The open-ended nature of The Phantom Band is not as much of a shock as it once was, but they still remain one of Scotland’s most unique entities. Incorporating aspects of krautrock, folk, electronica and several other genres, they quickly became difficult to categorise. It means that guessing their next step was always going to be difficult. The only thing that is predictable about Strange Friend is that it retains the diverse aesthetic that’s seen them become critical darlings.
What is surprising, however, is that it has taken this long for a new album to emerge – in the gap between The Wants and Strange Friend, all has been rather quiet, save for a superb acoustic record by singer Rick Anthony (as Rick Redbeard). It’s anyone’s guess as to why it took three and a half years, but it’s pleasing just to have them back in the first place. As the first track comes and goes, the emphatic and soaring The Wind That Cried The World, it’s almost as if they’ve never been away. It might even be their most exciting release yet.
Once again, they are mixing different styles and influences – textures rise and fall with great precision – but it feels dreamier. Clapshot is just as frenetic as their past material, but the addition of psychedelic keyboards makes it sound weightless. A lot of the songs on Strange Friend, such as the dizzying Sweatbox with its zippy guitar lines and potent laser effects, aren’t so much floating as they are racing on by at breakneck speed. (Invisible) Friend sees them slow down a touch but it still staggers along with just as much power. Rick Anthony has always been a fascinating and refreshingly distinctive presence across their discography, but his abilities as a singer reaches new heights here. His falsettos and harmonies have only gotten better as time goes on.
It’s not a completely immediate piece of work but it’s easily their most vibrant and playful record to date. There are many moments where songs drift off in an unexpected direction without warning. Halfway through Doom Patrol, they veer off course from mid-tempo trippiness to metal wig out and back again. Women Of Ghent breaks off in a similar way – halting for the sake of a jazzy interlude before it comes thumping back into life with an oddly danceable rhythm.
Its greatest strength is durability, as little touches become more obvious with each listen. An album with this many ideas and layers can’t be easily digested the first time around. It’s to their credit that The Phantom Band have always been an outfit that rewards the patient souls whose attention spans haven’t been completely decimated in the information age. After all, its slower, quieter moments such as the lovely and only slightly ghoulish Atacama and the woozy No Shoes Blues are not going to be appreciated instantly when compared to the more boisterous and unrestrained tracks. The former, in particular, emerges as one of their strongest songs. The only weak link in this regard is Galápagos, which merely feels like a gentle wind-down.
If their previous two LPs found The Phantom Band at their most direct, this album sees them change course and they loosened up to great effect. Strange Friend is a tight, concise and incredibly satisfying listen with the right mixture of familiarity and progression.