Review: Phantogram - Voices

The duo's strong sophomore offering should consume your late-night listening for the foreseeable future.
Phantogram Voices


There’s a special brand of music for the insomniacs among us. Music for the hours you should be sleeping, but can’t. For when it’s late at night, and you’re not tired at all. Music that’s electric. Songs that buzz.

Enter Phantogram. The duo’s new album, Voices, is a strong collection of 11 dark, pulsing tracks brimming with energy, humming with a persistent groove, driving with a head-bopping beat.

Phantogram already earned themselves a place in the late-night music canon with 2009’s “When I’m Small,” a brilliant, crackling anthem from their debut album. But the rest of Eyelid Moves was less consistent. Their next EP, aptly titled Nightlife, gave us the fantastic “Don’t Move,” along with some standard, intriguing electro-pop.

Voices marks a more complete work from a duo fully in sync; in their element. From the very first line of “Nothing But Trouble,” the album embraces its role as a nighttime playlist: “Ever had the feeling that you’ve constantly been dreaming? This is life.”

From there, we get song titles like “Bad Dreams” and “Howling At The Moon.” We get lyrics like: “The night it swallowed my soul,” “Hide the sun,” and darkest of all, “If I could paint the sky, all the stars would shine in bloody red.”

So when Sarah Barthel sings about hearing “voices in her head,” we can guess what hour of the day it is.

The album’s hazy production adds to the moonlit feeling. Each song is loaded with scattered beats, misdirections and surprises, creating an diverse array of sounds and synths. Some explode with an epic wall of sound – “Never Going Home” and “The Day You Died” build from standard guitar-driven verses to massive, cinematic synthesized choruses. Others brood over rickety, click-clack percussion, not building to anything in particular but still creating an engaging, encompassing atmosphere. Voices gives off an indisputable vibe, and it’s a vibe you’ll want to experience before you fade away into slumber.

But how should we explain this vibe, exactly? It’s hard to avoid labeling Voices as a “dark” album – the shadowy, black cover indicates a duo swallowed by darkness, and the music certainly isn’t rainbows and butterflies. Barthel and Josh Carter trade vocals to sing of people “burning alive” and “feeling nothing” about death. Their lyrics are more sparse and poetic than dense and literal, and it’s a good thing – the mysterious buzz running through each track is perfectly complemented by the duo’s simplistic word choice and melancholy vocals:

“Give me a reason to stay alive, I’ve got a feeling we’re gonna die.”

So goes the chorus of the fantastic “Celebrating Nothing.” Indeed, this album is grim. But as with all good music, you feel a light at the end of the tunnel. The song thumps with a wavering optimism, beating with a relentless pulse of upbeat energy. If Voices is dark - and it is - it’s still darkness you can dance to.

Still, this album isn’t exactly loaded with party rock anthems. Instead, Phantogram makes music for when the disco ball is still hanging, and the speakers are still blaring, but the dance floor has emptied out, and the confetti is swept away.

By the time we get to “My Only Friend,” the dreamy, electronic haze of Voices has become a bit repetitive. It can get tiring. But sometimes, with late-night music, that’s part of the point. B