Based in the bucolic New England city of Burlington, Vermont, Phantom Suns is an indie band who play alternative rock heavily influenced by grunge elements, with traces of metal and progressive rock to create their distinctive raw sound. The band consists of Seth Gunderson (guitar & vocals), Chris Knauer (bass & backing vocals) and Chris Mathieu (drums, percussion & backing vocals). Ryan Cohen previously played bass but was recently replaced by Chris Knauer, however, Cohen will continue to provide production and engineering assistance to the band.
I’ll admit up-front that I’m not the biggest fan of grunge rock, and didn’t care for it when it became popular in the early 1990s. I generally prefer rock music that’s highly melodic, with fuller, more polished arrangements, and just couldn’t get into the dissonant, sludgy and rather depressing sound of grunge. In time, however, I came to recognize and appreciate its groundbreaking influence in reshaping the sound of rock, and music in general, and learned to like some of it. I also get why its honest lyrics and darker themes addressing social issues like alienation, disillusionment, substance abuse and depression, along with its lack of flash, pretense and overt sentimentality, made grunge so popular and accessible, especially to young people who more closely identified with the messages expressed in the songs. Like rap, grunge music reflected what many of them were feeling.
That said, it was with a bit of trepidation that I agreed to review Phantom Suns’ album Caldera after their drummer Chris Mathieu reached out to me. Though I am EclecticMusicLover, and try to always keep an open mind about all kinds and styles of music, I feared I may not be the right person to judge their music. But I gave the album several listens and am happy to report that not only do I really like it, I’m also blown away by their skilled songwriting and musicianship. And as much as I like their raw, gritty sound, it’s their intelligent and compelling song lyrics, written by Gunderson, that most impressed me. I’m glad they included them with the songs on their Bandcamp page, and I encourage my readers to check them out.
Caldera was released in November 2018, and follows the band’s 2014 debut EP Parhelia. The album features 12 tracks, the first of which, “Forget“, starts off slowly with a moody strummed guitar, then erupts into a barrage of gnarly riffs, buzzing bass and hammering drums. Gunderson’s raw vocals match the grittiness of the music as he advises us to not overthink things: “Searching for the key to unlock all your potential when you don’t know what you think. But what you think you know is only your opinion. Soon as I make up my mind, I’ll be all set. Maybe start chipping away at all this debt. Stop regretting things that haven’t happened yet ’cause you never know.”
It’s a good song, but the guys really hit their stride on the hard-driving, melodically complex “Lazuli“. The track storms out of the gate with dark, sludgy riffs loaded with raw power and grit. Two-thirds of the way through, a furiously distorted guitar solo announces an abrupt change in the melody. With his grimy guitar ablaze, Gunderson snarls “You don’t have a clue but you fake it so well.”
One of the standout tracks for me is “Disposable“, both in terms of it’s more melodic, progressive rock vibe, and it’s scathing lyrics attacking man’s greedy, wasteful ways that imperil our future: “Watch your castle crumble all around you. Just because you want more than you can handle. Disposable culture. Blatant disregard for the future. You’re disposable.” The video they made for the track is fantastic too, a psychedelic trip of colorful imagery superimposed over footage of the band performing the song that nicely complements the rough textures of the instrumentals.
As I continued diving deeper into Caldera, some of the tracks sound similar to one another, which is to be expected on an album with 12 tracks. Nevertheless, there are many more gems to be found here. I really dig the metaphor of “Knotweed“, symbolizing someone the singer just can’t rid himself of: “You just keep sprouting up. You return even though I dug you right up by the roots. Invasive foliage. I wage an all-out war. You’ve clearly overstepped the boundary. Can’t eradicate you. You’re so damn resilient.” And the heavy chugging guitar riffs, fuzzy bassline and boisterous drums are as dirty as the soil from which the knotweed’s been pulled. “Probably Wrong” ventures into rock’n’roll territory, with moments where Gunderson’s raging guitar and Mathieu’s frantic drumbeats propel the song into the sonic stratosphere.
Another standout is the face-melting “Trial By Stone“, an homage to Jim Henson’s classic film The Dark Crystal. As is befitting the film, the song is heavy and dark, with dense, gritty riffs teeming with distortion and reverb, deep, crushing bass and thunderous drums. Gunderson’s guitar work is fucking incredible, and Mathieu is a veritable beast on his drum kit. Gunderson’s vocals are chilling as he sneers “A dying world. A dying race imprisoned within themselves.” The video superimposes scenes from The Dark Crystal over footage of the band performing the song.
“Perpetual Motion Holder“, “Hush Money” and “Brontoscorpio” deliver more gnarly riffs, fuzzy basslines and speaker-blowing drums. “It Won’t Stop” is a serious head-banger, opening with Gunderson shrieking words I can’t quite make out, followed by an explosion of raging guitars, heavy buzzing bass and furious drums. Gunderson all but screams the lyrics advising us to just accept our fates: “Your best bet is to just accept it. A warm welcome as it explodes. There’s no hope of getting out of the way. The kind of fury that can never be tamed. It will envelop, it will engulf, entirely. No! It won’t stop!”
The album closes on a high note with the mostly instrumental “Olympus Mons“, an epic track that offers definitive proof that these guys are supremely talented musicians. The track starts off with a somber guitar riff, then a simple drumbeat kicks in as the guys sing in harmony: “One of these days I’ll write some words.” With that, a very gritty, reverb-drenched riff ensues before calming back down for the second harmonic vocal: “I was so bummed out. Another Olympus Mons.” The gritty guitar and bass return, only this time distorted into a maelstrom of tortured riffs, accompanied by an abundance of crashing cymbals that add to the drama. Eventually, a wailing guitar solo is layered over the stormy distortion, blowing our minds and speakers before it all spirals downward into oblivion at the close. Wow, what a masterpiece this song is, and a fitting conclusion to this superb album by Phantom Suns. If you’re a fan of grunge-infused alternative rock, then you will enjoy Caldera.
Phantom Suns has a show coming up on on April 19 at Monkey House in Winooski, VT.