Tuesday 14 April 2020

Phe - Glooming Dawn (2020)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 11 Apr 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

The lines between psychedelic rock, stoner rock and doom metal appear to be more and more blurred with each day that passes. This second album from the Dutch band Phe is all of the above plus a little drone metal too in what is often a hypnotically minimal approach. The clean vocals, adorned only with a periodic echo effect, help make it all feel very accessible too, with hints at Neil Young and Ian Astbury. It's as beautiful in its way as the gorgeous cover art and carries a menace like those incoming clouds.

It starts out heavy on Vortex with both feet firmly in the doom metal genre, but the guitar tone is all stoner rock. The riffs are minimal and there's a strong use of echoing power chords. I'd say repetitive, except that carries a negative connotation and these repetitions are positive, hypnotic riffing to conjure up a trance state. Minimalism and repetition continue throughout the album, until we reach Break a Bottle, which goes so far as to ditch the guitar and drums.

The Lion and the Snake is where the Neil Young influence is most evident. It shows up in the vocals, of course, right down to some clumsy phrasing, but I would suggest that it's in the fuzzy guitar too. When it gets really going, it reminds of one of Young's live feedback jams, like his legendary cover of All Along the Watchtower, but it's a bit too restrained to entirely mirror that. The melody also sounds eerily familiar to me but I'm pretty sure it's from something wildly obscure (a Seer's Tear demo?) that Phe likely haven't heard.

We are Gods and Asylum are as achingly slow and minimal as I've heard stoner rock. Any slower and we'd be at Earth's Hex album but that feels jazzier and less rock-oriented than this. It seems particularly odd to look at the track times and realise that they're only five and six minutes long. They seem to keep us under their spell a lot longer than that. For songs with verses that seem to feature only a single guitar note per line, they're oddly perky and engaging, something that may be due in part to the note frequency increasing with the songs, building at least the former to a crescendo.

And, through all this, the vocals of drummer Ruud remain relentlessly clean. The music would seem to work just as well with death growls, though it would reach a very different result. Keeping the vocals clean may actually be more sustainable for someone who's also drumming, but this approach gives him far more opportunity to vary his inflection, something that elevates songs like The Former Baptist Known as Phe and renders them even more psychedelic.

That's also a fantastic song to showcase Marcel's patient bass, which is all the more beneficial to the album as it runs on. Paul's guitar is generally a lot more obvious, as we'd expect for a guitar on a stoner rock album but the bass shines when underpinning riffs on Break Down and leading the way on The Former Baptist Known as Phe. Closer Break a Bottle is reserved for voice and bass, which is about as minimal as it gets. At least, it sounds like a bass to me, though it could be a downtuned guitar. Either way, it provides a neat repetitive trance-inducing riff for Ruud to sing over with all his attention on the voice, like an accented Ian Astbury wailing out his soul.

I liked this a great deal on a first listen and it got better with a second and a third. There isn't a duff track anywhere on the album and it's hard to pick a favourite track because they all grab equally well. I think I'd have to plump for the builders, We are Gods and Asylum, though Break Down wants a fight to take that title. I have a feeling that, when I come back to this in a month's time, something else might leap out instead because it's that sort of album.

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