Review: Magnetic Ghost – “Pixels”

There are many spots where one can enter Pixels, the new LP from Magnetic Ghost, the nom de guerre of Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Andy Larson. I like to begin with the second track, “Joshua Tree at Sunset”. The piece starts amidst a buzzing drone, and the swells wax vaguely synthetic, backed by the whirring of gears and the inverse loop of recorded noise. But they also are utterly cinematic, as Larson introduces the faintest hint of frozen-crystal post-rock guitars to bring his sound-portrait into perspective.

Enter the voice.

“Everybody wants / To own the end of the world,” Layton intones, and the whole thing fades to black, the percussion silenced, the swells dropping out: an unexpected drawing of the curtain. Then, pause, two, three, four, it suddenly resurfaces again, the glassy guitars and maraca-shake offering structure as synths and other electronic bits of faux dissonance thrum and throb in the background, drifting from side to side. “All roads lead away from / Future ghost towns now,” he sings, his voice, passionate but subdued, a half-step or two above a whisper. “Four million iPhones / Self-medication zones / Endless size.” The piece unfolds for five enveloping minutes or so, ebbing and flowing, flowing and ebbing, and there are moments when it genuinely will send chills up your spine. Here’s your thesis, kids: this is quite possibly the best initiation of a song I’ve heard yet in 2020.

Pixels is, in short, absolutely masterful stuff from a sound-sculptor sitting at the intersection of post-rock, post-classical, and strains of ambient music. Others have passed this point in the musical-idiom road; after all, Vancouverite Scott Morgan (Loscil) and the Brussels-based composer Adam Wiltzie (Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen) live nearby. But few have managed to concoct a sound that so dutifully borrows from, even leans on each genre while not resembling a cluttered series of overlaid transparencies. This is quite possibly the music the late Rachel’s and Per Mission alum Jason Noble would be hearing in his head if he were alive today.

The Jason Noble comparison is a thorny one. Although at least one track features a signature Noble-ism (the off-tempo double-kick drum line of “Reality Exists Inside the Skull”), this is light-years removed from the pressure-cooker/post-hardcore tendencies of Rodan or Shipping News, both essential parts of the Noble puzzle. Noble utilized a larger-than-life sense of drama and, occasionally, longing; Larson instead specializes in an oddly mellow though still over-saturated form of portraiture. A song like the lullaby-esque “Reality Distortion Field” blurs the line between sinewy guitars and pulsing synths.

“Light”, which pairs Layton’s whisper-speak with Holy Habstritt-Gaal’s breathy timbre, is appropriate to its title, so airy and ethereal, it risks floating out of your stereo and up into the stratosphere altogether. A hint of pedal steel two minutes in will knock you over with its featheriness. On opener “Does It Dream?” notes from Layton’s guitars dance and fizzle on the surface of the track, like so many Pop Rocks on a sticky tongue. It’s an absolute treat to listen to this with noise-canceling headphones. This is My Bloody Valentine-style shoegaze, ripped off all the distortion and fuzz, still navel-gazing and lost in a sea of unadulterated sound.

Pixels closes with the stage undressing of “Delete”, its eighth track, where Layton’s shuffling acoustic guitar gets buried beneath blankets of ambient texture. It’s fittingly measured and subdued, but when, on the first bridge, Layton’s falsetto fades into an endless sea of reverb, you already start replaying the record’s highlights. And, I hope it goes without saying at this point, there are many. — Justin Vellucci, PopMatters,, March 13, 2020


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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