Review Summary: The absolute pinnacle of modern "proto-robofolk."
After nearly a four-year absence from the music scene, Glasgow six piece The Phantom Band have once again resurfaced out of obscurity to offer more of their delightfully bizarre sound with their third LP, Strange Friend
. In the same vein as its two predecessors, the album further pioneers the band’s distinct, highly inventive mix of indie rock, electronica, and folk that takes in a wide variety of influences ranging from pop to psychedelia. On Strange Friend
, The Phantom Band continue to seamlessly blend this seemingly random combination of genres while also steering their music in a direction decidedly more accessible and upbeat. The result is the band’s most rewarding release to date; offering a sublime balance of unadulterated fun and emotional introspection.
As one can probably expect from a band that describes their music, albeit jokingly, as “proto-robofolk,” Strange Friend
brims with both quirkiness and creativity. Each song is stuffed with all sorts of interesting ideas, yet as a whole the songwriting never seems overreaching in its ambition and is seldom unfocused. Opening track “The Wind that Cried the World” sets the stage for the rest of the album in fine fashion. With an ethereal dichotomy between the upbeat keyboard melody and boisterous front line, the song establishes the album’s jubilant tone while nevertheless conveying a hint of underlying sadness created by vocalist Rick Anthony’s powerful delivery. While the following tracks “Clapshot” and “Doom Patrol” are similar to the opener in structure and tone, both songs maintain a certain level of unpredictability. The directional shifts present in both tracks set them apart from the rest of the album; with the instrumentation present on “Clapshot” becoming frenzied near its end, and “Doom Patrol” transforming into a techno dance number.
Other tracks on Strange Friend
present themselves as an entirely different entity than the ones preceding them, and as a result are arguably the most interesting songs the album has to offer. “Atacama” ditches the complex instrumentation and harmonious textures found throughout the album in exchange for a more minimalist approach; the instrumentation consisting of no more than acoustic strumming and soft, uplifting ambience. This approach allows the vocals to take center stage, with Anthony delivering his most passionate and cathartic performance on the entire album as he flawlessly shifts his voice from baritone to a beautiful falsetto. Following track “(Invisible) Friends,” on an emotional level, is easily the album’s standout. The song’s melancholy tone differs considerably from the album’s overall cheerful nature. Each of the song’s layers seems calmer and more elegant than ever before, as the vocals cry out in the midst of psychedelic melodies, fuzzy distortion and warm ambience. “Sweatbox” takes the psychedelic edge of “(Invisible) Friends” and brings it to the forefront, with hypnotizing harmonies endlessly repeating, allowing the listener to fall into a trance as the song becomes increasingly noisy.
The final three tracks on Strange Friend
are easily the weakest; each one serving to highlight the album's faults. “No Shoes Blues” slows down the album’s pace considerably, starting off with soft and ambient instrumentation. Although “No Shoes Blues” is undeniably heartfelt, throughout its length the song’s melody changes little and becomes repetitive extremely quickly. Not until its end does the song actually pick up steam, with a noisy and orchestral climax reminiscent of “The Wind that Cried the World,” albeit darker and more frenetic. “Women of the Ghent” suffers from nearly the same problem. Despite its catchy groove and ethereal ambient breakdowns, not to mention a superb drum performance, its sameness in tonality and abrupt structural changes make the track appear unfocused and slightly contrived. Closing track “Galapagos” barely fits in with the rest of the rest of the album; a seemingly aimless experiment of noisy percussion and jarring static. As the sound of haunting, fuzzy distortion brings the album to a close, one can’t help but wish Strange Friend
had ended with the same amount of energy and catharsis in which the album began.
In terms of sheer ingenuity, Strange Friend
is a successful and worthwhile release. Yet, as a whole, the album has so much more to offer than the novelty of it would most likely suggest. It is an entrancing experience that, though monotonous and messy at times, is stylish and exuberant enough to make for one hell of a fun listen. With Strange Friend
, The Phantom Band have nearly perfected their one-of-a-kind sound, and released the supreme testament as to why “proto-robofolk” deserves to become the music industry’s next big thing.