Reviews for Phantom Radio
Echoes and Dust
Anyone showing signs of confusion as they made their
way through Mark Lanegan’s palate-cleansing No Bells On Sunday
EP may find themselves initially shellshocked by this full-length
offering that takes its inspiration from driving round Los Angeles
soaking up 80’s radio. Yet while the initial vibe from Phantom
Radio is one of constant surprise, it’s something that settles
down well after a couple of plays to become yet another shining milestone
in an extraordinarily varied career.
Sat in between opening track ‘Harvest Home’
and ‘Floor Of The Ocean’ is ‘Judgement Time’,
a song that draws on much of the imagery that is usually attributed
to him but in completely undiluted form so that what previously felt
like allegory is presented here as a pure apocalyptic vision accompanied
by a voice that sounds incredibly fragile, as though he’s channelling
his entire past and associated sorrows into two and a half minutes
before heading off on another flight of fancy. This approach is most
evident in the case of the pairing of ‘Seventh Day’ and
‘I Am The Wolf': the latter (a co-write with Duke Garwood) an
uncompromising and menacing look deep into himself with suitably prowling
and imperilled accompaniment; the former an infectious groove of a
track preceded by a laugh, ended with a keyboard flourish that reminds
me of early Nine Inch Nails and a chorus that goes “la lala
lala la lala la la” and a voice as comfortably smooth as you’ll
probably ever hear him sing.
Mark Lanegan Band, Phantom Radio, album review: Compelling,
rare and beautiful
Phantom Radio may be the album to finally force that shift in public perception. If so, it’ll be all the more impressive for being achieved with no dilution of his signature worldview of soul-ravaged blues fatalism, Lanegan being one of the few undeniable auteurs still working in the medium.
“Harvest Home” sets out his stall, the singer “wandering the floors with the ghosts I have known”, while arpeggiating guitars plummet slowly over a chilly synth pad and trenchant drums. It’s a declaration of proud resignation, Lanegan “happy to be made of stone” in the face of dark memories. “Judgement Time” finds him “blistered, just a strung-out angel” as the gloomy drone of harmonium soundtracks his Biblical torment. Things never get much cheerier: the visions of apocalyptic horror in “The Killing Season” include “skeletal hands... on my throat”, while the spectral “Waltzing in Blue” is no less pessimistic: “I work my way, hour by hour, down to decay.”
So what makes his grim litany so compelling, even uplifting? In part, it’s down to the arrangements Lanegan and producer Alain Johannes conjure to convey the spiritual essence of the songs – most effectively in the sombre electro-pop chug of “Floor of the Ocean” and the courtly pop melancholy of “Torn Red Heart”, where the guitar and synth recall Joy Division’s “Atmosphere”, a precedent for Lanegan’s glorious darkness. And it’s also the way that his brooding baritone croon so vividly evokes his affinity for the fringes of society, as expressed in the plaintive “I Am the Wolf” (“...without a pack”). Unlike most gothic pop, Lanegan’s art is not a matter of fashion or mascara: it’s a genuine cri du coeur, as rare and beautiful as anything in music.
The Screaming Trees’ former vocalist has by now fairly firmly established himself as a kind of post-grunge/Americana Johnny Cash, with moody songs awash with tales of drug abuse, redemption and dark humour. There’s plenty of that here. “Black is my name,” he says, by way of introduction. However, where 2012’s Blues Funeral allowed a hint of yer actual goth to creep into Lanegan’s American gothic, here he indulges the post-punk and electronics he grew up with. His gravelly voice is accompanied by purring, New Orderish synthesisers; the superb Floor of the Ocean could be the Sisters of Mercy covering Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades. The subject matter (death, sin, the occasional hanging) is hardly any cheerier, but Torn Red Heart might be the most beautiful love song Lanegan has ever recorded. “I am the wolf without a pack,” he growls at one point, but this career highlight shouldn’t leave him short of followers.
The difference between Mark Lanegan’s solo efforts and the Mark Lanegan Band is a bit of mystery, but the long break taken after Bubblegum in 2004 has seen a flurry of albums and EPs over the last two years. Phantom Radio is released under the 'band' name and sees Lanegan bringing more of the gothic disco along from his last full-length album.
Where Blues Funeral was lauded for its use of synth-pop, this album dials it back a little, allowing Lanegan to croon or brood over a series of sounds. ‘Harvest Home’ takes care of business with menacing electric drums (probably the only sign to distinguish that this is a 'band' album) and the statement: “I’m happy to be made of stone”.
The album carries all of the darkness which makes him Dark Mark, without appearing cheap. There are genuinely terrifying lyrics, such as over the simple acoustic picking of ‘Killing Season’: “Do you hear the children speaking backwards/ Their bodies float above the bed”. This is a perfect soundtrack for October without ever being gimmicky. As ever, Lanegan is at his best when he builds over tense bass and growling guitars, which closing track ‘Death Trip to Tulsa’ has in spades.
