Sweden-via-Germany duo The Ghost of Helags make music that has been described as ‘cinematic dream pop’. This term functions as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes a person like me go “ooh” and take a chance on an unknown artist. On the other, it’s an incredibly wide-ranging umbrella that covers artists ranging from the highly accomplished (Chromatics, Beach House etc) to those ‘fake artists’ that populate Spotify playlists called ‘This is Cinematic Dream Vibes’ or something similarly generic.
I’ll admit I feared for an album titled We Came From The Stars, which comes equipped with an international travel backstory (Teresa Woischiski and John Alexander Ericson wrote the record in between cities while on a global adventure). Maybe I’m bitter about the thought of other people travelling right now, but in my mind’s eye I could already see the YouTube video for this music. Title: ‘International Chill’. Stock image of people wearing backpacks, on a mountain, laughing.
Happily, when I actually pressed play, clear highlights emerged that steer away from these preconceptions. ‘In The Dark, Honey’ is my favourite song on this record; a captivating, wistful ballad with affecting vocals and understated production. ‘Wicked Wind’ is similarly more than the sum of its parts, as a simple electronic drum beat accompanies a melancholy synth tone and Woischiski’s ethereal vocals. It’s an unshowy gem. ‘Parallel’, a clattering synthpop number, initially threw me because it sounds like nothing else here, but it’s all the better for it. Tellingly, these high points are diverse in musical style, and don’t evoke the big name artists in this genre.
There are moments that pass by almost unnoticed, however. For an opening track, ‘Chemistry’ is incredibly unremarkable. ‘Skin’ and ‘Rain’ are as forgettable as their titles suggest, falling into the ‘mid-tempo mood music’ trap that can befall songs with these elements. There’s a fine line between ‘moving’ and ‘annoying’ when it comes to the effectiveness of a repeated refrain, and “nothing can stop the rain from falling down” falls on the wrong side of it on ‘Rain’. And for all the backstory, the record leaves little narrative impression, meaning the ‘grand emotional closer’ aspect of ‘Autobahn Lullaby’ falls a bit flat.
All of this is somewhat frustrating, because certain songs show glimpses of unexplored potential. Take ‘Unconditional Love’ for instance. The first three minutes of it is absolutely pleasant-but-forgettable. Yet instead of fading out it changes shape, introducing unexpected drums that contrast effectively against the preceding section. The only problem is, it then just ends, whereas I’d have liked less verse, more beats. ‘Night Summer Waiting’ is better, but even though it’s one of the more accomplished songs on this record, it still feels as though it has the scope to be much more daring. The song is supposedly inspired by nights on the rooftops of Perinaldo, Italy, so when the beat restarts towards the end of the track, why not extend the outro? Turn up the tempo maybe? Kick into some Italo disco and let us luxuriate in the atmosphere? God knows we’d appreciate some real escapism right now!
All of which is to say that, though We Came From The Stars doesn’t have the same replay value as say, Kill For Love or Teen Dream, it largely does a good job of avoiding the pitfalls of the ‘cinematic dream pop’ label. There are a couple of genuinely satisfying takeaways here with the simmering potential for more with future releases. And by all means, choose this album over one of those godawful YouTube videos.
Words by Tom Burrows