The Phantom Band - Checkmate Savage
Ian Atherton 23/01/2009
Reading wildly ambitious press releases is an entertaining sideline of this reviewing lark, with the most unremarkable bands often discussed in hilariously hyperbolic terms. To be fair, the text accompanying the belated debut album from The Phantom Band is an effective summary of the Scottish sextet's career, but what catches the eye (other than the virtuoso use of “sibylline”) is the assertion that “Checkmate Savage is where Beefheart meets Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, where Neu! meets Nick Cave”. Can it really be that a mysterious Glasgow-based collective have harnessed the creative capabilities of some of rock's great innovators? Of course not. But they've certainly given it their best shot.
Coming a full seven years after the group members came together, Checkmate Savage is the end result of a lengthy process that has seen the band formerly known as Robert Redford, Son Of and Wooden Trees veer from traditional rock to improvised noise and from folk to “techno with guitars”. Eventually the name The Phantom Band was chosen to reflect the frequent identity changes, and a working method of hippyish studio jams established. Chemikal Underground seems a natural home for the results, which slot into the darker side of the Scottish indie scene epitomised by the label's classic trio of The Delgados, Arab Strap and Mogwai.
Opener The Howling sets the tone - a hectic drum loop, an electro pulse and occasional jangly stabs of guitar, topped with Rick Anthony's flat brogue and eventually descending into two minutes of churning psychedelia. The relaxed approach to song structure is typical - six of the album's nine tracks stretch over five minutes, and many evolve radically during their existence. Both Halfhound and Folk Song Oblivion shift from guitar-heavy droning chants to relatively sprightly pop choruses, while the wide-eyed bubble of 2007 single Throwing Bones suddenly bursts into an unexpected Beach Boys-style breakdown. Other songs are less structurally surprising, but no less innovative - Crocodile is an eight-minute Krautrock instrumental that builds to a clamouring guitar crescendo, and Island is an even lengthier wistful plod whose chiming guitars and choral swells prove genuinely affecting.
The band's versatility makes comparison difficult, but they certainly have kindred spirits in the eccentric musings of Super Furry Animals and the shuffling folk-hop of fellow Scots The Beta Band (and their psychedelic cousins The Aliens). However, despite their obvious predilection for sonic experimentation, Paul Savage's polished production crudely smoothes the rough edges, somehow turning the most unexpected sounds and musical detours into something that wouldn't sound out of place on Radio 2. Crossover success is a distinct possibility then, but somewhere along the way a glossy lushness seems to have steamrollered subtlety, character and soul.
As a result, it's difficult to pick a single moment on Checkmate Savage as wilfully and skilfully obtuse as Captain Beefheart, as sparsely literate as Will Oldham, as rhythmically revolutionary as Neu! or as wryly brutal as Nick Cave, but a band even a tenth as good as those artists is more worthwhile than most. The Phantom Band may not have made a record that will stand alongside Tender Prey or Trout Mask Replica, but any group with such a defined sense of eccentricity, playfulness and restlessness is definitely worth keeping an eye on.