Phantom Power is awash with pedal steel, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies.
Jack Smith 2003
After a fan-baiting two year gap since the 2001 release of Rings Around The World, Super Furry Animals' long-awaited follow-up arrives. But was the wait worthwhile?
Well, naturally Wales' most consistently remarkable band rarely disappoint on record. Phantom Power is SFA's sixth album proper (discounting 1998's stopgap Out Spaced, a collection of b-sides and rarities). And if you were expecting the creative juices to be running a little dry by now, you could barely be more wrong.
Produced by the band, Phantom Power keeps a much lower profile than RATW. Whereas once they were technicolour, now they've gone back to basics. Phantom Power is, for the most part, awash with pedal steel, acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies.
Seasoned Furrywatchers should be warned: initial impressions are not great. There are few obvious singles, for example, and a couple of songs - "Valet Parking", "Cityscape Skybaby" - feel like lazy throwaways.
However, repeated listening reveals hidden depths and delights aplenty. And, these being Super Furry Animals, a fair number of surprises are inevitably pulled out of the bag. Epic closer "Slow Life" is SFA's most successful mindrattling techno attempt so far. "The Piccolo Snare" begins dark and brooding with folk harmonies, before exploding into a sunshine crescendo before drifting off towards a Krautrock horizon, and Huw Bunford's "Sex, War & Robots" is an unexpectedly tender hymn to childhood that could melt the hardest of hearts.
Gruff Rhys' songwriting moves a step forward on Phantom Power, with playful story-based lyrics about turtles, mingers, ninjas and cabbages contrasting with lines about death, radiation and war. As Gruff says about "Venus & Serena", "I'm trying to get balladeering into my songs, but I don't think I've perfected it by any means, You can put this one down to my struggle with narrative!"
It's not the only instance of experimental songwriting on the album. Several songs, including the perfect Iggy rock of "Out Of Control" and - crucially - the two Father Father instrumentals, are based on a DADDAD open guitar tuning which recurs throughout the album.
But most notable is the tangible air of despondency that hangs over many of the songs. Phantom Power reflects the politically precarious times in which it was written: the fear of war and destruction is tangible, with plentiful references to body bags, oil wells, bombs and tarnished flags.
It's a tribute to SFA's skill and versatility that Phantom Power isn't the miserablist, mournful collection it could so easily have become. On the contrary, they've assembled a collection that is at times uplifting, joyous and frivolous, and is their most consistent collection since 1997's Radiator. Where do they go from here? One suspects, for SFA, the possibilities are limitless.
Review courtesy of BBC Wales Music