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Reviews / Sandison’s Ghosts’ knack for master melodies

Jack Sandison's band the Holy Ghosts release their debut album this month.

NOT ONLY are Shetlanders resolute flag-bearers for their own local-based musical compatriots, but it seems they’re pretty proud of the expats too.

One sooth-dweller with treble clefs and semi-quavers particularly running through the veins is Edinburgh’s Jack Sandison, who has furrowed a notable path in Scotland’s music scene and beyond since leaving Shetland in the 2000s for university.  

He’s meandered through a few different styles since hitting the live music circuit as a teen, from spitting out lyrics with the punked-up Death By Monkeys in country halls to flirting with grunge in Little Green Machine.  

However, it seems with blues-meets-rock’n’roll outfit The Holy Ghosts that Sandison has finally found a place to settle down and call home.  

The quintet’s debut album ‘Ride Them Down’ sees the vocalist and rhythm guitarist cut a confident figure as he swaggers through 11 retro-doused numbers that echo the likes of The Rolling Stones in their nonchalant pomp.  

Whilst Jagger, Keef and co. may have a combined age of nearly six hundred (or something), The Holy Ghosts – who also currently feature Jon Mackenzie, Jonny Voodoo, Angus Ross and Andy Barbour – conjure up some pretty sprightly, youthful stuff.  

Album opener ‘Leave No Stone Unturned’ sets the pace nicely, with the Edinburgh group running through some country-tinged verse/chorus action whilst subtle lead guitar licks pirouette overhead.  

The group are opening for The View at Mareel on mid summer's weekend.

What’s clear through the record is this band’s knack for master melody making, with the amped up pair ‘Ride On Baby’ and ‘Little Kickstarter’ witnessing lead and backing vocals working in perfect synchronicity.  Indeed, unlike the Scottish independence debate currently raging on and on…and on, there’s no separatism here, with the quintet’s various elements – such as piano, brass section and mouth organ – melting together as one.

Those who have kept tabs on the group since their inception in 2012 will already have a few of the album’s cuts implanted somewhere in their subconscious, with the likes of ‘Devil on Your Side’ and the groove-monster ‘Old Snake Hips’ – which would charm the most reticent of gig-goer onto the dancefloor – rearing their heads on previous EPs.  

It’s clear from the vintage chops that emanate through the 11 songs – close your eyes and you can almost hear the vinyl bumps and scratches – that The Holy Ghosts aren’t reinventing the wheel. But they don’t claim to be, and any boundary pushing by the band, whose sound is regularly associated with The Rolling Stones’ 1972 effort ‘Exile on Main Street’, might have come across as contrived.  

It’s not just shades of the Stones that shimmer on the record though, with fans of country given enough to grab on to – and there are dashes of Dylan and offerings of Oasis-stained rock too among The Band-esque vocal harmonies.  

It’s up to ‘Revolutionary Son’ to close the album, which shows itself as one of the most engaging tunes on ‘Ride Them Down’ as The Holy Ghosts channel languid and lilting Scots-tinged folk. Gone is the rock n’ roll bluster and oft-reared American undertones as Sandison instead rolls his Rs and goes reflective to give the record a somewhat pensive conclusion after all the cocksure swagger.  

Whilst the The Holy Ghosts may not quite be revolutionary sons in terms of their historical-leaning sound, ‘Ride Them Down’ ultimately proves itself to be an engrossing affair set to give the group the launchpad to impact many more hearts and minds across the globe. Something, indeed, that will make Sandison’s Shetland comrades’ pride swell that little bit more.  

* ‘Ride Them Down’ will be released physically and digitally on May 30 and the band will support The View at Mareel in Lerwick on June 21. Tickets for the gig are available from Shetland Box Office.

Chris Cope

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021