Checkmate Savage ~ 10th Anniversary 2LP Reissue Checkmate Savage ~ 10th Anniversary 2LP Reissue  Ref: CHEM253
MOJO - January 2009


Bizarro Glaswegian Kraut-folk sextet makes an early bid for debut album of the year.

The Phantom Band's spectral trademark is more than usually apt. This is an ensemble that once used a different moniker every time they played live and performed with bags over their heads. Their MySpace yields only mischievous disinformation - "Richard 'The Turd' Princeton" sings, "Gerrard 'Hartbreak' Harvard" plays bass - and some macabre art faintly suggestive of Van Der Graaf Generator. Of course, such shadowplay would matter zilch were it not shrouding music of profound calibre. Which is where the real Phantom Band intrigue begins.

Checkmate Savage is an unusually fully-fledged debut: the nione tracks span almost one hour; none is shorter than four minutes; two last almost eight and one is just shy of nine. Noteworthy details when considering the superficially contradictory impulses of the keynote musical spores: Krautrock's repetitive whoopee and the spartan lamentation of traditional Scottish folksong. Opener The Howling meshes the groovy and the grim, as electro pulses and cicada guitars exhort the singer - real name Rick Anthony - to florid depths of doom amid intimations of darkness, dust, a "reckoning wind" and the ominously rhetorical refrain; "Will there be a ghost on the day I die?" Its dread rave is followed by Burial Sounds: a coffin lid is scraped by ravenous hooded crows then a peg-leg beat invokes Slint-gone-swamp rock. Rick mutters about "a bloody release" and an Inverclyde voodoo choir gets lairy on his ass.

Hysterically thrawn tone duly set, Checkmate Savage only proceeds to get better. Folk Song Oblivion and Left Hand Wave come drenched in both the gothic mythos and sticklebacked melodic perversity of early R.E.M. With his nether-parts Aberdonian croon delivering lyrics like "I left home for an empty space", Rick has the crazed morbidity of a Pictish Bill Callahan, while the group's dynamic virtuosity offers relief from the lyrical sleet. Closer The Whole Is On My Side is an efficacious echo of Can's Yoo Doo Right, and the motorik fur fairly flies amid Throwing Bones' VU-with-added-doo-wop. The curdled, epic zenith is Island; with its aching guitar, queasy harmonium and mentions of Saint Columba, it reeks of Iona - both the mystical Hebridean isle and the risibly portentous latterday Skids song.

Apparently The Phantom Band arrived at their clattering hybrid after mastering an array of incompatible styles, from techno to metal to gospel, as well as deliberately parodying bands they hated. Such grand folly, coupled with the production skills of former Delgado Paul Savage and an ethos at odds with currently fashionable shibboleths - there is no obvious highlife elementto this music - has created a record as auspicious and accomplished as it is unforseen. [4/5]


The List - January 2009

For years the Chemikal triumvirate of The Delgados, Arab Strap and Mogwai dominated Scottish indie, but more recently the label has struggled to find a seminal band to soundtrack the future. On this evidence, they’ve found them. The Phantom Band are a very weird and very wonderful Glasgow-based six-piece and this debut is a work of skewed genius, a leftfield car-crash of indie, folk, pop, blues, post-rock and some stuff that’s frankly uncategorisable, all shot through with a punk ethic but an unashamedly melodic pop aesthetic.

The songs here often sound more dug out of the earth than created in a rehearsal room, so organically visceral is the vibe in places. The genre rulebook has been burned as well, so we get the scary krautrock disco of ‘Left Hand Wave’ sitting next to the jaw-dropping gospel-flecked folk of ‘Island’ and the sludgy Beefheart rattle of ‘Burial Sounds’ happily preceding the wide open pop spaces of ‘Folk Song Oblivion’.

This is a debut of serious intent with art.rock sensibilities, but that’s not to say it isn’t also a hell of a lot of fun, and the ghosts of the Beta Band and Super Furries appear at times. The Phantom Band like to get into a groove and work it to a climax, just witness the humungous rolling riff of ‘Halfhound’ or the tense, frenetic eight-minute instrumental ‘Crocodile’, the soundtrack to the best Scottish indie film never made.

