You have to wonder what it is in the soil of Scotland that allows for the continual gestation of so many bands – and so many good bands. Certainly at present it feels like we might just be in the midst of some abstruse cycle – like the 17 year sleep of the cicada, or the periodic blooming of some desert flower – with a whole host of bands coming to the surface to breathe, to breed. And with The Phantom Band it feels a little like we’ve arrived at something totemic, a dark churning force at the centre of things. Maybe.
That soil metaphor works with this record too – Checkmate Savage is an album that is powered by the magma-deep churn of the rhythm section, and that throbs with a kind of underworld noir. It’s also intimately concerned with what lies beneath (see ‘Burial Sounds’ where singer Richard Princeton comes on like a bible black Howe Gelb) – under rocks and stones, in the belly of the mountains, under the ground…Then there’s the bands shady past too: formed by a rag tag bunch fascinated with different styles of music, the band perfected a number of these styles – metal, techno, gospel – and played gigs under a swarm of different pseudonyms, heads shrouded in cloth sacks. And it’s a mythology the band are rightly keen to maintain, as they are keen to manage the clash of styles. And how.
Pick your way through these references: The Stooges, Nick Cave, Smog, Can, The Beta Band, Violent Femmes, Super Furry Animals… Such are the descriptions I’ve seen levelled at The Phantom Band. No pressure there then. As it goes I think Can by way of the Super Furries and The Beta Band isn’t a totally unfair sketch – Can and The Beta Band for the way in which they find a groove and lock into it, the Super Furries for their method, grasp of melody and sheer vaulting ambition.
‘Folk Song Oblivion’ is the most obvious moment when all this coalesces, the song, driven by a dirty rhythm, effortlessly changing tack for a glorious Talking Heads inspired chorus, all whoops and handclaps. ‘Throwing Bones’ is equally momentous, a thick groove built around simple Velvet’s drone mutates into a doo-wop inspired wig out, come now, come faster… ‘Crocodile’ is probably the most Can-like track on the album – an almost savage bass line overcut with a clicking guiro and a wheezing organ. The track builds and releases and threatens to blow the sky open with its shameless abandon. And for all that talk of chthonic churn the band aren’t afraid to soar: on ‘Left Hand Wave’ the band sound like a wide-sky band from the American West, peyote-fuelled and ghosted.
Downsides? You might be churlish and say the album outstays its welcome a little – ‘The Whole Is on My Side’ feels undercooked, all groove and no song – but the main thing is the feeling that the band is going to split apart, that something might snap, all that contained energy flying in a hundred different directions. What is certain is that it’s going to be exhilarating to watch.