Phantogram Continues to Shape Sound With ‘Ceremony’

  • Phantogram | Ceremony  | (Republic Records)
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

New York electronic rock duo Phantogram unveiled their fourth album, Ceremony, last Friday. It followed a few years of inactivity after their 2016 LP, Three, peaked at No. 3 on Billboard‘s Alternative Albums chart. 

“I think life was put on hold for a long time for Phantogram,” lead singer Sarah Benthal wrote in a note she posted to Instagram concurrently with the release. “After 10 years of being in this band and pouring my heart into everything that is Phantogram, I felt like I didn’t have anything else…Going through the loss of my sister from suicide was the icing on the cake.”

She went on to describe her journey to making music with bandmate Josh Carter again — ultimately, the two decamped to a secluded Laurel Canyon studio for the creation of their new record. The lyrics on Ceremony are cryptic in keeping with the group’s past albums, but existential frustration and psychological triumph stand out as themes amid the experimental words and sounds. As Benthal wrote in her post:

Ceremony was inspired by self-care and seeing how common of a struggle everyday life had become.”

Like most of Phantogram’s work, however, it’s hard to be certain how to interpret a line. The precise meaning behind the LP’s title track is especially difficult to pin down, but it closes with words which seems both yearning and conclusive before an instrumental outro: “Just laugh / Animate my lonely / Solo ceremony / Insomniac / Come back.”

In previous releases, the duo’s defining strength has been their vision of complexity as a musical force — a sort of instrument of its own. Within their songs, drum lines, melodies, guitar riffs, even full-band parts tire out quickly. Transitions are frequent and dramatic, supplying otherwise simple tunes with infectious chaos. 

This description applies to Ceremony, which is filled with surprising sonic twists and turns, but more so than in past releases, Benthal and Carter allow room for ideas to develop into full sections rather than bursts of flavor. Drum patterns and synth riffs repeat throughout entire songs without being interrupted by rapid alterations and new concepts — at least, not as frequently as in the group’s three previous long-players. Whether their experiences outside the band over the last four years or a natural progression into more conventional territory inspired this musical forbearance, we may never know, but one thing is certain about Phantogram’s Ceremony: it’s a decisive step forward in their sound. 

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