The Lonely Bell – Ghost Town Burning (2023)

I’ve talked quite often about city or urban life, the artificiality of it. There’s something distinctly disharmonious and incongruent with nature about these spaces humans have designed for the sole purpose of housing humans; probably because until relatively recently they’ve often been created with little thought as to how to make them feel like nature is included. Albeit beautiful in their own way, they are invariably utilitarian.

The most powerful and paradoxical aspect of the city, though, is perhaps its ability to render the individual unfathomably separate from the whole. I can walk 10 minutes into the city centre here and pass thousands of people to never meet a single one again: I don’t even live in a particularly big place (though apparently it’s the third most densely populated city outside London).

Oftentimes I don’t see this city as energetic and rambunctious, sizzling with characterful souls, rather I feel it’s more like a grand impersonal holding pen, an industrial wasteland of philistines with each of us just living disparate lives oblivious and detached from the mass around us.

I think this is important lay up for Ghost Town Burning because of a very particular parallel in its sound. Much of what Ali has crafted here is deeply reminiscent of the works of a Drone musician instrumental to my formative years: Thomas Köner. Köner is known for his frigid Arctic ambiences and glacial drones; all one need do is close their eyes and be taken to the tundra. But here that same Konerian-style softness and minimalism takes an urban edge, becomes pall, becomes man-made. Close your eyes here and you find yourself lost in its everything-nothingness.

The two twenty-minute halves of this record are quiescent sides of the same coin, spectral and distant drone passages that lay like a haunting fog over anything that could be identifiable. In both cases there’s this constant feeling of remoteness and intangibility, hands feeling their way through the darkness or eyes roaming the twilight for signs of life and home. Though neither feel impenetrable insofar as density is concerned, save for the siren sounds of some distal vocal cries there’s little by way of the familiar. We are alone, suspended in their gaseous emulsions and far out of sight of anything that might give us comfort.

To be clear I don’t find this a bleak record, though I can see how it might come across that way. When dealing with darkling rarefaction such as this it’s tempting to immediately turn to miserable conclusions as we try to grasp something through the sparsity. But in the same way that the city is not an inherently evil place despite its complete lack of care for the individual, Ghost Town Burning is not menacing or moribund just because it holds the world at arms length. Or is it that the world is holding us away?