New Zealand sextet The Phoenix Foundation are old hands, their catalogue of five full-length releases stretching as far back as 2003’s Horsepower. In the intervening years they’ve garnered no little critical acclaim in their native land – and with 2011’s Buffalo achieving particular success in British best-of lists, they’re a band increasingly subjected to international recognition as well.
Double album Fandango lands 10 years after its original ancestor, and sees Samuel Flynn Scott, Luke Buda, Conrad Wedde, Tom Callwood, Chris O’Connor and Will Rickets tasked with maintaining their recent successes. Not a problem, surely; just sit down, hit record and play it again. There was plenty in Buffalo’s progressive, indie-synth composition to hint at a rich vein of ideas worth plundering over and again.
But life is rarely so simple, and after a blissfully melodic first impression, Fandango quickly plateaus into an exercise that is pleasant rather than provocative; an effort that, despite occasional highs, is relentlessly… acceptable.
Album opener Black Mould whimpers into existence with the sort of two-key, reverberating chords you’d expect to find on the Flash Gordon soundtrack, but picks itself up in short measure to leap into territory more usually occupied by the closing stages of any given Gorillaz album: pizzicato synth, interlocking melodies, inch-perfect percussion. While the tight vocal rhymes remind are perhaps unwittingly reminiscent of a Mighty Boosh-style crimp, it’s a relatively promising start.
Modern Rock then carries the torch, and in the process encapsulates The Phoenix Foundation’s formula. It’s a six-minute slow grower that drags the Canterbury scene into the 21st century, adopting a softly-softly approach to prog that borders a little too close to mood music at times. Nevertheless, there are flourishes of ear-pricking goodness that bring to mind Aussie neighbours Empire Of The Sun – and the strong progressions of lead single The Captain are a joy to behold.
As early as the fourth track, however, the band’s iron clad formula starts to show signs of metal fatigue: Thames Soup apologises into earshot like a Keane b-side, any redeeming features already paraded once – or perhaps even twice – in the preceding quarter of an hour. Not a great sign when there is still so far to go in what is supposed to be a double LP.
Evolution Did sounds similarly half-baked – synth sounds by numbers – while Inside Me Dead aims at something altogether more epic than it is able to achieve. It’s not terrible by any means, of course, but there is a suspicion that an attentive listener has little to go on – especially when the subsequent track, the eight-minute Corale, comes off as a slightly indulgent, disjointed take on Air‘s micro-masterpiece Radian.
A harsh assessment? Perhaps. After all, tracks like Supernatural and Walls – though both still overwrought – offer aural virtues by the fistful; the former’s fret frippery turns heads while the latter’s opening beats, at least, channel a disco incarnation of Alt-J.
But it’s Friendly Society, Fandango’s 18-minute closer, that captures the LP in microcosm: it’s a bit too long, a bit too uneventful, and a bit too much like hearing a band playing just for the sake of it. Had The Phoenix Foundation left, say, a third of this on the cutting room floor, we’d all be better off.