Phantom Power (20th Anniversary) by Super Furry Animals

Release date: September 8, 2023
Label: BMG

The 20th anniversary of Phantom Power, the sixth album proper discounting Out-Spaced (a B-sides/odds and sods collection) is the perfect time to reflect on what in hindsight feels almost like a turning point for Welsh psychedelic wizards Super Furry Animals. Having built a career on wayward psychedelic glam with experimental electronic flourishes, coupled with wonderful song-writing, it is the latter which empowers an album which can seem almost subdued until one digs deeper in. Mellowed out, with pedal steel replacing the familiar electronic squeals, it is an album made for acoustic reveries around the autumnal campfires. Of course, in SFA world, things are never quite that simple.

Originally conceived as a concept album based around the chords D-A-D-D-A-D, and you can still hear the remnants of those original ideas right the way through, with the chords donating towards the atmosphere, the very idea of being restrained meant a turn away from that to making a much more coherent record. Restraint may be a peculiar concept for a band whose gig finales often had them blasting out 20 minutes of techno noise whilst they stood on stage dressed as Yeti’s, but freed from the particular confines of a “concept” they were able to make a much more human album.

Any follower of the band since the early days of their debut release Fuzzy Logic, up until the major label conceptual overload that was Rings Around The World would know that behind the Pete Fowler artwork, the adopted tank, and the aforementioned blasts of techno, lay a band resolutely in sway to the glorious art of song-writing. In Gruff Rhys, they had a frontman unafraid to appear on stage signing through a megaphone whilst wearing a motorcycle helmet, but also one whose turn of phrase and understanding of harmonies could touch the very strings of your heart. They may never have reached wider acclaim in terms of sales, but to those who did fall for them, they were, and still are, the aural equivalent of a hug, or in their own Welsh, a cwtch. Their very weirdness made them so human, and on Phantom Power it is the human-ness that shines through most.

 

Although not necessarily thought of in terms of one of their better albums, with ‘Slow Life’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ being the two songs that particularly stand out for most listeners, this anniversary release provides the opportunity to relive and rediscover an album that is possibly a hugely underrated release in their discography. In the first half alone you have the wonderful ‘Hello Sunshine’ followed by the harmonyblast of ‘Liberty Belle’, further glam nonsense with single ‘Golden Retriever’, and then a gorgeous easy listening of ‘Sex, War & Robots’. Listening back, you are struck by the coherency they were striving for, and now, long past waiting for their weird sections to kick in, instead, age has instilled a melodic grace to the album.

‘The Piccolo Snare’ is another prime example of a deep cut just waiting to be rediscovered. Within its dark undertones is a blatant political message too, which taps into the theme of war which runs through Phantom Power. The mellow overtones of the chord structures offers subterfuge to the dark themes running beneath, although it isn’t long before the glimpses of sunrise show such as on the chorus of ‘Venus & Serena’. The switch between light and dark portraying the battle between good and evil, with the decency of human nature always running through. Almost like a 20th Century Byrds, using harmonies to heal a torn world.

The recording of the album offers a glimpse into this light and dark dichotomy, with much recording taking place in the evenings at their studio in Cardiff Docks due to the prevalence of workers in the daytime. Looking to soundproof the studio, they built tents (with a wig-wam providing particularly fruitful) which would need to be pulled down each morning before the working crowd started to arrive. Describing themselves almost like phantoms, this “other life” seeps into the songs on this album, informing their stories and emotions.

As is usual with anniversary releases, Phantom Power comes complete with a plethora of extras, some such as their collaboration with Goldie Lookin’ Chain are a delight to have, whilst the pile of demo’s are probably only of use to those who find joy in the development of a song. There is also a 20 minute live version of their classic ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’, complete with techno freak out, that is utterly essential although most SFA fans will already have this in their collection. Still, it’s a nice reminder of how great a live band SFA were, and to use another Welsh term, gives a sense of hiraeth (a term meaning homesickness, or longing for, but a particular Welsh feeling). The band are all still active in their own little worlds, and maybe one day they will gather together for another go around the world, but in the meantime we have wonderful releases like this to remind us of one of the most inventive and brilliant bands of the 90’s onward. Indeed, by the time you get to final track ‘Slow Life’, you may find yourself donning a crash helmet and miming through a megaphone as the song takes you on its journey. SFA OK!

 

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