Finding Hope in The Haunted House – a Review of Abandoned Pools’ New Album

Written By Maria Haskins

Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and reviewer of speculative fiction. She lives just outside Vancouver with a husband, two children, several birds, a snake, and a very large black dog. Her work has appeared in several publications, and is also available in her short story collections Wolves & Girls (2023), and Six Dreams About the Train (2021).

It’s always a bit of a trip to listen to a new album by a band or artist you haven’t listened to before, and sometimes when you do that, you’re lucky enough to find yourself falling headfirst into the music, enveloped by a vibe, a mood, a sound, that seems both weirdly familiar, like you ought to have heard it before, and enticingly, entirely new.

Listening to Abandoned Pools’ new album The Haunted House was that kind of trip for me. The music, written and performed by Tommy Walter and his handpicked crew of stellar musicians, tugged on my sleeve like an old friend from the very first track. That track, “Aliens,” pops open with a clear yet lush sound; a joyful, infectious melody that almost seems to shimmer; and all of that musical goodness is wrapped around lyrics that are infused with both sweetness and shadows: “It’s like we’re in a haunted mansion / Ghosts and ghouls are everywhere / Let’s just get out of here before they get to near / Back at our house, the sign reads chaos ends here.”

The album’s second track, the title track, cranks up the tempo a notch with some terrific drums and the vibe goes darker and slightly more off kilter: “Start the purge and burn the bridges / Sew your eyes and burn the witches / Open up the gates of shadowlands.”

Again, the darkness in the lyrics—about spending a night in a haunted mansion and escaping “by the skin of our teeth”—juxtaposed with shimmery orchestral arrangements, pounding drums, and beautifully weighty guitar work and bass lines, makes for some powerful musical magic. Adding to that magic is Walter’s vocals. His voice has an intimate, easy-going softness that adds to the luster and shine of every track on The Haunted House.

For those who aren’t familiar with Abandoned Pools or Tommy Walter, a brief introduction is probably in order. Tommy Walter—musician, singer, songwriter, record producer, and more—is Abandoned Pools, and he has been around the music business for a while. (For those interested in the deeper backstory, there’s a great interview with him on The Book Of Very Very Bad Things Podzine where he talks extensively about his journey through the music business.) The short version is that back in the 1990s Walter was a co-founder of the rock band Eels, a band that made its mark on the music world with, among other things, their debut album Beautiful Freak in 1996. (The track “My Beloved Monster” from that album later appeared on the soundtrack for the original Shrek movie). Walter left Eels in 1997, eventually launching Abandoned Pools and releasing the debut album Humanistic in 2001. This was followed by Armed to the Teeth in 2005, Sublime Currency in 2012, and Somnambulist in 2013. Meanwhile, Walter also found success of a different kind by writing and performing the theme music for the animated series Clone High which aired 2002-2003. Music by Abandoned Pools also appeared on that show, as did an animated version of Walter, voiced by the man himself.

an animated version of Tommy Walter from the Clone High series.

Walter broke Abandoned Pools’ 8-year silence in 2021 by launching a successful crowdfunding campaign for a new studio album (AKA The Haunted House). The campaign coincided with word that Clone High was being revived for HBO Max (the new episodes aired in 2023). As you might surmise from that brief recap, it’s been a long a winding road through the music business for Walter and Abandoned Pools, but I think it’s fair to say that we have crowdfunding, and maybe the Clone High revival, to thank for giving Walter the money and freedom to make this album the way he wanted to make it.

As a newcomer to the band, it’s interesting for me to look at that backstory and listen to Abandoned Pools’ earlier work, and yes, even that theme song for Clone High. While there is an undeniable sense of continuity in the work (a thoughtful lyrical streak, for example), Abandoned Pools’ music has certainly changed through the years, from the slightly harder-edged sound of Humanistic to a somewhat more ethereal feel of Somnambulist, to the clear, glimmering soundscapes of The Haunted House. The music on this new album has a confidence and a clarity to it, and Walter seems to fully embrace a sound that transcends, or maybe just ignores, genre boundaries, blending pop and rock, orchestral sounds, strings, acoustic piano and acoustic guitar, always with that irresistible (to me at least) 1980s/1990s retro vibe running through it.

By track number three on the album, “Under the Stars,” I knew this album was a keeper.  Here, on a duet with Rie Sinclair, Walter brings out the full force of that aforementioned retro vibe on a heartbreakingly tender and reflective track that, for an oldster like me, brings to mind both “Under the Milky Way” by The Church and “Life in a Northern Town” by Dream Academy.

That reflective vibe carries through into the more up-tempo “Amazing Days” where music and lyrics soar into the night sky “We’re small and fragile miracles / With no reason, with no rhyme / We’re made of stars.”

“In Your House” holds on to that soaring vibe, but the darker lyrics—“Why should I / Care if you were raised by wolves?”— gives the track a quiet, subtle sharpness as we find ourselves in another kind of haunted house: “Wicked phantoms creak the floor / In a house on fire / We pretend that everything is gold.”

One of the things I like best about The Haunted House is precisely this blend of darkness and light, and how both the music and the lyrics have a depth and texture that makes me find new edges, new patterns, new facets every time I listen to the album.

While “Under the Stars” is probably my favorite track on the album, “Big Eyes” is a close second with its acoustic guitar, gentle lullaby vibe, and Walter’s vocals going softer than silk. The acoustic guitar comes back on “Going South” which has a more stripped-down feel before the orchestra and drums fill out the quiet corners. Here, Walter’s aching lyrics find glimmers of hope even in insecurity and self-doubt: “Falling in and out of favor / Waiting to get passed over / Never staying right between the lines / Falling flat down on our faces / Never right time or right places / Until it hits us right between the eyes.”

It might sound strange to say that an album with lyrics like “living in a time of jackals”, “mass delusions everywhere,” and “every second brings you closer to your grave,” is full of both joy and hope, but it is. Throughout The Haunted House, there’s a feeling of trying to find your way through a world full of insecurity and danger (ghosts and ghouls) guided by a determination to find, and hold on to, the things and relationships that truly matter.

Maybe this is part of the reason why this album really stays with me. This theme of living in a world of jackals and mass delusions, where we can best survive by embracing our own weirdness, our alien selves, and our flawed yet vital relationships with the people we love. This, Walter seems to say, is what can help us through the haunted house, the haunted mansion, the haunted world, where we might otherwise get lost, losing our way and ourselves, in the hallways and the halls of mirrors.

The album’s penultimate track, the gorgeous “Only So Many Days,” encapsulates the wistful sadness and hopeful glow of The Haunted House with Walter singing “Only love Only sorrow / Counts at the end of the day.”

The music business elevates some musicians to the heights of Mount Olympus. It also grinds many musicians, no matter their talent, into dust in its cogs and wheels, crushing whatever creativity, originality, and spirit they once possessed. It is no mean feat to spend decades in that machine and come out of it with your soul and your vision for your own work intact. The Haunted House is a testament to Tommy Walter’s talent and perseverance. Back from the band’s long absence, Abandoned Pools delivers a nuanced, profoundly moving album that shines with true musical magic.

The Haunted House by Abandoned Pools is available on all streaming platforms.