Listen to the guitar squalls and dramatically precise vocals of “Water,” a track from Ohmme’s 2018 debut full-length Parts, and it’s pretty apparent they’re on a different level than most rock bands. Like many groups, Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham—the sole members of Ohmme—first met in high school, but their story definitely isn’t one of a fledgling garage band. Both are classically-trained musicians, became a part of Chicago’s improvisational music scene and have collaborative credits ranging from Whitney and Jeff Tweedy to Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa. They’ve now become one of the Windy City’s best and most essential bands—not to mention their list of Chicago music connections is endless—and it’s for good reason. Their live shows are a spellbinding and enigmatic experience—Stewart’s violin skillfully thrashes as the duo constantly and gracefully molts throughout their pop-meets-art-rock repertoire.
They released their self-titled debut EP as Ohmme back in 2017, followed by Parts a year later. Their EP was mostly sparse, but it already had seeds of their interlocking vocals and experimental tendencies, while Parts, on the other hand, was much grander and more self-assured—moments of uplifting pop met their unpredictable rock, and it was a testament to their dynamic songwriting. That brings us to their new album Fantasize Your Ghost, a more gnarled and searing effort that’s still equipped with plenty of surprises.
The band has shown their sinister and vigorous sides before—the chunky guitar fuzz on “Fingerprints” is uncompromising, and “Grandmother” practically comes with a blowtorch and a jump scare—but their new album literally contains a four-minute-long track of nothing but spine-tingling guitar bleed (“Sturgeon Moon”). See also the opening track, “Flood Your Gut,” which features saintly whispers and spooky guitars and describes someone hiding in their sheets and another person of superhuman height. All that aside, the scariest moment is actually a brutal reality check: “You’re not your mother’s daughter / Your whole vision’s not enough.”
The lyrics on Parts were filled with abstract descriptions with striking emotional undercurrents, and Fantasize Your Ghost is similar in tone. “Selling Candy” illustrates this ability to fuse the surreal with the real, or, in this case, the whimsical with the nostalgic: “Crossed the big street, it’s not lava / The best hot dog guys got problems.” It’s easy to get lost in their stark imagery, but don’t fall asleep at the wheel—there’s always a moral truth or existential question waiting to slap you in the face. Take, for example, the end of the first verse on “3 2 4 3”: “If I hadn’t walked eight miles to make / Something else happen / The day would have slipped out of my grasp / Just like my reflection.”
The band has had a relentless touring schedule over the past several years, so much of Fantasize Your Ghost was written on the road. Perhaps that’s why these songs have extra oomph, and why their guitar riffs have this lightly fried, freewheeling strut to them, which recalls the open road (“3 2 4 3,” “Selling Candy”). There are also accounts of steel-toed boots and wine buried in the desert (“Ghost”), plus kissing and dancing with strangers and the image of a smiling woman behind a counter with “the smell of the day in her hair” (“Twitch”).
It sounds like Cunningham and Stewart are in search of something new—digging through their past and present experiences and keen observations to complete a puzzle or create some kind of roadmap. “Ghost” is about the urge to disavow one’s roots and start somewhere fresh, and “The Limit” grapples with people who they’ve simply outgrown. But on “After All,” the search finally ends as they strip things back to basics and pine for the fulfilling, wholesome inner circle and homebase that we all crave: “After all the hugs and kisses / After all I bite my nails down low / After all I let my hair down / After all I need to plant my rose.”
Ohmme’s biggest strengths still lie in their approach to songwriting and their overlayed vocals and unique use of harmony, which make their poetic words often feel prophetic. From the guitar screeches and faint crickets on “Flood Your Gut” to the gurgled vocals and busy percussion on “Spell It Out,” you’re never far from a twist, always thoughtfully placed and detailed. If there’s a shortcoming here, it’s that their raw, dramatic live shows still eclipse their studio recordings, but maybe that’s by design. It feels like there’s a chaos that’s ever so slightly being reigned in—the added clamor of this record seems baked into the songwriting rather than translated via untethered performances.
If Parts wasn’t enough proof, Fantasize Your Ghost makes it clear that Ohmme can run circles around most rock bands. Their use of fascinating texture and consideration for every layer of their songs—whether subtle or overt—is a gift. Even their more traditionally-structured songs like “The Limit” or “Some Kind of Calm” contain intrigue and finesse. A record like Fantasize Your Ghost could only come from a band that’s equally thoughtful and inventive as they are technically sound. Each spark of this record has the potential to flicker and fade or explode with great magnitude, and those unforeseen outcomes will leave listeners hanging on their every note.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.