It’s hard to believe that Samuel Flynn Scott, Luke Buda, and Conrad Wedde have been creating music together for over two decades. Granted, those early days were at a time when the three were in high school and likely jamming to the hits of the time or maybe even to Pavement or Sonic Youth songs given their early sound. It wasn’t until 1997 that the three, together with Tim Hansen, Will Ricketts, and Richie Singleton would form The Phoenix Foundation. Their early years were founded in art-rock, avante-garde, and experimental electronica, making them New Zealand’s equivalent of Deerhoof. Their music was surreal and often borderline inaccessible, but it was innovative and refreshing. From the brooding Horse Power to the sonic brilliance of Pegasus to the majestic and breakthrough Buffalo, The Phoenix Foundation have challenged the way we hear and perceive music. But they haven’t stopped there, as they also entered in the field of remixes, thus furthering their musical palette. Their diverse, complex, and multi-layered sound has made them one of New Zealand’s most influential acts, as their sound can be heard in the music of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Andrew Keoghan.
Over the years, the band has undergone changes, but the core of Flynn Scott, Buda, and Wedde have been the constants. Each takes a turn as songwriter and lead vocalist, which partially explains the expansive styles of the band and how their albums would never be mistaken as concept albums. Instead, with each album, I’ve learned to treat them as a collection of short stories, which can be appreciated individually but collectively can entertain.
Their sixth studio album, Give Up Your Dreams, is no different. The ten songs weave across multiple genres and thematically touch on many subjects, not limiting themselves to a single issue. And as disparate each song may sound from the next, the album moves effortlessly between tracks. It’s a demonstration of the chemistry between the three songwriters and their growth as musicians, where they’re able to embed subtle nuances – from tempo to melodies – to ensure cohesion. Take for instance the first three tracks on the album. “Mountain” is a stunning track that explodes with krautrock textures, which are completed by percussions reflective of Afro-beat. Lyrically and even sonically, it feels spiritual with the each crash of the cymbals and the buzzing synths underneath. “Bob Lennon John Dylan” blazes with ’90s-inspired indie-rock on this fun track that speaks to some of the band’s influences in a whimsical. “Playing Dead” then takes a Talking Heads’ approach with the stammering synthesizers and beats while infusing a Latin vibe. The repeated calling of “Tierre Del Feugo” is hallowing and ghostly, and they’re complemented by the cascading electronics, which together has a mind-altering effect.
There are also summery tracks. “Prawn” is a lush, driving track in the spirit of Washed Out. “Celestial Bodies”, which speaks about an inevitable relationship, is an equally moving electro-pop number that is one more Pet Shop Boys and another part Toro y Moi. “Silent Orb” sees the sextet break out their early experimental, electronic days on this trippy and groovy number that resonates with the spatial qualities of Caribou. “Sunbed”, meanwhile, is enrapturing. With the repeated climaxes that see all the instruments (synths, guitar, keys, drums, bass) merge together, the song is not just spiritual but cathartic. It reflects the band’s Pegasus-era songs, where they blended electronic with krautrock, rock, and industrial sounds.
Often times, the band’s music can overshadow their solid songwriting. On “Jason”, for example, the electro- and ambient-pop music hides the messages of an individual seeking a way out from his current predicament, the “pain” that “is neverending”, and just the life that is his. “Give Up Your Dreams” sounds like a euphoric, synth-driven pop tune, but underneath isn’t a message of pessimism or lost causes. Instead, it’s an ironic song that is basically one big middle finger to the naysayers in the world and that any dream could be achieved. How you define what success is, though, is left to your perception. Traveling in a van and talking smack to your best friends every day isn’t such a bad life. The six members of The Phoenix Foundation are perfect proof of that.
After six albums, The Phoenix Foundation continue to push the envelope. Give Up Your Dreams isn’t their most innovative or even daring album. Actually, it might be their most accessible one they’ve written. This, however, doesn’t undermine that the band is still one of the most unique and innovative bands out there. To be able to merge multiple and different genres together into something that can be head by many is an unquestioned skill. More accurately, it is pure genius and the evolution of a band that could have given up their dreams long ago but who are now recognized among music’s great out-of-the-box thinkers.
Give Up Your Dreams is out Friday. There are a number of bundles available on the band’s Bandcamp page. For the more traditional options (CD, vinyl, digital), head to Memphis Industries, Amazon, and iTunes.
The Phoenix Foundation currently are Samuel Flynn Scott, Luke Buda, Conrad Wedde, Tom Callwood, Will Ricketts, and Chris O’Connor.
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