Bass machine with Camera Obscura, DJ, gentleman, Whovian, thrift store manager, geek for music, geek for sci-fi, geek for sitcoms, Petrocelli of the home studio, expert in the art of procrastination, waistcoat-sporting aficionado of the pocket watch, longstanding supporter of the Harry Wraggs and King of Partick. You can follow Camera Obscura on Twitter here and Patrick on Twitter here.
From the heady days of punk through the rise of independent and DIY labels, Glasgow has been responsible for nurturing some of the most consistently interesting, vital and just plain great bands around. That Chemikal Underground has spent the last two decades releasing some of the greatest independent records ever made is an achievement in itself. The fact that they are still releasing records that sound fresh, and keep finding innovative bands, Scottish and otherwise, to work with is a testament to the vision of the Delgados, who set up and continue to run the label. What started as a way for the Delgados to release their first single “Monica Webster/Brand New Car,” quickly grew into a label not just for themselves. The band has curated a fine roster, releasing work from Arab Strap, Mogwai, Bis, Interpol and RM Hubbert.
I discovered the Phantom Band when their first album, Checkmate Savage, came out back in January 2009. I was working in the record store Fopp, and being a debut by a Glasgow band on Chemikal, it got a few plays on the week-one rotations. It was a record that had a comparatively small promo budget, being on a label with limited resources, and was never likely to be pushed as much as it might be otherwise, but whenever we played it people came up and asked who it was, and it ended up being one of our biggest sellers that year. It was a great pop record with a really good sense of when to be a bit rock, and it also had interesting nods to krautrock and traditional folk, as well as smart use of synths and programming. They were doing something a bit different, standing out from their contemporaries.
The band seemed to disappear for a while, involving themselves in some side projects until last year, when a third LP, Strange Friend, was released. I managed to miss it at the time, and it wasn’t until I was listening to this year’s companion piece Fears Trending and reading the production notes that I realised my omission and went back to get it. I listened to these albums as two parts of a whole, as Strange Friend and Fears Trending are taken from the same recording sessions. Strange Friend came out first as a slightly straighter pop record (not a bad thing after being away for four years) and Fears Trending is more of an off-kilter affair; not so pop, not so obvious. It’s a bit more of a risk-taking, atmospheric piece. It’s still the band’s signature sound, but they play it in a different way.
Fears Trending is a cohesive record in the same way as its sister album is. It’s designed to work together as a piece with Strange Friend, and yet it also heads in a different direction from its predecessor. The feel is warm, and from opener “Tender Castle” the stage is set, with an almost six-minute distillation of the band’s mix of tight rhythms and sweeping electronic production. I’m reminded of early Simple Minds before it all went pompous; it sounds both bang-on contemporary and like a band on top of their sound.
“Local Zero” has a real lightness of touch, with fairly straight pop sensibilities which, although slightly wonky, manage to convey a sun-blissed feel. “Denise Hopper” moves into more soundtrack-like territory, the twanging guitar, low vocal stylings and growling synth bass bringing to mind a score for an imaginary Glaswegian Spaghetti Western. “Black Tape” is a hint towards what Big Country might have sounded like covering Neu!, and “The Kingfisher” stalks a sparser, organ-led, dimly lit bluesy-folk approach before the opening of “Olden Golden” takes it back to a more traditional folk sound. It quickly builds into a full-sounding affair, with towering vocals and glistening organ swathes over the juddering bass, gigantic drum sound and trembling guitars.
With seven tracks, none under four minutes, there’s lots of space for the tracks to breathe, with the band taking advantage of longer song times to flex their melodic muscles and programming smarts. It is an intelligent and windswept record, and definitely a companion piece, as opposed to being merely an offcuts album.
I really like that this band has put out a flip-side album, and one that isn’t just another pop record. Is it a risk in this day of downloads and streaming to still put the album out as an artifact in its own right? To take the time and thought process to make a record work as an artistic entirety, and not just be a couple of “virtual singles” and some other tracks randomly available together in one package? I think Chemikal is a label that’s happy to release music as the band wants it, and not be interfering with chart concerns, which makes for a healthy working relationship with bands.
People often comment about how the Glasgow music scene always seems so vibrant, but to me one of the most interesting things about it is that there isn’t some defined scene. There isn’t a Glasgow sound or a Glasgow style. We don’t follow a code and all make the same records, with the same influences and the same people, in the same places.
What we do have is a lot of bands that are inspired to make great music. Over the years we have developed a bit of an attitude that you can come from Glasgow and exist in a music world without having to be based in London or New York, or wherever the current cool place to make music is, which is a refreshing change from the days when people felt obliged to move away to be part of the music industry. There is more of an infrastructure now to make music, to play music, to rehearse, record and plan. There is a healthy arts movement which thrives alongside the music. Of course, Glasgow isn’t unique, there are cities all over with great outlooks, great bands, places that still have record shops, venues and people passionate about music. (I’ve always loved Factory Records Founder Tony Wilson’s fine explanation/quote: “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”) But there is something particular about here that gives bands an edge, whether it’s just being far enough away from the major industry to exist without the arsehole end of it affecting you, or maybe it’s just that people here are quite good at helping you stay grounded and not join the arsehole end of the industry. Either way, the Phantom Band continues to prove itself a vital part of the current scene and a fine addition to the Glasgow legacy.