Shadow Gallery – Digital Ghosts

By Christopher J. Oatis 

After their self-titled release in 1992, Shadow Gallery has embarked on a musical romance that danced, and flirted with the borders of several genres, to the sounds of soaring pianos. Carved in Stone (1995) and Tyranny (1998illustrated the potential of well-executed multi-genre and conceptual music. Legacy (2001) pushed forth a more progressive and artistic design including a thirty-four minute long track featuring—perhaps a homage to John Cage’s 4:33—about four minutes of silence, peppered with low conversation. Room V (2005), stylistically and conceptually, sequeled Carved in Stone returning to the mixed genre material that made fans fall in love with Shadow Gallery nearly a decade before. With the death of their lead vocalist, Mike Baker, exactly one year ago (October 29, 2008) fans wondered if the love affair was over.    

Here in 2009, Shadow Gallery returns with new lead man Brian Ashland and their haunting new album, Digital Ghosts. Not even ninety seconds in, fans of Shadow Gallery will be at ease with their signature bi-polar vocal styles, edgy voice progressions, and beautiful harmonies. With the musical stylings of Queen, Queensrÿche, and some Pink Floyd-ish moods and guitars, the first two tracks, “With Honors” and “Venom”, set high expectations, in the veins of Carved in Stone and Tyranny, for the rest of the album.

“Venom” is the heavier and crunchier of the songs and features the gritty yet melodic vocals of Clay Barton (Suspyre).  His vocals are far different from those of Brian Ashland’s and bring a nice touch to this album. Bassist Carl Cadden-James makes a cameo in the mid-section of this song (rather than being a back-up vocalist), with his trade-off “response” to Clay.

“Pain” blends the same vocal styles and marches along with drum beats, beautiful control of voice, haunting keyboards and guitars. Their ability displayed by changes in tempo passing seamlessly as “Pain” builds upon its own conventions and climaxes at its refrain is a testament to what good writing and consistency of style can provide to a band that knows who they are and what they can accomplish. Shadow Gallery has always made every refrain seem like an event and this song keeps the faith.

“Gold Dust” maintains this high standard of vocal quality, but doesn’t stand out in originality in that department, but guitar lovers will appreciate the play of the varied string styles. Shadow Gallery’s faster than light fingers really get a workout on this piece. “Strong,” on the other hand, is all about the mixing voices. Heavy, moody, jazzy vocal mix with melodic bridges, powerful falsettos, and harmonization filling the gaps like a metal chorus standing ready. Not to even mention, that a Mr. Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear) lends his voice to do some of the heavy lifting in this vocally complex piece.

The album wraps up in typical Shadow Gallery fashion with two monsters tracks spanning over twenty minutes. First up is the title track “Digital Ghosts,” which is about as proggy as the album gets with instrumental jam sessions galore and several change ups in style. Haunted” is where the spirit of Queen rocks on. Brain May-esk guitars echo throughout this piece, and if you listen carefully the ghost of the vocal/guitar pairings from classic rock royalty may whisper its secrets. While Haunted is not a track that strikes you as a perfect crescendo the first time, it is a track that reveals itself to you with each listen. Once “Haunted” grabs you, you realize it’s the kind of curtain call that deserves a standing ovation.

As if this album was not haunting enough, for those lucky enough to get the digipak CD with the bonus tracks, Mike Baker’s voice will be heard again on the song “Two Shadows” (Japan bonus song off Room V).  This is a calming effect for those who aren’t ready to embrace the new vocalist and just want to hear him sing one more time…

Digital Ghosts isn’t going to please everyone, though. Shadow Gallery has toned down their progressive elements a bit for this one, especially in comparison with Legacy. Don’t expect any half hour tracks, giant conceptual song groupings—ala “Ghostship”—or quirky motifs like someone knocking on a door for two minutes. Prog people looking for Shadow Gallery to branch out their experimental roots are not going to get their wish, but what Digital Ghosts does do is confirm that Shadow Gallery is alive, the heart of their stylish music beating strong, and that the spirit of Mike Baker lives on