Wednesday, March 6, 2019

album review: 'phantoms' by marianas trench

So I won't mince words: I was nervous about covering this album.

And I'm not sure why - Marianas Trench is the sort of stridently Canadian pop rock act that has never let me down, with two albums under their belt that are damn near classics: 2009's Masterpiece Theater and 2015's Astoria, which if you all remember the latter was my top album of that year! And I'll admit part of it was just nervous jitters that aren't all that rational: frontman Josh Ramsay is one of the most powerful vocalists working today and a terrific technical songwriter, he's one of the big reasons most of you know who Carly Rae Jepsen even is, and you'd think that would be enough for me to have faith this would be incredible.

But I'll admit I was nervous regardless - it had been four years since Astoria, and pop rock has changed a lot since 2015. Too many promising acts in their lane have either gone pure pop to diminishing returns or outright collapsed, and while Marianas Trench have been unafraid to chase their own lanes before, the few moments I didn't like on Astoria did come through succumbing to questionable modern trends. And more to the point, Astoria had felt like a culmination of larger stories that had run through Masterpiece Theater and Ever After, a semi-autobiographical narrative put to bed for new beginnings ahead, and I just had no idea what to expect. I hadn't checked out any of the singles, I was going in cold to take in the full album experience - for as relentlessly catchy as the singles can be I still hold Marianas Trench as an album act - so what did we get off of Phantoms?

So this was a perplexing listen - and a tough one to analyze as a singular work or especially as an entry point to Marianas Trench. And that's because it's something you rarely see in album releases: a coda to a previous album, almost the equivalent of a fully playable expansion pack where you might not care at all about the original campaign... but you'd probably want to play it to gain the full context. Now that absolutely means that Phantoms feels like a lesser project in comparison with Astoria or Masterpiece Theater - it's shorter and tighter, it only touches on the bigger cinematic experience of previous projects in melodic motifs, and while that means it doesn't quite have the epic scope of earlier projects, that doesn't make it precisely worse. No, that primarily comes from some choices in writing and production that might make sense within the modern pop landscape, but don't exactly help Phantoms feel as potent as it could. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely a great album... but there are missteps and I sincerely hope Marianas Trench is able to pivot into a fresh lane after this.

And I'll admit that's frustrating to say, especially when you realize that with every record, Josh Ramsay somehow winds up sounding better - and I'll say it, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better singer in his lane in rock or even pop right now! Between the multi-tracked arrangements and the simply unbelievable vocal register, the only one who I think comes close is Brendon Urie and I still think Ramsay puts him under the table! If you're just here for sheer stunning performances, you're absolutely going to get that - and hell, even the interplay he has with Jellyfish frontman Roger Joseph Manning Jr. on 'Echoes Of You' shows how well he can balance the song without blowing him out of the water - that reflects a poise and maturity that many frontmen of his calibre do not have.

But here's the problem: people with insane pop star vocals are not a 'thing' in the mainstream right now, mostly because the fidgety, dense percussion and desaturation of trap doesn't flatter huge voices or personalities. And whether it be from a label note or the band's desire to position something with accessible potential, there are definitely songs in both production and composition that are trying to make a play for that territory and they land with mixed results, like the pitch-shifted drop on 'Don't Miss Me?' or the squealing, twisted tones comprising the abortive drop on 'The Death Of Me' - hell, the bare acoustics, clipped pickup, and mid-tempo bounce of the post-chorus of 'I Knew You When' complete with trap whirs sound like something that could be given to Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes in a pinch. Granted, this is not new - Marianas Trench has always made a few songs on every project that fit the climate, and even if they gave it to someone else it'd be an upper-tier song from an artist like that; I have to give Ramsay credit for production that can fit within the mainstream while still giving his vocals room to breathe and sounding cohesive within the album, to say nothing of holding a strong melodic groove and a great hook. But Marianas Trench can punch higher than this, and if they had opted to take this focus into truly darker or more gothic tones - and between goth rock or post-punk or even symphonic metal there are palettes he could draw from - it could have given the project more mystique and presence. And while I'm on that subject... yes, you can say I'm stuck in the past or a rock snob, but when the guitars actually get their moments to truly roar on this project, they're emblematic of past climaxes that are sadly a little infrequent on Phantoms. And again, that's not saying their choice to burrow into even tighter new wave grooves that owe their debt to mid-to-late 80s tones is a bad one: the smoky shimmer of the lead guitarwork on 'Only The Lonely Survive' has some flickers of classic U2 and the tight poppy grooves of 'Your Ghost' build off the grainy drum machines and vocal layering have a trace of INXS, and then we have the buzzy synths of 'Wish You Were Here' that fits most cleanly into Marianas Trench's established tones. But I'll be honest, when this album ramps up the gothic swell of 'Echoes Of You' with the whirling symphonic elements, cavernous strings and bells, or how 'The Killing Kind' brings a gargantuan haunted reprise - including the nods to the theatricality of mid-2000s pop rock and an instrumental motif making an out-of-nowhere return that's the most triumphant point on the entire project - they're the points that highlight just how special Marianas Trench is as an act when they're allowed to cut loose!

