Few recent debuts have impressed like The Phantom Band’s Checkmate Savage. If you believed the hype in early 2009 – never advisable when it comes to the British music press – these Scots were Jesus Christ, the Queen and Archie Gemmill all rolled into one.
But hindsight – even just a year’s worth – is appreciated when it comes to judging the album’s final worth. Checkmate Savage was inspired, a led-minted goliath of modern rock. It was, however, also the sound of a band still tied to their influences, road tripping through the United States listening to old Beefheart and Kyuss cassettes, checking into pay-per-hours just so they can cycle through their John Carpenter VHS collection.
Cut to The Wants and we find The Phantom Band sharpening those influences to a fine point. You can feel the group growing into their artistry, creating their own space where comparisons and pigeonholing become that much harder. And almost on cue they’ve dropped their penchant for elusive behaviour that bordered on total anonymity, even – holy shit! – posing for press shots. It speaks of a confidence and self-identity that helps seal any remaining cracks in their technique and talent.
They waste no time in setting out their stall either. “A Glamour” flicks away the left over roach of Checkmate Savage, rolling synth and bass lines traded in for something darker, claustrophobic and stamping. You’d call it glam-rock, but the only androgynous gig this sounds like is one attended by second century pagans.
The whole album has this feel. Stripped of their American influences, there’s something anciently British about The Phantom Band, like the kind of thing hinted at in medieval folk music, but taken straight to the source. It’s borne out in “O” via a vicious tribal thump and perhaps the album’s greatest moment, when the band gathers to provide the Hammer horror chant: “I’m gonna gather these books and burn them!”
“Mr Natural” is the song that most resembles The Phantom Band’s previous work, powered along by pulsing keyboards and a skin tight rhythm section, but this time the group are reaching for real progressions rather than simply being content to nut a groove. It works well, but almost feels outdated when sitting next to “O” or the rolling squelch of something like “Into the Corn”.
That need to turn songs sharply and create something more from their craft is a persistent feature on The Wants. If “Walls” had existed on Checkmate Savage it would have ridden its rumbling beat into the ground, but here it’s fitted with an ice-breaking chorus and feverish coda. Even singer Rick Anthony trades his baritone in for a chilly falsetto. The Phantom Band are now quicker to the hook, but they never over-do it. The album’s other high point, “Everybody Knows it’s True”, could almost be a single, it’s pied-piper drum machines launching into a refrain that you’d say was ‘soaring’, except for Anthony’s lyrics, “Everybody wants to learn/ But the cost is just the ones I crucify/ My own”, and the fact that it’s unleashed just twice throughout a four and a half minute running time.
And that restraint is probably one of the major schemes running through The Wants. No longer do The Phantom Band endlessly circle their ideas, slowly grinding them down into a purpose; they now deliver the hook rather than asking the listeners to find it themselves. It means The Wants feels shorter than Checkmate Savage, both as a whole and track for track, when neither is actually the case.
It’s the kind of album Yeasayer might have made if they’d kept their drummer and moved to the UK, rather than choosing to make 80s-inspired electro-pop. There’s that same mysticism to The Wants as there was to All Hour Cymbals, but it’s all of a home grown, gothic and more robust variety. It’s now December and the time to count the year’s best has already begun, but don’t be surprised if The Wants makes a late run onto many a top ten list.