Experimental and intelligent but also guttural, smile-inducing and ass-shaking, this is a pretty remarkable calling card. [5/5]


THE WORD - January 2009

Glaswegian collective pan for krautrock gold on the banks of the Clyde.

Formed on the darker fringes of the Glasgow scene by six spectral figures (early gigs were played with bags over their heads like a Caledonian version of The Residents), The Phantom Band are a disquieting art rock collective. Initial impressions include a sermonising Nick Cave dropped into Can circa Tago Mago, but the Glaswegian brogue they sing in brings a whole new alchemy into the mix. Crocodile has the instrumental purr and glide of Neu!, but halfway through Throwing Bones we may indeed ahve the first recorded example of doo-wop-krautrock. Phantom Band inhabit a fractured world of howls, glitches and sighs and their delerious mess of influences hits its apex on Folk Song Oblivion, which incorporates elements of The Stooges and - believe it or not - the ceilidh. This might read like the worst excesses of musical hybridisation, but the cast iron vision at the heart of it ensures a lurid triumph.


ROCKSOUND - January 2009

Sharing their name with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit's short-lived solo-project, this Glasgow outfit have copped afew of the Cologne collective's moves on this confident debut, not least the chugging cyclical rhythms and battling guitars on 'Crocodile'. However, there's more to this shady sextet - who have laboured under various quirky monikers including the unlikely Robert Redford - than krautrock, notably the gnarly riffage of 'Folk Song Oblivion' and the anthemic 'Left Hand Wave', all sung with a thick-as-molasses Scottish burr. A welcome mixture of dour Delgados humour and Beta Band eclecticism, The Phantom Band are an impressively idiosyncratic addition to the Chemikal Underground canon. [7/10]


Q - January 2009

The latest in a long line of fluid Scottish collectives, from The Reindeer Section to Belle And Sebastian, this elusive Glasgow sextet refuses to be properly photographed and indulges in silly nom-de-bands such as "Richard The Turd" Princeton. Wildly eclectic but constantly accessible, this debut veers from the Death Cab For Cutie-esque Burial Sounds, with its rattling percussion and background choir, to the more wry, gentler, Belle And Sebastian-esque meanderings of Folk Song Oblivion [Chemikal Comment - What the fuck!?!]. There's much more to savour and although its catholicism means there's no instant winner, in time an entrancing Caledonian majesty emerges. [3/5]


The Skinny - January 2009

If lead single Throwing Bones doesn’t slap a big smile on your mug, you may want to check your pulse for recent activity.

Named due to their somewhat elusive activities under a string of band names as long as your arm, Glaswegian collective The Phantom Band release Checkmate Savage, their first album proper. Lead single Throwing Bones was enough to prick up Chemikal Underground’s collective ear and it’s easy to hear why. If the somewhat unexpected barber-shop quartet breakdown midway through its quirky country bop-along doesn’t slap a big smile on your mug, you may want to check your pulse for recent activity. On Folk Song Oblivion, singer Rick Anthony comes across like Smog’s Bill Callahan ghost-writing for the Beta Band, with the end mantra of "I can’t see for the mountain’s silhouette" likely to stalk you for the remainder of your day. The pulsing bass and jangly guitar punctuations of opener The Howling invoke Stereolab holed up in a log cabin, the near-perfect layers of instrumentation and warm spacing providing an irresistible welcome to an impressive debut. [4/5]


17 Seconds Blog

A few months ago I wrote about how excited I was by the Phantom Band. I commented that the description of ‘Beefheart meets Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Neu! meets Nick Cave’ might actually be pretty accurate on the basis of what I had heard so far. On the evdience of this stunning debut, that was an understatement.