But you might notice that I haven't torn into the desaturated tones and influx of reverb that are emblematic of so much modern pop with this project... and to get into that, we have to talk about the lyrics and themes. And again, like with an act like Billie Eilish I have to give the band props for leaning into the obvious: if pop is going to sound so damn ghostly and creepy and bleak, why not make that the central running motif and metaphor of the project, along with a healthy dose of Edgar Allen Poe worship because one drama queen deserves another. And yet if that's all Ramsay was doing with this, that'd be one thing - a nifty thematic conceit maybe stretched a little too thin thanks to entirely too much syllable repetition and stuttering to fill up space in the lyrics - but remember how I said this album feels like an expansion pack or a coda? Well, if the lyrical arc set my suspicions alight, the fact that 'The Killing Kind' includes a blatant melodic motif that runs through Astoria is the big one - and that makes Phantoms an interesting continuation indeed. Keep in mind that Astoria was a breakup album, the culmination of the previous two projects worth of emotions and songs written about a significant other who was now gone, and not only did Ramsay have to place it all in context for himself, he had to deal with her making a return and him making the conscious choice to set that part of his life aside for good... but if Phantoms highlights anything, it's never so simple. And like the arc of Jason Isbell's Nashville Sound after Something More Than Free, the darker impulses of the mind cannot be so easily set aside on will alone, and Phantoms shows how much her ghost hides around every curve of this project, triggering the sort of second-guessing and overthinking that could be easily be maddening. And what's so damn potent is that our protagonist knows exactly how bad reconsidering her and relapsing is, not just in terms of the emotional damage just waiting to be exposed again, but given his culpability in how it all fell apart it leaves him second guessing even good decisions. But what I appreciate is that for as operatic as this project can strain to be, there are real grounding moments: 'Don't Miss Me?' highlights how despite his flimsy denials that he doesn't miss her, there's the real possibility she's moved on and doesn't feel anything close to the same - to quote that song, 'some people try to raise the dead, some people try to live instead'. 

But here's where real tragedy strikes, because songs like 'Your Ghost' are fully aware of the weight on his psyche, and 'Glimmer' is fascinating in how it plays with imagery of light, how when you burn bright you don't see those sparks of hope but in the pits you can see a glimmer... and even then on the second verse he's self-aware this is still all wrong - she might have changed years later, but not enough to make it work. And yet there's enough entrenched in his memory that worked that he clings to, and when we realize on 'The Death Of Me' there's a current partner in the picture, it's the abortive breakup moment that comes through his own guilt he can't be fully with someone new if he hasn't purged the ghosts of his past. And that takes us to 'The Killing Kind', and where we have to examine Edgar Allen Poe's 1842 short story 'Eleonora', a prelude of which titled the same opens the album, where a love springs for the wrong reasons but is cut short by death, and by the end Poe's protagonist has found a love anew despite having pledged to never love another. And it's easy to see the parallel within Phantoms, and for a second you get the feeling that Ramsay's going for a dark inversion, succumb to madness infatuated with a ghost where their toxic relationship will destroy them both, only further highlighted by how he references IT as the dark twin to the 80s inspirations of Astoria... and honestly, I'm a bit torn on the ending. To me there's ambiguity implied by the fact he's asking for her to stay, capture a moment just there and now even as she might wish he moves on, wrought of desperation before one must move on anyway... but I could see if it represents the final tragic moment of succumbing to mad darkness together, even if I don't think it's the post-script that quite fits with Astoria's ending or the ending of 'Eleonora'... but I can see both working in their own twisted ways.

So as a whole... look, this is still a Marianas Trench album, I'm still convinced this is a great project with thematic weight and some stunning high points, this is still a pop rock band that runs laps around the competition with one of the best frontmen working today. And yet I'd be lying to myself if I said this was on the level of their best - and on some level I don't even think I can fully blame Marianas Trench for this. An act like them needs to be able to adapt to the times, and the fact they were able to adapt coming from a far better era of pop to the sickly tones of today and make it thematically coherent and potent speaks volumes of their talent. That said, while this is great, I'm not sure yet I'd put this among the best of 2019 especially given the steps it had to take, which is why I'm giving this a very strong 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation... but if you're coming from Astoria or Masterpiece Theater, just temper your expectations. But hey, I'm seeing some rumblings that pop or even rock might well recover in the next few years as peak trap sputters away - love to see what Marianas Trench finds when they step up and back into the light.

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