Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Album Review - The Phantom Band - Strange Friend


I was once driving to a Scouting reunion weekend away back in March 2009, two months after the release of The Phantom Band’s debut album Checkmate Savage,  when I impaled my car on a perfectly spherical boulder.  I had bought the album in Aberdeen’s lamentably now gone One-Up and had intentionally kept the album for the three hour lone drive down south. I was also, for the first time, rather erroneously using my then brand new iPhone 3G for sat nav and, as I drove deeper into the countryside and hills of Perthshire, my phone’s signal gave up.  A few moments later, I found my car stuck atop a large stone boulder in the middle of someone’s driveway, two kilometres from where I was aiming to be.

Thankfully, the owners of the house, driveway and boulder were more bemused than annoyed, helped me dig the boulder out from under the car and sent me on my way.  I arrived to the reunion late, covered in mud and a bit embarrassed about having gotten lost.  I bring this up because, throughout the whole drive, Checkmate Savage  had been playing and I had become entranced by it.  To my ears, it sounded like nothing else.

For the rest of 2009, I found it difficult to dissociate the events of that evening with the album – the whole weekend was a bit of a bust, as I later found that I’d pretty badly damaged my car when I tried to drive back to Aberdeen at 40mph with no rev counter.  The album still, to this day, reminds me of that night - the smell of the clutch, the sound of the boulder, the weight of the gravel.

The same can be said for its follow up, The Wants – I had just moved to Houston, Texas, when it was released and it soundtracked that shift in my life as well.  Even now, having just become a father, listening to the band’s third album, Strange Friend,  I am bemused at the way time has barrelled along.  Indeed, the four year gap between album two and album three is a long one for a band who left only 20 months between their debut and sophomore releases – a gap partly explained by Rick Antony’s foray into a solo guise of Rick Redbeard and the release of the spellbinding No Selfish Heart.

Strange Friend is, however, another leap for the band – where Checkmate Savage had been built on deconstructing the ‘folk’ influence and adding in electronic flourishes, as well as instrumental tracks and long passages of tension building repetition, The Wants  had been more sly-eyed, with a sexy feel and a dark theme.  Strange Friend  moves the band on once more, adding new electronic squelches and a more tongue in cheek feeling, one that admittedly isn’t new for the band’s sound.

Opener and lead single The Wind That Cried The World  feels like a boot up tone for the album – it re-establishes what The Phantom Band do and sound like and is followed by the direct and pulsing Clapshot,  which, with its wavering vocals on the chorus, stuns as it makes almost every part of my body tap along with its frenetic pace, something not seen from the band before.  It’s part of an opening one-two-three that is one of the strongest thirds of any album I’ve heard this year, as Doom Patrol  comes into view. Clapshot’s stand out moment comes halfway though as the frenetic pace dies down and Redbeard croons, “Over the Ocean’s broiling swell…,” slowly, over a lilting acoustic guitar line, before the rhythm section kicks back in and the track rises again, mimicking the, “rises to the surface air,” of the lyrics.

Doom Patrol,  an undoubted highlight on the album, is another on the record that sounds like nothing before, but still like The Phantom Band at heart.  It stands tall as the most anthemic moment of the album.  But, as someone who likes to think that previous tracks like Folk Song Oblivion  and O  are the band’s best, No Shoes Blues  rides in on a dark, slow and spooky sounding collage that stumbles and rumbles its way through its running time, sounding every bit like the band’s self-promoted title of ‘robo-folk’.  It has a hopeful air to it, unusually for the band, and it props up the latter half of the record well.

Another shift in the band’s machinery is Women of Ghent – another toe tapping, mid-tempo track with the rather sad, “no-one’s noticed you’ve gone,” lyric, which might explain why, after the astoundingly strong start, the back end of the album feels lightweight on first listen.  But, after a few replays, the catchy melodies uncover themselves, like stars in the sky that appear the longer you stare at them.  If I was to say that there was a weakness, it would be this sequencing, but that is a nit pick that I hate to level at albums.  Some parts of the latter half of the album remind me of Throwing Bones,  the penultimate track on Checkmate Savage,  in all honesty, which has a similar electronic pulse and fast pace throughout.

The band have had their quieter moments on previous albums, like Goodnight Arrow on The Wants,  and Atacama  acts as a gentle tease with its acoustic guitar to start, but opens up into the darker corners of the band’s mind, like a knowing wink to the rest of the album.  These moments aren’t as common on Strange Friend,  but closing track Galapagos  features discordant percussion, ambient drones of electronics and wistful, almost confessional vocals from Redbeard.  As it fades away, it acts as a coda for the album, for the mood, for the feeling.

I’ve yet to impale my car or move to Texas whilst listening to Strange Friend,  but, as a return, it is most welcome.  While it might not graft new converts to The Phantom Band ranks, it will please the band’s pals and fans for sure, whilst adding nine new tracks to the band’s catalogue. Strange Friend  feels just like that - a friend you’ve not seen in years that you remember being a little eccentric, but as loyal as you’ll find.

- Mark Shields

The Phantom Band - Strange Friend  is out now via Chemikal Underground Records and is available in all good record stores or via all good online retailers. You can purchase the album here.

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