Review: Mat Muntz – ghostly.ridiculous

I listened to “ghostly.ridiculous” the night before getting my first COVID vaccine shot. It was – somehow – the perfect situation to take in this album. The title is an apt summation of the unsettling reality of both this work and the absurd, spectral nature of the 2020s so far.

ghostly.ridiculous is a (mostly) solo self-release by composer and multi-instrumentalist Mat Muntz, who has become particularly known for his 2022 album “The Vex Collection.” This latter work is a magnificent collaboration with composer/percussionist Vicente Hansen Atria that brings together an unlikely menagerie of traditional and invented reed instruments. “ghostly.ridiculous,” released a year earlier, comes from the same general lore as “The Vex Collection” – as well as Muntz’ most recent album “Phantom Islands” – and is just as spectacular as these ensemble recordings though the mood of all three is quite different.

Though primarily a bassist, Muntz is quickly becoming recognized as perhaps the only experimental/improvising musician on the primorski meh (also called the Istrian mih), a traditional bagpipe from the Adriatic coast and islands of Croatia. Muntz has mastered this instrument; its distinctive scale, which to Western ears has a “diminished” sort of sound, permeates most of his work. This scale is often used as a jumping-off point for explorations of diverse, often unfamiliar tuning systems, as heard in the electronic sounds which make up much of “ghostly.ridiculous.” As he describes in the liner notes, Muntz’ use of the meh unifies traditional and experimental elements of his music.

About half an hour in total length, this album is available from Bandcamp in two formats: as a single, unbroken track, and split up into eight movements. Though the movements flow very well into each other, the album seems more like a multi-movement piece than a single block of music. As with other Muntz works, the movements are cleverly, evocatively titled. Rather uniquely, only four of the titles are in English – three are Croatian, and the final movement Latin. This Latin title, ‘Muscae Volitantes,’ translates to ‘flying flies,’ which is appropriate as this is certainly an entomological album. Field recordings of cicadas appear in several movements, and others use high-pitched glitches that sound like robotic insects. The tightness of intervals in the microtonal scales, both electronic and bagpiped, helps to create a microcosmic feeling augmented by the nasality or tinniness of many of the timbres. The listener is drawn in to focus on something very small and close-up. This album may induce claustrophobia – or even entomophobia.

The first movement is an introduction less than a minute long; it starts with cicadas and introduces both glitch and chorale elements that appear in some later movements. This leads directly into ‘Gladni Duh’ (‘Hungry Ghost’), the first of three “ghost” movements. This entirely electronic track features a percussion loop that seems to change tempo many times within each repeat. The bagpipe first appears in the third movement, ‘Tocsin’ (an archaic word meaning an alarm bell), wailing in sliding drones over ominous gongings and clangs. Toward the middle of this movement, the electronic percussion adds complicated rhythms with a comically exaggerated swing feel. The loops of irrational rhythm and microtonal harmonies in these and the next two movements bring the ‘ridiculous’ end of the ghostly-ridiculous continuum.

A one-minute interlude movement introduces the double bass, arco here in a high-overtoned register. Next up is ‘Glasni Duh’ (‘Loud Ghost’), a longer and even more agitated sequel to ‘Gladni Duh’ with bagpipe shredding on top. ‘Strašni Duh’ (‘Scary Ghost’) is well-titled; it’s almost all glitch, with the electronics augmented by acoustic string noise from both Muntz and guest guitarist Alec Goldfarb. The strings make the electronics more disturbing, like medical equipment come to life.

‘Moon In Daylight,’ which starts after a minute of cicadas, is the opposite of comforting after the nightmarish ‘Strašni Duh.’ The bagpipe returns here, in the midst of an eldritch chorale that gets stuck halfway through in a miasmatic chord-cloud like a heavy weight bearing down on the middle ear. It ends rather abruptly with a howl and more cicadas going into the last movement. ‘Muscae Volitantes’ also contains a sort of chorale, followed by a bagpipe drone processed into glutinous lumps of sound that get increasingly chaotic – and quickly fade out. It’s a perfect anti-ending to an album that feels like a Dadaist horror film.

“ghostly.ridiculous” may be a bit overlooked in favor of the grand visions of “The Vex Collection” and “Phantom Islands,” but if those inspire you to explore further don’t sleep on this one. It’s challenging, fascinating, and utterly unique – its own little world, ridiculous as life and twice as ghostly.

Elijah ShifferReview: Mat Muntz – ghostly.ridiculous