Why you should care
Phantogram’s haunting, bass-driven soundscapes make their sophomore album Voices more than worth the wait.
Even if you’ve never heard of Phantogram, you’ve probably heard the New York electro-duo’s shadowy, trip-hop tracks onscreen — like on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, MTV’s Teen Wolf or the CW’s Vampire Diaries’ spinoff, The Originals. Their sinister, synth-heavy songs are the perfect soundtrack for paranormal teen fare.
But you don’t need to be a vampire-obsessed 16-year-old to fall under singer-keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter’s spell — or to admire their grind. After debuting with Eyelid Movies in 2010, the two toured pretty much non-stop before they finally sat down to produce their sophomore album, Voices. On Tuesday, they made the long-awaited album available for streaming on NPR a week before its February 18 release date. As soon as Voices officially drops, they’ll hit the road for another U.S. tour. (And did we mention they’re already working on an EP with Outkast’s Big Boi?)
We gravitate toward more emotional sounding songs. For us, sadness and darkness is more emotional than happy or jolly or sparkly.
– Sarah Barthel, Phantogram
Friends since junior high, Barthel and Carter formed Phantogram in 2007 after they returned home to Sarasota Springs, New York for a breather — Barthel from pursuing a visual arts degree and Carter from a band he had formed with his brother. When the two started jamming, the chemistry was almost palpable. “We’re like the same person,” Barthel said. “We have the same ideas and the same, very strong vision.”
The two decided to call themselves Phantogram, after a type of optical illusion. The trippy name suits their sound, which they describe as “beat-heavy dream drone pop.” Their tracks incorporate heavy urban beats and gritty synth buzzes, balanced out by Barthel’s ethereal Cocteau Twins vocals and a moodiness reminiscent of Radiohead or My Bloody Valentine. “We gravitate toward more emotional sounding songs,” Barthel explained. “For us, sadness and darkness is more emotional than happy or jolly or sparkly.”
Phantogram’ signature sound hasn’t changed much since Eyelid Movies, but Barthel says the band aimed for a more “bombastic, live sound” for Voices (which, by the way, SPIN Magazine listed as one of the 50 Albums You Gotta Hear this year). “It’s a lot more dynamic and more psychedelic and more everything.” And indeed, a stronger sense of urgency drives the tracks on Voices. The album’s gems include the foreboding, bass-heavy “Nothing But Trouble”; the sultry, string-infused “Fall in Love”; and the wistful “Bill Murray,” whose refrain Am I lonely? could have been sighed by the titular actor’s sad, alienated characters themselves.
Carter and Barthel wrote and recorded Voices in a remote barn in upstate New York — sans Internet or running water — often from evening until dawn. Both art geeks, they take a cinematic approach to songwriting; once they settle on an emotion and a beat, they imagine a scene to go with it. “Nothing But Trouble,” for example, stemmed from an image of someone walking into the woods, hearing creepy noises along the way.
That visual inspiration seeps into their live shows — which feature dramatic lights timed to their music — and of course, their videos. Their music video for “Fall in Love,” unveiled earlier this week, features the duo surrounded by a flickering, black-and white kaleidoscope of geometric patterns.
Sadness never sounded — or looked — so good.