Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Quite possibly the most famous and most quoted words from T S Eliot, ending his poem The Hollow Men. Hungary’s Ghost Toast, however, have chosen to use different words from the same poem to title their most recent two albums. On 3rd March 2020, Shape Without Form was released, and two years later, to the day, it has been followed by Shade Without Color. Both albums showcase an idiosyncratic blend of musical styles built up from an atmospheric and cinematic post-rock base.
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom.”
While each of the companion albums reference the text of the poem, often the songs are thematically linked, without any direct relationship. This allows for a concept with a broader scope, and Ghost Toast have used a number of other famous stories or films to describe the world of the hollow men. In fact, on Shape Without Form, there was only one obvious reference to the poem, as Marlon Brandon’s character from Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz, read out Eliot’s The Hollow Men. In the film, this was quite a clever reference, as Eliot’s poem was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, which Apocalypse Now was based on. These words were spoken over the final track of Shape Without Form, titled W.A.N.T. – which stood for ‘We are not them’. I took this to mean that Ghost Toast were stating emphatically that they were not hollow men.
But who are those hollow men? Well, given recent events, it is all too easy to read into the topics of Shade Without Color individuals and events that surely couldn’t have been predicted by the band. Their timing has been impeccable, even if only accidentally prescient. Hungary, of course, is a neighbouring country of Ukraine, and given that Eliot’s poem was based upon the inhumanity of war, it must have left the band somewhat uneasy as to whether to release the album as planned. However, Ghost Toast have openly condemned the aggression of Russia’s war, and expressed compassion towards Ukraine and all Ukrainians. The theme that runs through Ghost Toast’s album and the messages driven home by it are proven horrifyingly accurate by Putin’s war against Ukraine. This album seems a great deal heavier than the previous one, and it’s hard to know just how much of this added weight is due to unintentional association of the inhumanity of war as espoused by Eliot and Ghost Toast, and the inhumanity of war as carried out against Ukraine by Russia.
Even the opening number of this new album is heavier and darker than its predecessor. Unlike the delicate and beautiful introduction to Shape Without Form, Shade Without Color thunders into being with Get Rid Of, and fluctuates in tempo and mood like The Velvet Underground’s Heroin. I make this comparison as the song seems to be about getting rid of the monkey on one’s back, and not only is heroin one big old monkey, but it also fits with the quotation Ghost Toast provide from George Bernard Shaw about being attached to one’s burdens. However, I can’t help feel that Ghost Toast have implanted several layers of meaning to this opening number – which is quite a feat, given the lack of lyrics. And yet, that feeling remains. Could that burden be something more sinister? I know I have my thoughts, but I won’t share them because they may be wrong, and they also fill me with unease.
It is partially the fault of the following song, Leaders, which makes me wonder about carefully veiled meanings and metaphors. The song is about how power doesn’t corrupt, so much as attract those who are corrupt, or corruptible, and includes a quote from Frank Herbert. Although Dune and Heart of Darkness are very different novels, both concern lightness and darkness, an exploration of an unknown world, and the possibility of “a man who had gone too native”. So again, it is relatively easy to tie it back to The Hollow Men, and recognise that it is all too often the leaders of countries who are Eliot’s hollow men, or Conrad’s “hollow sham, hollow at the core”. Or, indeed, 1984’s Big Brother whose lines were interpolated with Kurtz within W.A.N.T. Furthermore, it is when we are most at ease, lulled into a false sense of security, that the most corrupt of hollow leaders move, hence the end of the world (as we know it) occurs without a bang. History shows time and time again how countries tend to sleepwalk into fascism and totalitarianism. We never seem to learn.
The next track, Chasing Time, seems only to underscore this. The given quote is about how scars have a power to remind us of our past. That is the glass half-full. The glass half-empty is that scars fade over time, and people forget about them. Wars and genocides occur that people are certain will never be repeated.
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men”
The quote above comes from the end of the first section of Eliot’s poem. The title of the next track is a line from the second section, and along with another track using the words from The Hollow Men for its title, bookends a track called Acceptance. Without even listening to them, from the moment I saw them in the track listing, I assumed from their titles that this sequence of tracks was clearly the centrepiece of the album for a reason. And there is no getting around how impressive all three are. Let Me Be No Nearer is dramatically different from all that’s come before it, which makes it incredibly impactful. Acceptance is different again, and it is the most upbeat and positive sounding number on the album so far. But is it all a mask? At the midpoint, there is a dramatic shift, which completely took me by surprise the first time I listened, before the lighter tone returns. Then, Deliberate Disguises, which is easily one of my favourite tracks on the album – and I love that the sample is from The Neverending Story. Of course, the quotation is pertinent, describing the Nothing (or should that be the Hollow), and how people who have no hopes are the easiest to control. It probably goes without saying that the hollow men who hold power and have the control tend to wear deliberate disguises in order to deceive their population that they are doing what they do for the benefit of the people, and not for themselves…
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises”
As we approach the end of the album, I love that Ghost Toast have not gone out with a whimper, for Whimper is only the penultimate track. After the advent of thermonuclear weapons, Eliot was asked if he wrote The Hollow Men then, would he still have used the same final line. Because he thought it would inescapably be associated with thermonuclear bombs; and also because he was no longer sure that the world would end, due to the belief widely held, that the leader of one country would be deterred from using nuclear weapons as long as their own could be destroyed as a consequence. A shared aversion of mutual destruction. By choosing not to end Shade Without Color with Whimper, are Ghost Toast showing the same cautious optimism as Eliot? Given recent events, I rather hope that optimism is not misplaced, or we all be the victims of hollow men…
01. Get Rid Of (6:00)
02. Leaders (6:51)
03. Chasing Time (12:18)
04. Let Me Be No Nearer (7:14)
05. Acceptance (5:37)
06. Deliberate Disguises (4:54)
07. Reaper Man (9:20)
08. Whimper (8:15)
09. Rejtekböl (6:49)
Total Time – 67:18
Zoltán Cserős – Drums
János Stefán – Bass, Sound Effects, Samples, Acoustic Guitar, Keyboards
János Pusker – Cello, Keyboards
Bence Rózsavölgyi – Guitars
Record Label: Inverse Records
Country of Origin: Hungary
Date of Release: 3th March 2022