Albums Phantas Notes Phantasmagoria

Phantas Notes, Pt. 1: The Album

Howdy folks, this is Mazus. Now that our new album is finally streaming, out where you can listen on any major platform, I think I’ll finally take the time share some thoughts about it. I’ll talk about the album as a whole here, in this post — and then maybe I’ll talk a bit about each song in the coming days.

Our band, like most, is a collaborative endeavor. Eric and I both write material, and we tend to bring songs into the band in a rather “fully formed” state. But there are always “blanks” left to fill-in, a skeletal drum-idea given to Jason to flesh-out, a barebones bassline given to Matt to embellish, solos traded-off, ways in which the songs remain “flexible,” so that all the guys in the band can find ways to bring themselves into the music.

Of course, the vision for each song needs to stay on-track, and for that reason either Eric or myself (whoever “wrote” a given song) kind of gets the ultimate vote in what “changes” stay or go. But generally, everyone in the band is close-enough to being on the same page that the “ultimate NO vote” rarely, if ever, needs to be used.

I can’t speak for Eric, but I’ve always felt that my own songs have benefitted immeasurably from this group process. Having other musicians, my friends, lend their own musical voices to my songs expands the vocabulary and expressiveness of those songs. What I give up in control over the minutia of my compositions, is returned threefold in musical expressiveness and creativity.

We started writing the songs which would become “Phantasmagoria,” the album, while we were still playing shows to promote our previous album, 2016’s “Crooked House.” In fact, we performed early versions of “Tiny Captains,” “Something Wicked,” and “She’s Gone” at our CD-Release party for that album, in 2016.

The next couple of songs we drew into the fold were “Wipe Those Tears” and “System Failure” — both older songs which we’d put aside, but which now came back with a renewed sense of perspective. Sometimes a song isn’t working, and so you put it away for awhile — and then come back to it years later and realize exactly what it needs. That was the case with these two.

With those 5 songs comprising the “new album set,” I started thinking about what the through-lines might be. I like to arrange things thematically; I like an album to feel like all the songs are related, in ways both musical and conceptual. It occurred to me that several of the new songs had a strong gothic-rock kind of vibe. Something Wicked, She’s Gone, and System Failure certainly evoked different flavors of “gothic,” and so an idea started to form in my mind, for an album expressing a “Midwestern Gothic” vibe.

What would that mean? What did I mean by “Midwestern Gothic?” I certainly didn’t want to hijack the sound (or eyeliner) of Bauhaus or Siouxsie Sioux. But to write music informed by those influences — to write music with a sense of darkenss and theatricality, about the Gothic themes of Love, Transgression, and Religious Oppression — particularly as experienced in the American Midwest — well, that appealed to me quite a bit.

And so, that’s the direction the album took. The rest of the songs took shape around that concept.

— Well, until the pandemic hit, anyway. And then, in the midst of what felt like a societal and personal apocalypse, I wrote two songs to conclude the album in over-the-top gonzo fashion, in a way which I hoped was reflective of the insanity that was unfolding in the world at large, with global leaders openly demonizing scientists and journalists and all forms of truth and honesty, even as their own gigantic falsehoods led to massive societal upheavals and death by disease.

So the end of the album got a little weird, and a little dark. And hey, I’d apologize — but what came out simply needed to come out. There are times when I cringe over the sheer overwrought nature of these last two songs, but there are also times when I think they’re some of my best work.

As has been traditional for our albums, Eric did most of the mic-setups and what we might call the “audio engineering” work, while I did most of the “mixdown” work, as well as the “mastering.” We did all the full-band recordings at Eric’s house.

We had intended to record the entire album as a full band — but the pandemic hit when we only had about half the songs in the can. And then in June of 2020, Jason announced he was leaving the band. And so, we had to kind of reconsider the scope of the album, and of our recording plans.

Ultimately, Eric ended up recording “Unmarked” himself, with Jason on drums. I ended up recording “Poison and The Cure,” “Quoth the Raven,” and “Healed” by myself, using drums that I programmed. I recorded “Cain and the Fireboys” and “All is Lost” by myself, but with Connor Reilly from the Portland microtonal prog-metal band The Mercury Tree on drums.

And so, this album ended up being many things to me. It’s a conceptual album exploring a Midwestern Gothic vibe, with themes about Love and Transgression and Religious Oppression. All of this leads into a final stretch which evokes the way that huge societal forces can pull the rug out from under you, leaving you to feel rather lost, alone, struggling to hold onto hope. And yet, if you let the final song loop back again to the first, you’ll notice the same chord-progression begins the album as ends it. The end is the beginning is the end; a cycle repeats.

It’s also an album where the inconsistencies in recording methodology — full-band vs solo-productions — tell the story of the album’s difficult gestation. And so, even though I’d really have loved for every song here to be a full-band recording, I’m happy with what we ended up with, and of course I worked hard during the mixdown and mastering to try to get everything to sound like the best stuff we’ve ever recorded. The flaws are — I think (or hope) — of the kind which mostly enhance the experience.