Review: Phase IV – Phase IV
Sci-fi metal is often propulsive and epic. Much of it dwells in a death metal space that’s slickly produced and bombastic, and when it’s not in full Ancient Aliens mode, sci-fi metal tends to lean more Star Wars than Star Trek as a general rule, at least to the casual listener.
Not so with Phase IV. Their self-titled debut is sci-fi metal, to be sure, but it’s far less bombastic than its genre peers. If a lot of sci-fi metal sets out to chronicle a fantastic voyage through the stars, then Phase IV has made a record that’s more akin to the captain’s log of a lost alien wanderer seeking safe passage through hostile solar systems. This is less interstellar and more interplanetary rock.
The guitars are one of the biggest differences here—opener “Horla” kicks off with a queasy riff that reminds me of nothing so much as REM’s “Underneath the Bunker.” Phase IV keeps the instrumentation sparse throughout the record. The record’s first ten minutes keep things close, lead singer and bassist Bryan Camphire’s (ex-Bloody Panda, full disclosure, we played a sick game of Dungeon World once) growled vocals creating a claustrophobic sense of anticipation in the record’s first ten minutes before the nebulae clear for a gorgeous guitar solo at the end of “Henchmen.” Camphire’s bass is at least as propulsive as Mohadev’s meandering guitar and spare touches of synth. In general, this Austin, TX three-piece is very balanced, with David Beck guiding the band with loose, almost post-punk drumming.
“Borderland” lives up to its name, in that sense—while nothing here could be described as “an angular, brutal slab of metal,” “Borderland” slinks along the periphery of the genre, with only the vocals keeping portions of the track in extreme music territory as Phase IV explore woozy alt-rock melodies.
Closer “Willows” is the record’s doomiest and most progressive track. In both a tonal and narrative sense, it’s a departure from what came before, seeming to signal a last evasive maneuver or a haphazard attempt to leave a hostile planet’s orbit before the cold indifference of space wins out. In keeping with Phase IV‘s lonely, spare feel, “Willows” see blast beats and frantic guitar held to almost a whisper, creating a palpable tension between unsettling melodies and propulsive compositions. There are a few moments throughout this debut LP where a further layer or slight bump in volume would add an additional thrill, but kudos to Phase IV for sticking to their guns. I can safely say I’ve never heard anything else that sounds quite like this; Horseback is similar in using metal paints on a folk-rock canvas, but Phase IV have found their own path to a truly alien sound.
If you like your space metal with Bigg Chuggs™, Phase IV is probably not going to be for you. The guitar stays loose and discernible, the bass warm and springy. At no point does this interplanetary voyage turn into a dogfight between hostile starships; at most, it captures what it must feel like to coast above a gas giant with your gauges blinking a warning as an unknown language crackles through the comms system. However, if you’re interested in a meandering psychological journey through the forgotten corners of the universe, this record is beguiling, hiding sneaky details within a balanced composition and tucking menace between tendrils of unnerving guitar.
4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Phase IV is out today on Bandcamp.