The eerie mix of moody synth, distorted guitars and heavy atmospherics on Phatogram’s debut, Eyelid Movies took music by surprise a couple of years ago. Folks that were starting to shovel dirt on Trip-Hop while heralding Post Trip-Hop got a little lost in their silly labels and had to admit Phantogram was good enough to keep the movement alive. Their sinister, heady style soundtracked plenty of dark room listenings and gave 80’s new wave lovers another sign that someone still loved them.
The pair is back with their signature brand of electronic angst in tow. Their Nightlife EP revisits what made them special while adding layers to the already cushy sound. The music is still fabulously morose, tackling themes of isolation, depression and emotional disconnection. But sometimes there’s a certain comfort felt in giving in to the melancholy and Phantogram plays on that need perfectly.
A finished version of “16 Years” leads the EP with a more fleshy sound than the original release. The steady galloping of the drum and distorted stair step progression of the guitar invoke the end of John Hughes film, while Sarah Barthel breaths out a story of renewed passion found after following a bright light through a dark tunnel. Don’t get excited though, it’s the closest the pair comes to legitimate happiness on the release.
The album takes a definite left turn with the bouncy “Don’t Move,” a tune that could easily be about watching an addict go through withdrawal. Some irony can be found in Barthel’s direction to her subject to stay still while imploring movement with a dance track that comes complete with a hyper horn sample. The bridge here is a bit listless, but otherwise the most active track of the bunch.
Josh Carter takes the vocal reigns on “Turning Into Stone” and the mood plummets thanks to a slow, thick bassline and regimented snare topped off with shadowy synth wailing and drunken digital horns. Living is lonely when everybody dies Carter sings, but a new day is here and I’ll find yet another way to make it just as somber. Watch. The huge ending includes a double time drum and a cacophony of cymbal washes, but it doesn’t elevate the song out of its black hole, which is totally the point.
The build on the front end of “Make a Fist” is gorgeous. It’s a bit off center and more intricate than the other songs, but Barthel gets a bit long-winded in her prattling about the future. Minus the chorus, this is her best vocal outing. “Nightlife” is more Dream Pop than Trip Hop. The feathery soft ambiance is quickly enveloped by the percussion, but the balance of hard and soft is beautiful. A slave to the streets after the sun goes down and looking for companionship in all the wrong places finds Barthel proclaiming love is all she ever needed. Funny, because the streets are the last place you find it.
The glitch-filled closer, “A Dark Tunnel” again explores the dichotomy of hard and soft. An abrupt start of synth layers and drums play foundation to Carter’s rants about a lying lover while Barthel bookends his rage filled chants with a calm, dreamy hook. The tail end of the song even with its take off and feathered flight is languid and anti-climatic considering the aggression of the beginning.
Phantogram evokes a dark sexiness that few other bands can muster. Nightlife is not always perfect but it is always provocative and strangely beautiful. The pair makes you embrace that angst that you thought you left in high school and give it life with a shroud of heavy synth and breathy vocals. Just don’t dig out the black trench and spike cuffs from your goth adolescence. As much as Nightlife may make you want to, that would be a bit much.
3.75 out of 5
Don’t believe it’s this good? U cant stream Nightlife here.
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