seen aggressive expansion is the positivist message that has always been at their heart. On unpacking the album and opening the liner-noes, those fans will see a message: ‘This album is the ultimate testament that life may swing hard, but it is always possible to swing harder.’ It’s far more than an easy reference to 2014 landmark Mercy, signposting a reinforcement from men whose understanding of struggle and strife have been twisted mercilessly into focus.
“Humans are resilient,” Andrew explains. “We are powerful beings. Our minds can overcome far more than we would ever think. We figure it out. We fight for our lives.”
READ THIS: 15 of the best ‘headphones albums’
New, grittier textures have been filtered into The Ghost Inside sound to make that point. The emotional nadir of dark highlight Unseen – Jonathan begging the question ‘Am I lucky to be alive, when it took everything to find a shred of hope in only shadows of me?’ – is an ear-catching standout in terms of sheer desolation. But far more jagged shards of thought and feeling that would’ve been buffed away entirely on previous records strikingly protrude. When the singer seethes that he wants to ‘Cut you out like the leech you are’ on Pressure Point, it’s a direct call-out to the two-faced individuals who seem to piggyback on others’ suffering for attention. His desperate ‘I don’t want to be, no I don’t want to be just like you and take what comes my way’ on Make Or Break he lays bare the struggle to reignite the passion for an outfit he loves. Neither song offers much by way of resolution. These emotions – apathy, resentment, hopelessness, panic – are new to The Ghost Inside, but they are crucial anchors for the album’s harsh reality.
“It’s rawer,” Andrew stresses. “More human.”
“You’ve got to show the whole beast, otherwise it’s not going to do it justice,” adds Jonathan. “The album is about being open and honest, going through every detail. We couldn’t be metaphorical here, we had to be precise. That means more. That defines who we are. We needed the listener to know that sometimes it’s not OK, but there’s always the chance to turn that around.”
Crucially, the inspirational exchange runs in both directions. For years, fans had reached out to express the power of The Ghost Inside’s music as a life-affirming force. Finally, the band understood the reality of that suffering and salvation. A heightened sense of responsibility eventually shifted into true pride as they came to understand the redemptive strength of their songs, establishing a circular flow of understanding and empathy that will permanently enrich the broader TGI family.
“Our older lyrics were written from a genuine perspective,” Jim reckons. “We had been through adversity before. Vigil’s father passed away while we were on tour in Australia, for instance, and he stayed with the band. But where life might’ve been throwing us a 60mph meatball – and we were swinging really hard – this was different. We found ourselves faced with so many questions – an introspective contemplation that brought the band back to life. Could we walk the walk? Could we practice what we had been preaching all these years? Are we the strong? Are we gonna’ survive? Are we swinging harder?”
They’re answered resoundingly in these songs. As much as dropping this album will feel like a glorious counterpoint to that terrible morning in 2015, however – victory snatched from the jaws of defeat – that ultimately fleeting moment will equally be far less significant than the onward journey and that enduring spirit of The Ghost Inside.
“Just knowing that our band didn’t end with Dear Youth or at that sports bar in Texas feels so good to me,” Jonathan grins, finally. “We could never really give up because so much of our band has been about not giving up. When we realised that our music had helped so many people to not give up in their lives, it wasn’t really an option in ours.”
As The Ghost Inside unleash their Rise From The Ashes: Live At The Shrine album, we look back at the band’s story of pain, resolve, unity and hope…
Venom: Let There Be Carnage’s Tom Hardy and Andy Serkis try to figure out if the likes of Venom Prison, Mania and Grendel are death metal bands or Marvel symbiotes…