A fair amount of new music comes my way on a fairly regular basis: and most of the time now I decline to post reviews.
This is partly because this website juggles a bunch of different content subjects/genres and I get less time than I’d like to focus on music (I really did primarily want this to be a music blog at one point in time); and also partly because I don’t like to write negative or critical reviews of fellow musicians – meaning that I tend to only post about music I genuinely like.
So when Phantom Sun‘s album Caldera came on to my radar, I was happy – because I genuinely really liked what I was hearing.
The hard-rock (alt-rock? I struggle with genre specification sometimes) outfit is from Burlington, Vermont, and Caldera is their first full-length release after their Parhelia EP from a few years ago.
It’s one of the very few albums I’ve been directed to in recent years that genuinely got me on first listen. My reaction was similar to when I first heard what the UK(Midlands)-based band God Damn were doing – and that was way back in 2013. But Phantom Suns (consisting of Seth Gunderson, Ryan Cohen and Christopher Mathieu) reminds me of God Damn a bit: it’s a different sound, but it’s drawing on the same pool of influences and with a similar kind of drive and energy.
There’s no mistaking the early 90s alt/grunge influence. It’s actually refreshing to hear a current band sounding so steeped in what was arguably the best (or at least one of the best) eras of music.
Phantom Suns are melodic, hard-driving rock, in the spirit and tradition of some of the very best music I keep going back to in my collection: but it feels less derivative and more a matter of tapping into the same energies and finding the same wave.
Stone Temple Pilots was the first and most lingering comparison that came to mind when listening to Caldera. The STP vibe is there not just in the sound, but also in the styles of composition and progression, especially on choruses. Phantom Suns at times actually sounds like what I sometimes wished STP would’ve sounded more like: Phantom Suns are consistently heavier and more aggressive in their approach and set-up.
Vocalist Seth Gunderson does also sound like he could be the late Scott Weiland’s rock n’ roll son, however. But, speaking as someone who misses Scott Weiland, I’m putting that down as a good thing.
The heavy-hitter ‘Forget’, for example, sounds like it could be a lost STP classic. That vibe is present in a number of the songs – the sense that you could’ve been rocking out to this stuff twenty years ago, yet also a contemporary vibe that makes you feel you’d love to be in a small venue listening to this stuff played live. I’ve never seen Phantom Suns live, but Caldera leaves me thinking I would be shocked if they didn’t turn out to be a great live band.
‘Knotweed’ is a highlight, hugely melodic and upbeat, but carried on thick riffage and massive sounding drums.
That dynamic is a unifying feature through all the songs – catchy, melodic vocals, but offset by a sound and production that always maintains its heaviness and its sharp quality. On every composition and in every mix the bass sounds fantastic, the drums sound like you’re in the room and the guitar is merged perfectly in the mix.
‘Trial By Stone’ is, amazingly, a homage to Jim Henson’s offbeat children’s classic The Dark Crystal (which I’ve always loved to bits: and never thought I’d ever hear a hard-rock homage to it). Here’s the video for ‘Trial By Stone’, by the way – which made me like it even more.
‘Probably Wrong’ is more poppy than anything else on the album, but has more of an expansive quality and feels like something similar to what Silverchair would’ve done on one of their later, better albums. In fact, other than STP, Silverchair is another band that I thought about on a few occasions while listening to Caldera: and I’m a big fan of the later Silverchair works (from Neon Ballroom onwards).
Likewise, Phantom Suns feel to me like a band whose music could easily evolve and expand in subsequent projects. A lot of bands (in fact most bands) don’t get to last long enough to start doing that, due to the pressures, hardships and costs of maintaining the momentum and trajectory in this day and age: but I hope Phantom Suns is a band that does.
‘Perpetual Motion Holder’ is probably my personal stand-out pick from Caldera. It has a bad-ass intro, but then spirals off into a different entity to what you expect: it’s a song that flows and shifts brilliantly, showcasing a different quality of composition to some of the preceding tracks.
The band has found a potent sound dynamic that allows each component, instrument or member to find optimal expression in a perfect mix. The production on Caldera is superb: everything sounds fantastic, from Chris Mathieu’s relentless drums to the thickness of the guitar and bass mix. The often layered vocals (all three band members share vocal duties at different points) always sound rich, like an instrument in their own right and not merely the human sound sitting on top of the instrumentation.
Ryan Cohen mixed the album at Robot Dog studio: and actually Caldera is not just a good demonstration of Phantom Suns as an outfit, but also a good advert for the Robot Dog studio and Cohen’s ability to get everything sounding this perfect.
But it’s the closing track ‘Olympus Mons’ that is most striking and that lingers with you most, which is perhaps why it was smart to have it as the end track. It’s very different in tone and vibe to any of the other eleven compositions: slower, gentler, more esotetic-feeling, trippier, but without sacrificing the melodiousness or the drum-centric foundation of hard-rock heaviness – which, as a compositional dynamic, is really difficult to attain.
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That’s partly why this is a really, really quality piece of music. By chance, I was listening to Mad Season a lot lately: and ‘Olympus Mons’ has a Mad Season vibe to it, like it’s an entity that emerged out of a different place or vibe to the rest of the songs.
Although I liked most of Caldera anyway, it was this closing track that most makes me want to hear more Phantom Suns. ‘Olympus Mons’ is actually the kind of song that few bands ever manage to write or compose: the fact that these guys have done it on what is their first full-length release says something.
You can listen to, buy or download Caldera here at Bandcamp.
You can also find it on Spotify here.
And on iTunes here.
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