Tuesday 14 March 2023

Sound of Smoke - Phases (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Feb 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's a unusual psychedelic rock out from Freiburg in Germany, which I believe is the second from Sound of Smoke after a debut called Tales last year and an EP back in 2017 that's just as long as the albums. Musically, they launch into the sort of incessant grooves we expect from Hawkwind, with a bass high in the mix but not downtuned. There are very different songs, but that's the default for them and it's a warm and welcoming sound. What makes them unusual is that the vocals, courtesy of Isabelle Bapté aren't remotely Hawkwind. She's perky but airy and free too, as if she's singing in a pop band that's deep enough to dip into blues and post-punk and whatever she wants to bring to bear on any particular song.

Ocean Drive feels like an alternative pop song shifted into a psychedelic rock framework. It builds and as it does the vocals shift more into post-punk, Bapté chanting like Siouxsie chanted early on with the Banshees. There's most post-punk in Empty Streets, a much calmer song than normal for this album, and it's the one where I paid most attention to her lyrics because she delivers in such a stream of consciousness style that we can't fail to listen, the sort of thing Suzanne Vega might do. It's as inherently inconsequential as R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, but it still sticks in the mind.

The most pop song here is Candy, which kicks off with an outrageously memorable organ and turns into a bubblegum psychedelic pop song from the late sixties. I could imagine Syd Barrett writing a song like this, but it's fundamentally American. It feels like the sort of obscure sixties single that a lot of latter day garage rock bands cover. There's an odd narrative part, given that Bapté is clearly female, even with effects on her voice in Phases, and she sings in English, but this is delivered by a male voice in German.

Those are the poppier songs but the pop element never quite leaves. The flutes that we first hear on Phases come back for Chasing the Light, which opens up the sound massively. The bass is clearly in a rock song but the flutes take over. We could watch Sound of Smoke in a small club and yet still believe we're outside the moment we close our eyes. There are more keyboards in the second half and they're as delightful as they are different. Bapté handles those too and she has a firm habit of doing something different with them every time. There's old school organ on Preacher, right back in the sixties, but it plays church pop music on Candy and moves to a wonderful spooky sound on a gem of a track called Darkness.

The band are usually heavier than just pop music, as you might expect from the myriad Hawkwind references. Phases is reminiscent of Hawkwind not only through its driving grooves but through a post-production echo placed over Bapté's voice, not to forget the middle eastern vibe that's there from the outset. Sheriff drifts into acid blues, which is natural for Sound of Smoke. Whiet Raebbit, spelled exactly like that, trawls in some Dick Dale surf music. The verses are odd, because the bass plays lead and the guitar plays rhythm. Desert Road is heavier and ploddier in a proto-metal way, but it has a lift in its step and Bapté's vocalisations keep it lighter.

I might call Desert Road out as my favourite track, not just because it's heavier but because it has a searing guitar solo from Jens Stöver, easily his most outrageous and most proto-metal anywhere on the album. However, the drums shift into tribal rhythms too, so there are plenty of depths for us to plumb. It's a really cool piece. Darkness is quintessentially cool in exactly the same way that Ghost Town was cool. Oddly, the chord progressions in the chorus reminded me of Metallica's The Four Horsemen, which is a terrible comparison to make because this isn't close to Metallica in any other way. Once more, the band to bring up is Hawkwind, because the rhythm section turns into a fresh juggernaut driving the song unstoppably forward.

There's so much here that I could just keep on writing and I need to shut up so you can go and find a copy for yourself. Bapté is easily the most obvious element, because she's so unusual for modern psychedelic rock, even if she seems utterly natural on Candy and she channels some Grace Slick on Preacher, this time with some soul on the side, as if to presage the blues solo. I love her vocals but I might actually love her keyboards more, because they steal the show every time she plays them. I loved Jens Stöver's solos late in the album, especially on Desert Road, and wanted more of them. Behind them, the inexorable rhythm section comprises Florian Kiefer on that warm and rich bass and Johannes Braunstein on drums, who are just as obvious in their way and highly versatile.

I like this album a lot. It's an easy one to listen to but it's never background music. It's always there to welcome us and invite us to listen deeper, because there's a lot going on and it wants us to love every aspect of the music. Now I want to find out what was on that previous album.

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