Where this album could be said to fall down is in its lack of variety in pace and some of the flat-feeling moments – most notably on the lead single ‘Floor of the Ocean’. ‘I Am the Wolf’ provides atmospheric acoustics and the classic vocals which sound weighted and pained, but it lacks any precision in melody or guitar work to make it stand out the way it could. Lanegan isn’t known for fret-work skills but if he had roped his pals in to inject instrumental gravity this could have been a real legendary record.
‘Torn Red Heart’ shows Lanegan trying for higher notes and just about making it work as a love-torn man (“You don’t love me/ What’s to love anyway?”), which is something you might not hear if you only take in his Queens of the Stone Age cameos or his stint with Greg Dulli. While ‘Seventh Day’ is the only bluesy sounding song – along with pipes and swarming synth – it’s clear that he’s attempting to flex all of his musical muscles here, something you might only get if you’re tuned into his phantom radio.
What should be appreciated above all else is that Mark Lanegan has been going at this for a long time now, and while he hasn’t got a huge vocal range, he does have a timeless feel to both his voice and his words. The sounds which accompany him will always shift ever so slightly, but while he’s still alive he won’t need to change his ghostly, otherworldly croon.
by Matthew Davies
Existing as a shadowy mountain on the horizon at every point within the rock music landscape, Mark Lanegan’s eternal presence is both reassuringly comforting and distinctly imposing. Here stands an ageless man, half-preacher, half-gravedigger who’s worked with Josh Homme, PJ Harvey, Moby, UNKLE and Isobel Campbell and probably taught them all a thing or two. He’s made classic albums in three different guises, and has left his mark across every variant of straight up rock and roll.
A man never far from a surprise change of direction, Lanegan focuses the latest album from the Mark Lanegan Band around his love of krautrock and British post-punk. The whiskey-soaked blues is dialled back slightly and replaced with all manner of keyboard tones from relatively cheerful to icily bleak and around these hang odd curios seeping in from other genres. Sitting neatly in the middle of ‘Phantom Radio’, ‘Seventh Day’ is a perfect example of this, marrying an almost extinct staple of an achingly seventies funk bassline to the stabbing strings of turn-of-the-millenium Moby. From that point the track rides briefly on a wave of sitar-like euphoria before bubbling into the brittle eighties synth of any track from ‘Pretty Hate Machine’.
Lanegan’s voice has an undeniable quality and resonates with a feeling of deep meaning. Every word is somehow unavoidable, as if they may be the last you ever hear, and no matter in what tone the word is delivered it’s incredibly convincing. Album opener ‘Harvest Home’ sets the plain-spoken fatalistic tone, with its haunting but resigned “Nothing to say, the sky so grey - I reap, I sew, my harvest, my home”. The use of religious imagery is prominent and only adds to an album that seems to abandon notions of era and style, to instead stand as a monolith in the artist’s own impressive timeline.
While you can safely rely on one of the best voices put to record in the last decade or so, it’s the use of synths that provides the real surprises on ‘Phantom Radio’. That includes twinkling nods to Cold Cave on ‘Floor of the Ocean’, along with spells that sit adjacent to late-Horrors and even some Primal Scream style hyperactive chaos. Closer ‘Death Trip To Tulsa’ leaves a final mark, in the shape of an impossibly catchy synth line married into the hazy blues of the ‘Bubblegum’ era.
This far into his career Mark Lanegan was unlikely to start making albums that are any less than engaging, but it’s still testament to his creativity and love of his art that ‘Phantom Radio’ is such a successful departure from bluesy rock and roll. While from the distance it may seem fairly easy to pin adornments onto a vocal performance that reliable, the embellishments Lanegan picks out show a fearless ambition and an unshakeable understanding of all he surveys. He’s seen a lot and he’s been to a lot of places but this proves there’s not just mileage in him still, but that he’s going to lead us many more places yet - from the top of Mark Lanegan’s mountain you can see everything.
Drowned in Sound
by Ben Philpott
Two years ago Mark Lanegan made something of a surprise return with the release of Blues Funeral - an hour-long titan of a record that moved through gothic rock, synth and grunge with free flowing ease. As Lanegan's first album in eight years, it not only won him a new generation of fans but also ushered in a deserved retrospective of his legendary grunge outfit Screaming Trees. Blues Funeral revealed a more seasoned artist, one whose vocals, lyrics and musical approach had moved beyond the restrictions of a short-sighted era. With his new release Phantom Radio, the subtle synth touches that were so delightful on his previous work return with an altogether gloomier prominence. Speaking of his love for British Eighties post-punk in recent interviews, it seems that he's finally ready to let his true idols mould his new work.
Opener 'Harvest Home' is an immediate throwback to those styles with deep foreground guitar tones and a soaring synth line that fuse to create something elegantly fearful. Sure, his lyrics may be bleak but there's an honest sense of elevation to his cry of being “happy in my harvest home/ walking the floors with the ghosts all alone/ happy that I’m made of stone/ the greed that I cause is my cause to atone”.