It’s like they’ve fashioned something completely new, taking cues from the long-lamented Beta Band, with their ‘everything including the kitchen sink’ ethos, to produce an album that yields new secrets on each listen. ‘Folksong Oblivion’ a teaser for the album gave us some idea of what to expect, but nothing as good as this. Is this ‘indie’ or ‘electronic’ or what? It’s music that comes out of leftfield, and then gives us something weird and wonderful that needs to be heard.

The title can be assumer to be a reference to the fact that the album was recorded at Chem 19, the Delgados’ legendary studio, and features Paul Savage from Scotland’s Greatest Ever Band in the role of producer, engineer, and guiding force. It was also recorded at Franz Ferdinand’s studio in Govan. Hear it now! [4.5/5] - Feb 09

I remember the first time I arrived in the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia. I felt alive and invigorated as sights dipped in and out of view as we traveled a road that wound through valleys. I also felt as if I were at home, not just excited by the novelty of an alien terrain. Checkmate Savage, the debut album by "Proto-robofolk" sextet The Phantom Band is conjuring a similarly exciting bevy of feelings. Allusions to the ancient, the mundane and the cosmic all abound and add up to a down-to-earth opus which isn’t indignantly tethered to the ground. In case that intro came off like an overwrought allusion to the band being from Wales, fear not, they are from Scotland.

It’s a staggeringly bold eruption considering it's their first. They gallop precariously, like Do Make Say Think at their best, on the tender bridge that appears surprisingly after four minutes of the ass grooving, hand-clapping opener ‘The Howling’. These kind of tasteful, well executed but unexpected twists are what hints most at great band chemistry. There’s a lot of hope for an imaginative recording career in these nine songs and I doubt their appeal will be confined to the 'avant-rock' underground. I sincerely hope they don’t drop the eccentricity for the wrong reasons.

Once this record had grabbed hold of me, that was that. I dipped my toe in the river but was instantly jerked to the centre of its rushing flood and I wasn’t let off the ride for a good while. Checkmate Savage is definitely best played loud. When the band drop low on the bouncing doom of ‘Burial Sounds’ the singer dips his deep resonant voice to a crackling low growl before the swirling post-prog apocalypse kicks up again. ‘Folk Song Oblivion’ starts as a churning dirge which brings to mind some of the tracks on forthcoming Arbouretum album (which is a veritable masterpiece) but spins out into a chorus that reminded me of the playfulness of the recent David Byrne and Brian Eno album (review here). He even sounds as impassioned and unhinged as David Byrne when he howls out "I can’t see for the mountain’s silhouette" in his clipped, percussive Scottish accent. It really is that good, and fundamental to its success is the cohesion of these elements.

The production allows an equal footing for the synths, bass, guitars and vocals to make the ascent. I can tell that there is an impressive amount of character to the way each are played but for now I am too freshly enamoured with the music to start isolating the pieces of the funky space castle puzzle. As ‘Halfhound’ ricochets about my room I am enjoying the interplay between an almost Malian muted guitar picking and a fuzzy blues lead. Then the vocalist pulls this out of the bombastic riffing, over an eerie elegiac bridge underscored by deep as the earth backing chants:

"Say a prayer in the twilight, to be an open door. To rise from hands and knees and walk as dogs no more"

It’s a real pleasure for me (who has a lot more American records in his favourites section than British ones) to hear a band from not too far away who don’t sound like they’re trying to prove how un-American they are and are also not playing like an American band. Sure the label aren’t far off when they liken some of the most angular off-kilter hooks to Captain Beefheart but that comparison is in terms of creativity and defiant authenticity, not the style of the sound.

The Phantom Band also make brief use of pop-rock devices of the kind that could get the mainstream Zombie.Radio.Führers sniffing around. Yet I’m uncertain they would really bite until the rank odour of a dead donkey flogging got their greed glands salivating. I for one hope The Phantom Band keep their fat sounding whip trained on thrashing out unpredictable sandstorms of swirling guitars and syncopated up-tempo rhythms. And then towards the end they hit you with the glorious melody of the swaying ‘Islands’ which you can find out about when you buy a copy of this great record. [9/10]

David Morris