This ‘Phantom Sound’ article was written by Max Mee’s, a GIGsoup contributor
“The Phantom Sound” is the self-titled debut album of the London based rock ‘n’ roll outfit. Lead by singer Marisa Schlussel, featuring drums by Blondie’s Clem Burke and produced by Ken Stringfellow, known for his work with R.E.M. and The Posies, there’s no denying that this isn’t a winning formula. The album is referred to as a solo album on The Phantom Sound’s website and social media, but it often feels more like the work of a band. You can’t help but wonder if Clem Burke carries a musical-curse with him – what with Blondie being a band often mistaken as a singer, The Phantom Sound risks being a singer mistaken for a band.
Schlussel’s vocal performance illustrates this perfectly. You never get the feeling that she exploring the far reaches of her abilities; which is by no means a bad thing. Most solo albums are often treated as a vanity project, a chance for the vocalist to show off and use the band as a pedestal on which to stand higher than the rest. But there are no vocal back flips or cartwheels here. Instead, Schlussel uses her voice to perfectly compliment the music, staying solid and unwavering like the decades worth of rock ‘n’ roll icons that clearly inspired her, and just occasionally finding space for moments of vocal brilliance.
The album is an enormous twelve tracks long; with industry heavyweights like Ken Stringfellow and Clem Burke, you would want to make the most out of their expertise too. However, because of this, there is a real feeling of fatigue by the time you’ve reached the end and not enough variety in the music to alleviate the exhaustion. The point of a first album is to have a clear, straight-to-the-point definition of your sound for your listeners. And with twelve tracks, you’re telling someone to pick a card from a pack they’ve never seen before, and then scattering them on the floor.
The album gets off to a great start with the opening track “Get To Me” and right from the get-go it’s very clear that a lot of love, care and hard work went into the production. You’re given a short wash of feedback and noise and then suddenly the band crashes in as if to kick down the front door of the album with Schlussel at the front of the pack. The band does a brilliant job, delivering a driving and solid framework for the vocals to ride atop. Melodic bass lines leading into each chord, busy but not intrusive, solid drums that eventually develop into a sixteen-bar fill that’s still as solid as a rock. Schlussel gives a strong yet relaxed performance that has you hanging on every word, without having to grab you by the throat. There are two guitarists in the band and I’m unsure if the guitar was double-tracked or if they were both just playing the exact same power chords. Something that ended up re-emerging in nearly every song and got very boring, very quickly. Power chords stopped being new and exciting when the ‘70s came about.
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The hype and expectation accumulated during the opening track is almost entirely washed away by the second track, “Crushing”, and due to the timid and quite frankly flaccid guitar intro. And again it’s another power chord fest. It’s not until track 3 that the two guitars are playing independently to compliment each other, instead of both playing the exact same thing.
With “Out Of Time” the band get to show off a bit more; with the guitar finally playing something other than power chords, decorating the spaces with fills that are often accompanied by the bass. Small but powerful details such as a snare hit on the quaver before the first beat of the next bar, as if to echo Schlussel singing the word “find”. The synth break gets interesting by breaking from the constraints of the key with a minor second. This really adds tension to Marisa’s incredible vocals that almost seem vulnerable and afraid. Something we have not heard before now on the album.
Again, nothing remarkable happens until track 8, “Over From Here”. This time we’re visiting the ‘60s with a tom-heavy beat, a melodic bass line and almost spaghetti-western-like guitar riff. We get to hear some great vocal harmonies from Marisa that really ground the song in the decade that inspired it.
It is at this point that you realise that there hadn’t been a single guitar or synth solo throughout the album which seems a little strange for an album so heavily set on delivering a specific style that solos so tightly woven into its fabric. But we finally get three guitar solos in the space of two songs, “Release Me” and “What It’s Worth” respectively. And by this late point in the album, it seems a little jarring and out of place. Not only has it taken 10 songs to give us a solo, you don’t even appreciate it is happening at first. The solo in “Release Me” begins with the guitarist playing quite low down in the guitar’s register, and it muddies in with what the rest of the band are playing that you don’t even know it’s there until they finally play higher up and cut through the mix. “What It’s Worth” features two guitar solos, the second giving the impression that it was thrown in as an afterthought. There’s no closure leading to the end of the song, as if cut off mid-solo.
Overall, “The Phantom Sound” had potential to be an incredible 3 or 4-track EP or even a 7-track album. But the scarcity of truly great songs hidden beneath the mammoth number of samey three-chords-and-the-truth rock ‘n’ roll tracks makes it difficult to focus on the really great elements of the album for long enough. There is no clear progression, journey or growth over the course of the album, which is highlighted by an anticlimactic final song that could have been thrown in at any point between any of the other tracks. The one constant throughout is Schlussel’s voice, which never falters and really holds everything else together. It’s clear through the music, lyrics and hard work that this is a project she honestly cares for and there is certainly enough real potential for her to release something that could shake rock music from the roots in the future.