Melanie Mau & Martin Schnella – Invoke the Ghosts (Album Review)

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There are certain artists whose works make me into a fanboy.  I eagerly await each release.  I listen to the new music over and over and over again.  I dig into the lyrics, seeking possible deeper meanings.  Some might say I obsess over them. Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella bring out the fanboy in me.

Okay, I’m somewhat biased.  I’ve interviewed them, chatted with them on Zoom, exchanged messages with them.  These are the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.  But in saying that, I fear that I’m downgrading the most important part: the music.  And these guys are amazing. Melanie and Martin (nice alliteration) have recorded under various names.  Gray Matters is an acoustic covers project.  Flaming Row is Prog concept.  And the five albums under their own names are a mishmash of acoustic and electric, covers and originals.  All are outstanding.

First a caveat.  Three of the songs are in German—the leadoff “Nur Ein Spiel,” “Ein Stummer Schrei,” and almost all of “Das Golden Konig (The Virgin Queen).”  I don’t do German, and translations aren’t included.  No matter.  The voices say so much; the instruments offer a common language. 

“Nur Ein Spiel” starts with a capella harmonies, and then Martin’s acoustic guitar—his specialty–roars in.  Schnella is a wondrous instrumentalist, incredibly fast without detracting from the musicality of the song and performance.  This is prototypical M&M, a great example of what they’re all about.  And that means it’s a perfect album lead.

Both Martin and Melanie are into fantasy stories (a la Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, the subject of another album).  But this one, with its references to beasts and demons, is not about outer forces, but rather about inner conflicts between good and evil).  Much of the song is about despair, the anxiety that there’s no way out.  But the last section offers hope:

Have no doubts
There’s a way out
I banish your fears
I’ll give you the strength
Don’t act like a coward
Never be a sitting duck

It’s not clear just who this savior is, but these guys like a happy ending (whenever possible).

“Soulmate” is a joyous, bouncy tune that—if I’m not too far off the mark—is about the relationship of Melanie and Martin.  Heck, what else would you call this couple, who work so well together professionally and personally?  Their various talents and their personalities meld seamlessly (this track is another example of that).  In each other, they’ve found the perfect partnership. Soulmates, indeed. And this is a perfect example of their work.  Shifting rhythms, interesting chord changes that verge on Prog, musicians par excellence, and Melanie’s incredible voice.

“Where’s My Name” is a plaintive song about Middle Eastern women, living in patriarchal societies and losing their identities.  This is a mostly acoustic track, but there’s a brilliant middle break that has touches of Celtic and Middle Eastern melodies/harmonies.  This is a standout.

“Calypso” does not refer to the Caribbean music—but rather to the nymph of Greek mythology.  According to legend, she seduced Odysseus to stay with her for seven years instead of completing his voyage home.  After seven years, he managed to leave her behind (and, according to some accounts, Calypso then killed herself).  The music here is tumultuous, like a heady love affair or the stormy Mediterranean Sea.  Martin’s acoustic guitar is both maker of melody and facilitator of rhythm, while Melanie’s voice soars above the proceedings.

Did I mention that these guys are in to fantasy?  “Of Witches And A Pure Heart” is a mystic tale of good and evil, of magic and love.  At 9 minutes-plus, it has Folk-Prog elements throughout, with more than a touch of Celtic.  Hooks?  Yep, it’s got plenty of them.  This is toe-tapping, sing-along music.

“Red Beard” is a tale of Emperor Frederick Barbarosa and his ally Henry the Lion, both of whom lived and reigned in the late 12th Century.  It is a story of betrayal, exile and ultimate reconciliation.  A very strong song, a tale well told.

“Ein Stummer Schrei” is in German (and I just don’t have the time to try to use an interpretation book or app to figure out the words).  But this starts as an acoustic ballad, one that allows both principals to show their stuff.  It builds to an electric power ballad.  This is one of the highlights of the album, even with language barriers.  The hooks are just too good, the performances too perfect. 

