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Album Review

Phantogram – ‘Ceremony’ [Album Review]



Listening to this latest album is something of a ceremony in and of itself. Phantogram’s first album, Eyelid Movies, caused a rippling impact in music’s superstructure. That ripple eventually turned into a veritable tidal wave, leading to the duo’s infamous collaboration with none other than Big Boi of OutKast fame. That project, Big Grams, resulted in further collaboration with artists like Run The Jewels, and a typically awesome double-song animated video by Adult Swim. The last decade saw them dive into other collaborations with artists like The Flaming Lips and Skrillex, contributing to the Grand Theft Auto V soundtrack, and a host of film & TV shows using their songs. With a career like that, it’s safe to say Phantogram helped shape the 2010 decade’s sonic landscape by colliding their unique blend of heartbreaking vocal melody, electronic breaks, indie pop, and hip-hop.

But there’s a good chance you haven’t heard of ‘em.

Despite this career, the duo has remained cloistered away in the decidedly “indie” bracket of music. The duo toured the world and released an EP with one of the most influential rappers of all time while managing to remain somewhat in obscurity. This suits them fine: some of the most magical things can only happen under cover of darkness. The relative shade the duo has managed to weave for themselves is a cover that enables them to dwell in creative bedrock, churning out album after album, single after single.

But this cover also harbours secrets and ill omens. The duo endured heartbreak around the time of their last album, 2016’s Three. Touring off the success of said recording, while important and vital (like the album itself), was an echo chamber. As Sarah Barthel explains on their Instagram page, “performing those songs every night kept us stuck in that one moment.”

How do you pick up after a loss? How can you possibly return to work? For Phantogram, it meant physically relocating to Laurel Canyon, and starting over again. Recording a new album. And pouring all their past hurts and future hopes into a new album. The result is exquisite.

Sarah and Josh have always been an alchemical duo, reducing musical boundaries to ash and reconstructing them into soaring towers reaching above to dizzying heights, to be enjoyed by those below in the underground. The pair are a two-card tarot spread, the High Priestess and the Magician. Sarah’s vocals promise wisdom and understanding, intuiting the hidden nature of things, probing into the darkness of the human condition. Josh’s musical prowess provides a powerful atmosphere, driving and manifesting aural landscapes that inspire. To hear them take yet another solemn plunge into their strengths is a warm feeling.

“Dear God”’s title reminds the listener of the eponymous 1986 single by XTC. But instead of a cover, it’s more a modern interpretation, of sorts: Josh’s use of twanging electric strings is reminiscent of Bowie’s “Chinatown.” The lyrics are still addressing a god, but rather than an indictment for all the ills they’ve allowed, they’re a more personal plea for release, or for absolution. The song sets the bittersweet yet joyful tone that will be the theme of the first half of the album.

“In A Spiral” was already revealed to the globe back in October, and whetted appetites the musical world over with its crushing bass and pitched-up sample reminiscent of “Yeezus.” “Into Happiness” shows the pair musing on what it means to move past tragedy. “Pedestal” is the most obvious contender for a stand-out single. With its hall of mirrors approach to accentuating Sarah’s soaring melodies, accompanied by Josh’s blend of ‘80s retro-pop morphing into contemporary electro-hip-hop beats, it’s an easy favourite that marks the height of the duo’s ability to weave joy.

It’s not all pop and beats, though. The rest of the album is a downward spiral into misery: “News Today,” something of a downbeat interlude, plays more like Autechre meets Portishead; “Mister Impossible” is an orchestral mashup with Rob Dougan-esque breaks overladen with gloom; “Glowing” brings the mood to a halt with a sorrowful ballad, before “Gaunt Kids” opens up a can of sinister worms. And the album’s eponymous closer falls into disarray and discord, obliterating the last of the magnanimity it wielded in the first half.

Ceremony shows the group in fine form, bookending the dichotomy between delight and despondency. In attempting to re-write the story of their heartbreak, Phantogram has leaned into their strengths, reinventing the atmosphere in which they do it. Proof that burning one’s self down into ash is the first step in creating a new vision.

Ceremony Track Listing:

1. Dear God
2. In A Spiral
3. Into Happiness
4. Pedestal
5. Love Me Now
6. Let Me Down
7. News Today
8. Mister Impossible
9. Glowing
10. Gaunt Kids
11. Ceremony

Run Time: 36 minutes
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Record Label: Republic Records