The Canadian-British duo Phantom are aptly named, given how ghostly and mysterious their debut album sounds. The group have created their own unusual, compelling landscape here, in a synaesthetic, intoxicating sound collage. Elsie Martins and Jonny Martin have been forthright in stating that the structure of Smoke And Mirrors constitutes an ‘indulgence’ on their part and it certainly makes it somewhat cumbersome to navigate. In an attempt to reflect the seamless flow of their live shows, the album is divided into two long parts of more or less 22 minutes each. Within these long pieces are distinct songs (some of which have already been released as singles), but each part continues uninterrupted, linking these songs together.
It’s perhaps something of a gamble, given that Smoke And Mirrors is being released as a download. That format often seems to favour sampling and individual track selection. Yet this is definitely an album in the old fashioned sense – a work designed to be appreciated and digested as a whole, and one where the details matter more than the broad strokes. The group’s streak of combative perversity threatens to dominate the record. Their trump card may well be Elsie Martins’ beautifully spectral voice, which pitches the group somewhere between Cocteau Twins and Young Marble Giants, but it’s a good few minutes before her dulcet tones are even heard. Part 1 ends with a Death In Plains remix of We Float, a track that has already appeared earlier in its original guise – another unusual and perhaps original gambit for a debut album, fostering a healthy spirit of collaboration.
Fortunately, given their hubris, Phantom are skilled at crafting mood pieces that are sometimes sinister and menacing, at other times enticing and seductive. In fact, it’s their recognition that attraction and danger often seem to come together that makes Smoke And Mirrors such a beguiling album, even if it’s perhaps difficult to find its true heart. Part 2 may begin with the words “I am not a musician”, but Jonny Martin certainly has an intuitive sense with sound, utilising samples of non-musical activities (typewriters, shoe heels and letterboxes) to create an oddly mechanistic percussive backdrop. Apparently, Phantom even make use of the sound of the Mars Space Rover.
This latter sound source seems particularly appropriate given that the occasional twang of guitar makes much of Smoke And Mirrors sound like Ennio Morricone in space. Perhaps there’s also a hint of Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to these curious constructions, although Phantom are not one of those groups with a sense of nostalgia for things past. In fact, for all the reference points (and in spite of the handclap sounds at the end of Part 1), Smoke And Mirrors still sounds bold, sleek and modern. There is little in the way of rhythmic complexity, but Phantom’s stark minimalism and primal directness end up as their major strengths.
The album’s structure makes substantial demands of the listener, leaving moments which have some of the hallmarks of pop songs (Voodoo Romantic and The Great Pretender particularly) buried within eerie, unsettling worlds. Elsie Martins’ words are often obscured by the intrigue surrounding her, but the dynamic control in her voice renders it a powerful, affecting instrument regardless of whether or not her precise meaning can be determined. At one point, it sound like she’s singing “I am a sensual woman” against a clattering accompaniment. If so, it sums up the sound and scope of this whole project – much of it sounds like humanity struggling for release from some sort of self-imposed, technological prison.