Album review: The Phantom Band, Strange Friend (Chemikal Underground)

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An edited version of this review originally ran in The List Magazine, May 2014.

(Four stars)

Who’d live in a world like this? A democratic world, that is, that’s cast in darkness, fuelled by spuds, roamed by statuesque women and barefoot hominids; that’s over-hot and groove-fixated, with a wind that cries the lot of it. One look (or listen) through the wormhole says it can only be The Phantom Band: our six strange (invisible) friends from Scotland-via-Saturn’s rings.

The stellar third long-player from our Glasgow-based prog-pop diabolists maps out, explores and downright rules across a motley realm of far-flung deserts (‘Atacama’) and archipelagos (‘Galapagos’) – with a drum-scorched kraut-folk culinary landmark here (‘Clapshot’) and an industrial electro summit there (‘Doom Patrol’).

Fans of the clanging motorik wig-outs that underscored debut Checkmate Savage (2009) will fall heavy for ‘Sweatbox’ and the robo-bone rattling ‘Galapagos’, while lovers of the twisted machine-melodies that enlightened 2011’s The Wants will find much to admire in kosmische raga ‘The Wind That Cried The World’, arcane lullaby ‘Atacama’ and the rangy, rubbery groove on ‘Women of Ghent’.

Oh, their sonic virtues are myriad – from the retro tech-swagger of ‘The Wind That Cried The World’, to the chiming mirage of ‘(Invisible) Friends’ – but perhaps their biggest charm lies in their circuitous narratives, which pull the (kaftan) rug from under you: the 80s-metal beast that lopes into ‘Doom Patrol’; the slow-burning woodwind fanfares on the rapturous ‘No Shoes Blues’.

It is that deceptively simple ballad that illustrates how much magic(k) the Scottische-pop sextet summon with what they’ve got: the woozy, weird keyboard motifs, the wounded growl of Rick ‘Redbeard’ Anthony’s voice, the howling guitar lines, the prime-evil beats. The Phantom Band are, at heart, a rock group in the most inventive sense – like The Beatles, Can, Pink Floyd – and the world they inhabit is strange, congenial and often beautiful. Wish you were here.

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