The Phantom Band releases Checkmate Savage February 3rd, 2009 on Glasgow label Chemikal Underground. Recorded in Glasgow at the label s own Chem 19 and then in Franz Ferdinand s Govan facility, this record features Paul Savage of The Delgados as producer, engineer, and guiding force. The recording sessions were like their early jams: long, meandering and experimental; the band beating out rhythms on broken wood blocks and organist Andy s shelvaphones , a home-made instrument created from metal shelf brackets.This early contender for album of the year is a place where Beefheart meets Bonnie Prince Billy, where Neu! meets Nick Cave. When you have been playing together for a good while you d be amazed at the breadth of music you come up with. We ended up playing stuff that was folk, pop, techno with guitars, classic rock, metal, noise terrorism, gospel, soundscapes and parodied every band that we hated as well - it was great fun, says bassist Gerry of their prolonged sessions.The end result is truly special, bringing to mind the beat savvy of The Beta Band, the other-worldliness of Super Furry Animals and the mood of Hallowed Ground-era Violent Femmes.If it sounds like they re hard to pin down, that s the idea. They called themselves The Phantom Band after a period of switching their identity with each successive gig, performing as Wooden Trees, Robert Redford and more. Early photos of the band pictured them with bags over their heads. It s all part of their mystery and sense of the bizarre: some shows have seen them play with a giant, smoke breathing wolf head, others, with a Stairmaster onstage so audience members can work-out during their set.In addition to The Phantom Band, the individual members each make music in other projects and guises, some better known than others. A few of them have an offshoot band called Omnivore Demon, a costumed improv group that play mostly at exhibitions and art events while Rick does solo folk stuff under the name of Rick Redbeard. Each Phantom brings a strong sense of identity to the project, counting artists, social workers, librarians and lawyers in their ranks. Never short of ideas and opinions, the entire band take a key interest in the album artwork, posters and onstage visuals that all add to this extraordinary band s immersive world.
Review by Ned Raggett
Starting with the crisp Motorik click and synth crunch of "The Howling," Checkmate Savage finds the Phantom Band still engaged in a good hotwiring of fine templates that is starting to give the Scottish group more of its own identity. If the group perhaps inevitably recalls some of the strongest rhythmic moments of a similar forebear in fusion, Stereolab -- the chunky but fluid beats and ghostly guitar of "Crocodile" could just as easily come from that group as from joint wellspring Neu! -- then the Phantom Band still have their own take to provide, at once graceful and almost sternly focused, something which comes out perfectly in the surging conclusion of that same song. A good amount of this comes from easy, clear singing, which gives the band a bit more swagger than some of the more po-faced neo-art rockers out there now. As a result, a song like "Folk Song Oblivion" has some of the direct kick of bands like Pavement or the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience at their best, catchy and shimmering, but that same feeling is equally evident on the instrumental closer "The Whole Is on My Side," ending the album with a soft glow.
The Phantom Band
(Chemikal Underground; 2009)
Combined Rating: 78%
It was a shitty afternoon last Thursday, just right for watching Batman Forever. “Has it come to this?” I thought, even contemplating the latest Streets CD in an attempt to run from boredom. A full weekend of overtime was looming and here I was stuck to Val Kilmer’s nipples, watching them biff! and kapow! with Jim Carrey before burning snake eyes in my flatscreen. Luckily, one noble supervillain came knocking in the shape of a box from Chemikal Underground: those toothy lairds of beaten confessions whose releases feel like parachuted power-ups. You want rations, ammo, the hairspray you can use to make blast-cannons? A cake full of fake moustaches and some C-4 disguised as Hubba Bubba? Christ, you’ve got a big stomach. Luckily, the Phantom Band have got all the carvery skills to fill it, laying a table with such a deep feast scaffolding is required just to get past the starter. Their debut will slake you eleven times over if you’re after intelligent stuff that rocks, blowing out brain trenches in a blast of strange opium and leaving one feeling bulletproof. (I still am.)
Already being touted by hacks as 2009’s first big crossover, Checkpoint Savage blazes guitar energy with all the juice of an open-air power chord. Presumably having sprung from the same spinning mirror that held General Zod and his cronies in Superman (1978), the Phantoms touch down from No Man’s Land and start empire-building immediately, lining up various pop and rock superpowers to duel with psychedelic armadas. Marvellous, but hang on just a phantom-spinning minute: didn’t Chemikal Underground just tick the anti-folk laboratory box a few months back when they let loose Mt. Wilson Repeater? Maybe, but Checkpoint Savage wades along distinctly deeper shorelines, piranhas nibbling at the bones of indie that might peg it out as end-of-Mean-Girls music. “The Howling,” one of the record’s more straightforward of the nine pieces, is old-school Snow Patrol on Viagra: one in the eye for Gary Lightbody and the pact he made with the ambassadors of dadrock. Frontman Richard Anthony’s vocals wear his Scottish colours with pride, bonding the waves of ideas from the band as they master their snailshells and shelvaphones (they made that last one themselves from steel shelving brackets, apparently). “Throwing Bones” takes a rocket ship ride through cool Roxy Music and tweaks it with Jim Beam and acid—the homemade stuff with the seeds and ether that you have to chew forty times before swallowing. Cast your mind back and remember that steady drawl of your first trip—schemes, confessions, revenge—pouring out of you in raw divinity rather than whispered to a shirtless reflection. That’s the algorithm in play here and the Band cling to it like balloon string, knowing it’s as strange and valuable as baby unicorn shit. Follow the hoofmarks further and wig out with “Burial Sounds,” where black swamp and tinges of UK garage (it’s there, trust me) help gravediggers fend off Hell’s Angels.
Make no mistake, though: the Phantoms aren’t just a gaggle of gonzos who’ve been licensed to pound their own chests in. While Checkmate may glow like exploded californium and emit its sixty years of neutrons, it’s far too well done to overwhelm you totally and risk you shying from its lethal pink flash. The nine-minute “Islands” is flinty enough to run a full eighty seconds before you realise you’re into the slow track, and when Anthony and chums sing “Lord I swam / To the island shore,” you know it’s the most honest salvage you’ll hear this side of Will Oldham’s catamaran. These are the kind of comparisons the bigwigs are clucking about, by the way—Bonnie, Bowie, Zappa—and it takes just fifty-five minutes to see why: you can lose yourself in its knifey murk and then come up billowing rainbows. “Crocodile,” then, is the pot at the end of the beam, and the Phantoms throw the kitchen sink at this one (plus old socks, an oscilloscope, and the Yellow Pages for good measure). The result is an instrumental monolith that soars like a Wright Brothers biplane, piccolos and post-rock fucking in the sun to birth the pure taste of lofty fulfillment. Watch your wax wings at the back there.
I’m chancing my arm in saying the year’s best LP arrived with the first blows of Round Two, but good God this is fearsome stuff, this handmade mess that puts Radiohead’s “National Anthem” in a meat smoker and feeds pufferfish to a sick Seasick Steve. Down come the streamers, down come the dead fireworks, but the Phantom Band are mobilized, already making inroads on national radio with their edit of “Folk Song Oblivion.” See—sometimes all you need to repel the ice and receivership is energy. Energy and a dash of fresh cunning. Seriously, if Checkmate Savage doesn’t make you want to sail the high seas in the company of buccaneers while drinking your weight in spiced rum then I don’t know what on earth will. It saved me from crap film anticipation and that’s something, especially given the quality of recent Recession TV. Incidentally, the film I dug out straight after “The Whole Is On My Side” had faded? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Rouben Mamoulia, 1931, B/W. Classic.
26 January 2009