Monday, February 02, 2009

Phantom power

Maybe it's just the non-musician in us, but as far as STN is concerned if you can produce an album that doesn't fit neatly into any descriptive pigeonhole, that jumps from style to style while still sounding of a whole as a band and a concept... then you'll be a man/men, my son(s).

Which brings us to The Phantom Band, a Glaswegian sextet who have described themselves as "proto-robofolk", used to disguise their identities in photos and on stage and are, for the extraneous win, on Chemikal Underground. They've just brought out a debut album, Checkmate Savage (perhaps not uncoincidentally produced by ex-Delgado Paul Savage), which, stuck with what else to do with a wide range of influences from dark rock overlordage to prog churn to heavy beats, decide just to throw them all into the same melting pot just to see what happens, giving them so much room to breathe that a nine track album totals nearly 55 minutes. So The Howling opens the album with Neu!/Stereolab kraut-synth pulses and grumbles with vocals from the Gary Lightbody/Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison school of slightly insecure power, introduces an undertow of Midlake on the chorus, throws in the odd ghostly backing vocal, then five minutes in drops to baritone vox intoning the likes of "carry my body on the reckoning wind, what was flesh is dust again" before giving in to expansive wordless choruses, crashing wave percussion, whistling synths and delayed guitars.

And that comfortableness with versatility is pretty much as good a kickoff point as you want. It's a very dark album - witness those titles, The Howling, Burial Sounds, Throwing Bones - but also one throbbing with excitement and experimentation in the same way prime Super Furries or Beta Band does. Like Meursault, who at heart approach all this in a not entirely dissimilar way - there's similar folk and techno influences in here, definitely - it's almost an alternate Scottishness, one that sees Josef K for their nameless Kafka dread rather than their choppy riffs, more likely to hang around with Mogwai than Franz. Folksong Oblivion pitches into a level of rock somewhere between garage and swamp, with its lumbering guitars, wheezing organ and insistent organ, with carefully covered pop nous in there, just carrying the weariness of the world on its shoulders as it does so, closing with an ominous, desperate chant of "I can't see for the mountain silhouette", and that's the single, the one for the radio that's meant to draw you into a world where it seems obvious to follow it with Crocodile, a nigh on eight minute instrumental that gradually, swirlingly builds like nothing this side of Dusseldorf into a welter of droning, distorted guitars over insistent motorik rhythms and woozy keyboard patterns. Then there's Left Hand Wave, which sounds like early Simple Minds or someone similarly spacey and post-post-punky being played over a John Carpenter soundtrack. And then there's Island, in which Rick Anthony channels Will Oldham at his most tender with a sea shanty element before, live band version Bon Iver like, being joined by sparse guitars and massed backing vocals. It's not far off nine minutes but you simply don't notice. Then it's onto Throwing Bones, Snow Patrol when they were good gone swamp rock with slide guitar decoration and more "Apache beat" drumming (Klaus Dinger called it that, we just wanted a third euphemism for Krautrock rhythm), and it sounds just as much putty in their hand. Even the out of nowhere doo-wop bridge does, especially whoever's taking the bass part with an elan Den Hegarty would be proud of. (There's one for the teenagers.)

Being psychedelically inclined Scots it's a fairly obvious touchstone, but there's quite a bit here reminding us of the permanently on-or-off hiatus Dawn Of The Replicants, the way they carjack already Beefheartian angular fuzzpop exercises and accelerate them into a wall just in case something interesting comes out of it. The breadth of their ambition and scope is laudable, but that would mean nothing without a level of discipline under its own terms, and that's what Checkmate Savage has - they know what they're doing, now they want you to join them on their long, strange and wild trip.

Tomorrow, more Phantom Bandness.

God, this is shaping up to be a fantastic musical year already, isn't it?

1 comment:

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