I'm only just beginning to appreciate how well the name TV Ghost suits the Indiana quartet that claimed it. It's one of those I-can't-believe-it-wasn't-already-taken punk band handles, alluding to the electronic voice phenomenon and, more obviously, the 1982 film Poltergeist. It also hints at the small-screen paranoia of genre classics like The Misfits' "TV Casualty" and "Static Age," or The Cramps' "TV Set"; in short, it's a young punk band's perfect name.
TV Ghost formed in December of 2006 and released its first single, "Atomic Rain," via Die Stasi Records within its first year of playing. They sprang from a Lafayette, Ind., scene that singer/ guitarist Tim Gick says was full of garage rock bands. "Atomic Rain" indeed holds somewhat true to garage rock's standards, evoking The Mummies' rowdy and ramshackle take on vintage rock with staggering, sustained keyboard riffs.
While Dolan Brahne Hoeft's keyboards set the band's melodic foundation, Gick and Jimmy Frezza wound wiry, warped surf licks—not simple chords—through the songs. Gick already was developing his vocal style, too, showcasing a slurry yelp akin to Blag Dahlia's on early Dwarves records. They were a garage rock band on the verge of outgrowing the mold.
"We all felt like we were being forced into some kind of system that didn't really fit our needs," Gick says. He's actually talking about the reason these Indiana boys started the band in the first place, but the same idea applies to their quick break from garage tropes. "There's just this sense that you have to do good in school, you have to go to college and you have to get a job—9 to 5, regular—and start a family. But none of us can really be passionate about that sort of pursuit."
TV Ghost became an empowering affirmation of self. When Gick heard albums like Sonic Youth's challenging 1983 LP Confusion is Sex and Satan is Real Again, by Scottish garage oddballs the Country Teasers, they gave him the impression that "these people really know who they are, and you can find out who you are, whether that's through being an artist, or through pursuing other goals that are close to your heart." The band became its members' opportunity to rail against the norm, to express the same fear and suburban malaise that Poltergeist (set amid an archetypal suburban development) and myriad punk bands before have explored. Those currents of dread that inform TV Ghost's music—and Gick's dramatic, Lux Interior-excavated howl—are its lingering commonalities with garage and punk.
"I'd hope [TV Ghost] opens people's minds to a wider spectrum of sounds," he says.
Indeed, they have: By the time 2009's full-length debut, Cold Fish, was issued on In The Red, TV Ghost had moved well beyond even the garage norm. They had begun to fully embrace their art rock influence, making concise, claustrophobic music. Songs like "The Singularity" build over heavy, oscillating synth noise and insistent, proto-industrial drumming. Gick plays foil to his bandmates' steady, ominous density, spurting ecstatic exclamations with his howl and his guitar.
Cold Fish's LP-concluding title track—just past four minutes, it's the album's longest track by more than a minute—suggested that TV Ghost's evolution was ongoing. A more open and dynamic song, "Cold Fish" peels back some of the static for a more hypnotic and psychedelic feel. There's plenty of padding for Gick's manic rambling, but it's his cyclonic guitar riff that acts as the bedrock.
Fittingly, this year's Mass Dream, TV Ghost's second album for In The Red, opens with a circular guitar riff that's more than a little reminiscent of "Cold Fish." Recorded as a trio after the departure of drummer Jackson VanHorn, Mass Dream is less dense than its predecessor, but no more enveloping. Its songs are longer and more developed, but they're still marked by economy. "The Winding Stair" melts surf guitar into a bad-trip psychedelic meditation over synthesizer drones. On "The Degradation of Film," Gick pleads into a building, dissonant tangle of his own guitar.
Gick remains TV Ghost's rudder throughout Mass Dream, though the album's arrangements also provide space for bassist Shawn Beckering and keyboardist Hoeft, standing in here as the drummer. "Tropes" and "Mass Dream" both open with knotty bass lines that carve room for Gick to explore broken guitar textures. On Cold Fish, a Suicide-like throb was the band's bedrock; now, that sort of rhythm only accents the band's momentum.
The TV Ghost essential—tension—is still here. Anxiety created a steady undercurrent of dread in TV Ghost's earlier recordings. It has only been heightened. TV Ghost hasn't gotten any more cheerful, and likely won't.
"The kind of music I gravitate to is darker stuff," Gick says. "It seems more honest and more in touch with the human condition—just the struggle through life. There's so many questions you can't answer; it tears you apart if you think about it. That's what we use TV Ghost for, to meditate on the hardships in life."
Gick is a mic-swallower in the lineage of Iggy Pop and Interior, and he is prone to fitful, floor-bound sprees of noise. "What we're going for is a more extreme response from people," he says, finally making the poignancy of his band's name clear. Good horror films revel in dread and tension. It's not the body count that matters but the imminent dissolution of some essential human quality, or maybe the redemption in its rescue. They make you fear for your life, yes, because what better way to make you appreciate it? "I want [the audience] to feel alive for a little bit when they're watching us."