Slow burning ballad 'Judgement Time' carries stark similarities to the stunning Blues Funeral cut 'St. Louis Elegy'. Where the latter was an ode to the perils of loss and alcoholism, this is a tragic confessional soaked in biblical imagery and apocalyptic prediction; “In a dream I heard Gabriel's trumpet/ Lord, I was blistered/ just a strung out angel/ I saw the feet of pilgrim's bleeding/ I saw whole cities drowning/ I saw whole armies dying”. It's been clear as far back as The Winding Sheet that Lanegan's real calling card is his ability to articulate emotion with soul tearing anguish. While the Tom Waits' vocal comparisons will likely never go away, it's Lanegan's singular way of forming imagery with words that'll go with him to the grave.
Late cut 'Torn Red Heart' is another humbling confessional that invites the listener into the inner musings of heartbreak. While musically recalling Echo & The Bunnymen's breezier moments, the lyrics are hopeless and forlorn as Lanegan declares love as being “delirium/ it's a childlike dream and then it fades away” before accepting he's “going nowhere/ now I'm going nowhere”. The lead guitar feels like it was stripped straight out of a 'Sound like Joy Division' handbook but such a comparison undermines the emotional resonance of what is arguably one of Lanegan's best ever love songs.
Final track 'Death Trip to Tulsa' is a stomping march to closure with thumping drums giving Lanegan's opening vocal “High/ way up in the sun” some fitting context. It's suitable end to a record that feels largely like a labour of love to a bygone era and while occasionally the reliance on synth feels under-baked (the opening electronics on 'The Killing Season' never sit quite right with the rest of the track), it's hard to deny Phantom Radio as anything other than a patient and poetic career highlight. Fans will certainly be happy with the vocal return but those ambivalent to his grunge leanings in the past will find whole new ground to explore here. This is an impressive record that occasionally tries to cram too many ideas into one place but more than makes up for it in sheer song-writing quality.
by Luke Saunders
Hot on the heels of his recent No Bells On Sunday EP, Mark Lanegan returns with band in tow for the ‘official’ follow-up to his brilliant 2012 album, Blues Funeral. His ninth full-length solo album, entitled Phantom Radio, follows the more experimental direction he has been exploring on recent ventures, by fully embracing the shimmering synths and electronic beats that infiltrated his most recent EP and stellar Blues Funeral cut, ‘Ode to Sad Disco’. Long-time fans of Lanegan’s stripped back bluesy ballads and acoustical flavours that form the bulk of his solo work, or the grittier dark rock style featured prominently on Bubblegum and Blues Funeral may be taken aback by this brave new chapter in the illustrious, although criminally underrated career of the grizzled drifter.
However, Lanegan’s multiple guest spots and diverse collaborations has for many years showcased his flexibility as an artist with a surprisingly versatile range of influences covering a wide palette of sounds and genres. Interestingly, Lanegan wrote most of the tunes with an app on his phone called Funk Box, where he created beats which would later by embellished with synths and guitar.
Those trademark gloomy tones and brooding atmospherics that come with the territory in Lanegan’s music are coloured by the glittery electronic backdrop, lending the album a surprisingly, and uncharacteristically, brighter counterpoint. Not that Phantom Radio is typically happy feel good music but it certainly contains an upbeat element, not usually associated with Lanegan’s solo output. So while tracks like the Lanegan-by-numbers balladry of ‘Judgement Time’, the darky beauty of ‘I Am the Wolf’ and slow burning ‘The Wild People’ represent Lanegan’s reliably solid and trademark song-writing elements, it’s within the livelier songs embedded with a vibrant electro pulse that Phantom Radio shines the brightest.
Opener ‘Harvest Home’ kicks things off strongly, with Lanegan at his downbeat and poetic best lyrically, atop a dark synth-laden rock groove. The dreamily buoyant slice of electro-pop featured on the excellent ‘Floor of the Ocean’ nails a beautiful contrast between Lanegan’s smooth baritone and the electronic direction he has increasingly ramped up for this album. Overall his voice meshes particularly well with the electronic backdrop, a combination that has worked a treat on previously successful collaborative work with the likes of Bomb the Bass, Soulsavers and Moby.
Of course it’s Lanegan’s knack for crafting emotionally deep and deceptively catchy songs that resonates so strongly here. Songs like ‘The Killing Season’, with its catchy beats and moody atmospherics, and closing number ‘Death Trip to Tulsa’ are prime examples of how well Lanegan’s traditional song-writing traits blend with the darkly upbeat electronic influence. On the downside, the few middle-of-the-road tracks breed some inconsistency into the album, but it’s largely nullified by the numerous highlights on offer.
Despite the intriguing song-writing twists and successful integration of more electronics into Lanegan’s solo repertoire, Phantom Radio feels more like a transitional album that lacks the consistency and high points of his previous Blues Funeral release. Nevertheless there are plenty of gems to be found here, and I’m very much looking forward to where Lanegan goes with this change in direction. Chalk Phantom Radio up as another rock solid, occasionally great addition to Lanegan’s commanding body of work.