Album Review: The Fire Tapes’ Phantoms

The Fire Tapes

Phantoms

WarHen Records

Release Date: September 17, 2013

Track Listing

  1. Scarlett Cliffs
  2. Elements
  3. Echoes
  4. Floating Fire
  5. Skull & Xbones
  6. Mind’s Eye
  7. Anything
  8. Phantoms
  9. Transmission, Receiver

Personnel

Betsy White – guitar, vocals

Todd Milton – guitar

Rob Dobson – bass

Mark McLewlee – drums

The demise of a relatively young band is in some fashion much like the loss of a young life – there’s a sense of unfulfilled promise and possibility (almost) being unfairly snuffed out. But as many of us know, being in a band can be as complicated, frustrating and rewarding as being in a romantic relationship; in fact, the same issues that can plague and end a romantic relationship can often be amplified in a creative relationship – and in many cases, can frequently poison the waters, with every party involved embittered.  Sadly, while doing some additional research for this review – a review that is honestly long overdue for other reasons – I learned that some vexing and troubling personal issues lead to the demise of the Fire Tapes shortly after the release of their sophomore effort, Phantoms. And in some way, that lingering sense of unfinished business and unfulfilled promise now seem to permeate through the album’s nine songs.

   But some backstory must be provided: the quartet of the Fire Tapes consisted of Betsy White (guitar and vocals), Todd Milton (guitar), Rob Dobson (bass) and Mark McLewlee (drums) quickly developed a reputation in both the Washington, DC/Alexandria, VA and Charlottesville, VA areas for a live sound and set that was innovative to the point of being experimental. And with the release of their debut effort, Dream Travel, the quartet became local blogosphere darlings. The Fire Tapes sophomore album Phantoms may well have been the effort that put them on the larger, national stage as it not only further cemented the band’s reputation for complex, highly nuanced song structures but for some incredibly tight musicianship which owed a great debt to the band’s influences – the Velvet Underground, PJ Harvey, and the Black Angels. Although interestingly enough, to me they also bear a rather uncanny sonic resemblance to a great Brooklyn band you know probably (and sadly) never heard of, the Standing Nudes – a band that also managed to break up (or at least disappear) after a phenomenal release, Ghost Story.

    Much like the Standing Nudes’ Ghost Story, Phantoms initially sounds as though it could have been recorded in the 1970s. After all, the arrangements are similar – somewhat twangy guitars, bass, drums, ethereal vocals and heavy nods towards psychedelica. But repeated listens reveal a deeply experimental sensibility, similar to Interpol’s Antics. In other words, the songwriting on Phantoms actually eschews conventional pop or rock songwriting. You won’t hear the typical structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse or the contemporary (and more pop) structure of verse, hook, chorus, verse, hook, bridge, verse. Each of Phantoms nine songs consist of several distinct movements held together by a series of tight and identifiable hooks. The idea here is that the overarching mood created – here, the songs evoke a sprawling, slowly unfurling psychedelic trip in the desert. Throughout the entire album, there are moments of sublime, ethereal beauty before the songs build up in brooding, stormy intensity – and then fade out like smoke dissipating in the breeze.

   Interestingly, each of the songs approach epic length – album opener “Scarlett Cliffs” for example, is over 9 minutes long – but because of how they’re written, they feel and sound like an aural experience. Wright’s ethereal croon dart, bob and weave through the mix which sometimes consists of a gentle, almost Eastern/raga-like drone, before building up to a pulsating, undulating drone based primarily on layers of feedback before suddenly turning into a dizzying, forceful whirl, like the music that inspires the spinning dervishes of Turkey. “Elements” sounds like a gentle breeze through the trees but reveals something subtly dark and unsettling under its surface. “Echoes” is full of echoing bursts of feedback twisting and turning its way through the song – and it’s the song that seems to evoke the largeness, the eerie quiet, the blistering heat and the bone-chilling cold of the desert. Interestingly, it reminds me of a more low-keyed version of PJ Harvey’s collaboration with Josh Homme on Desert Sessions 9 and 10, “Crawl Home.” “Skull and Xbones” is probably the eeriest song as it seems to describe a terrible nightmare of coming across a bleached skeleton, revealed by a strong wind. “Anything” is probably the prettiest and most haunting song on the album – and it may well be because of the fact that the song is so hushed. Befitting the album title, the material manages to possess a lingering, haunting presence. If you look carefully you can see its phantoms lurking in the corners with arms outstretched, and you can hear them howling.