Despite having another album called Cvlt and assuming many of the trappings of a black metal band, the first useful thing I can say about Phantom Winter is that they’re not black metal. Well, not entirely true, but not in any predictable way. The band’s roots are deep in the German sludge scene and, after ditching their previous incarnation Omega Massif, guitarist Andreas Schmittfull and drummer Christof Rath more or less morphed into Phantom Winter. And may we be thankful for that. Last year’s debut (the aforementioned Cvlt) took their musical path to new levels of intensity. While Omega Massif, as heavy as it was, was more of a post-rock musical trip that offered wriggle room for your fragile emotions within the tracks. The latest incarnation provides nothing of the sort. Phantom Winter is an atmospheric sludge overload sprawling through bleak and blackened landscapes.
Schmittfull and Rath (joined by Martin Achter on bass and Christian Krank on vocals) carry on where they left off on Cvlt with the intensity pitched at peak from the screaming opening bars of title track Sundown Pleasures. The formula otherwise remains steadfastly joyless, relentless and funereal in pace with some exemplary sludge vocals that could take the skin off your freshly killed poultry. At times the sound borders on black noise with searing, tremolo guitars laying the feeling of painful emotional extremes on thick. The band also brings back the cinematic dimension with some choice cuts – from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis biopic Control, for example. But the winning formula is in the intensity the band manages to create with their driving, repetitive riffs, such as on Bombing the Witches, and on 10 minute standout finale Black Space where the Phantom Winter manages to elevate itself to a whole new level altogether with its emotionally crushing arrangements, piercing harmonics and blackened riffs.
Perhaps there is a balance, through, which the band managed to achieve on Cvlt between the lingering soundscapes and the pulsing, distorted arrangements which is less clear here. Sitting here now and listening to the final half of Black Space I’m reminded of what joyless trip the previous album was and what the band can achieve. But the preceding couple of tracks (Wraith War and Black Hole Scum) perhaps delve a little too deep into pure ‘noise’ and are among the less rewarding parts of Sundown Pleasures more obvious, well, pleasures. When the album is 40 minutes and just six tracks perhaps the landscapes need to be a little more boundless if you’re going to descend into the black for such extended periods.
More highs and lows, whatever it might be, I just felt that for a band that paints such panoramic views, it felt like the whole thing was over and we hadn’t even begun to experience the possibilities. Maybe a little more time between releases might do the trick – or else just a longer album to let that excellent core sound sink into your bones properly. So for anyone who likes the sound of Phantom Winter who’s new to the band, perhaps check out Cvlt first.
(7/10 Reverend Darkstanley)