I’m still not exactly sure why a song about England’s Queen Elizabeth I is in German (their ways are inscrutable to me).  But Das Goldene Konigreich (The Virgin Queen) is just that.  All except the last lines:

The glorious days
And the House Of Tudor
Ended with the death
Of the Virgin Queen

Appropriately, there are some Elizabethan rhythms (and instruments) that give the song a classic feel (within the M&M framework, of course).  Martin’s guitar work is spotless, in picking and tapping and strumming.  And Melanie’s voice is that of the minstrel, a singer of tales both true and mythic, making a translation unnecessary.

The album closes with “Wholeheartedly,” an a-capella four-part tour-de-force that seems absolutely perfect.  The singers blend together in a tight ensemble, the music has great hooks, and the Celtic flavor is tempered a bit by the style and substance of Melanie Mau’s composition.

I need to introduce the other on-and-off members of the band.  Matthias Ruck is the third voice of M&M, adding depth and range to the proceedings.  His voice fits like a glove.  Lars Lehmann’s bass, at times, is like another lead instrument.  His lines are fascinating, sometimes surprising, but always driving the bottom end and rhythms straight ahead.  And then there’s the percussionist Simon Schroder.  I’ve watched his work in several videos, and he is a marvel.  Quick yet in the pocket, frenetic but always in control.  Schroder is a gem.

Add in the guest musicians and you’ve got an impressive cooperative.  Jens Kommnick, Siobhan Kennedy and Steve Unruh each adds a Celtic imprint to the album.

But the spotlight is, as it should be, on Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella. I’ve said it before: the former is a modern-day Sandy Denny, a full and facile vocalist who could carry an entire album by herself, should she choose to do so.  Melanie deserves all the recognition she can get.  As does Martin, frankly.  He’s just an incredible guitarist (and writer, and background vocalist).  He never lets his instrument get in the way of the vocals; he knows when and where to pull back on speed and technique.  Martin is an orchestra unto himself.

Put the two together, and you’ve got something unique and marvelous.  M&M, in all their iterations, continue to grow and develop.  In that respect, “Invoke the Ghosts” is another big step up.  But I’d be shocked if they don’t continue their maturation, their explorations, their permutations.  And I for one—a self-anointed fanboy—can’t wait until the next release to see and hear what they’ll do.  Until then, I’ll have “Invoke the Ghosts” on repeat.  You should, too.

Released By: Self-released
Release Date: May 2nd, 2022
Genre:  Progressive Folk Rock

  Band Members:

  • Melanie Mau / Lead- & Backing Vocals
  • Martin Schnella/ Guitars, Vocals
  • Mathias Ruck / Vocals
  • Lars Lehmann  Bass
  • Simon Schröder / Percussion, VocalsGuest Musicians:
  • Jens Kommnick: Uilleann Pipes, Low Whistle, Tin Whistle, Cello, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
  • Siobhán Kennedy / Vocals
  • Steve Unruh / Violin

“Invoke the Ghosts” Track-list:

  1. Nur Ein Spiel
  2. The Beast Is Lurking
  3. Soulmate
  4. Where’s My Name
  5. Of Witches And A Pure Heart
  6. Calypso
  7. Red Beard
  8. Ein Stummer Schrei
  9. Das Goldene Königreich (The Virgin Queen)
  10. Wholeheartedly

Bonus:

  1. Of Witches And A Pure Heart (Instrumental)
  2. Calypso (Instrumental)
  3. Ein Stummer Schrei (Instrumental)
  4. Where’s My Name (Guitar and Vocal)
  5. Soulmate (Official Guitar and Vocal)
  6. Das Goldene Koenigreich  (The Virgin Queen) (Guitar and Vocal)
  7. In Dieser Zeit

9.1 Excellent

The fifth album under their own names, "Invoke the Ghosts" is a worthy addition to the Melanie Mau and Martin Schnella. The songs are compelling, the performances breathtaking, and their growth as a group is remarkable

  • Songwriting 8.8
  • Musicianship 9.4
  • Originality 8.9
  • Production 9.2
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