Phantogram: Manipulators of the Beat Dimension

photo by Alix Critchley
photo by Alix Critchley

Phantogram was partially named after an optical illusion which manipulates the view of  dimensions. I was in the right head space while I stood in shoulder-to-shoulder anticipation waiting for Phantogram to take the stage and manipulate my view of dimensions. Standing front right, I was a well-positioned blank canvas. The show began and after a four-course meal of electronic synth-beat majesty, I tell you this about Phantogram – they know they’re putting on a show, and they know that it’s excellent.

Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter took the crowd with a rush of blood and a neural overload. It was bright, rhythmic, young and intelligent. The colorful psychedelic mod light show was a masterpiece of well-timed, simple and intentional rhythm-supporting art. A sheet of gold chain as an edge-to-edge stage backdrop brought out the teenager in me letting me know that these two musicians carefully planned not a show but a performance.

The haunting resonance of Barthel’s voice bathed in a melodic pulse coursed through this crowd like butter on toast. Each song was a show unto itself with Barthel and Carter exhibiting sweat dripping choreography throughout. During a high frequency interlude in their single “Black Out Days”, Barthel’s arm pyrotechnics reflected any number of Robyn- patented dance moves. In short – awesome dancing. So awesome that, alongside the expected aggro-elbow Commodore crowd, I had the pleasure of standing beside a couple inspired to passionately grind during “Celebrating Nothing”. Music moves people in different ways…

Musically, this ‘synthical’ hybrid balances rhythmic trip-hop beats and samples with well-laid harmonies and lyrical fortitude. Barthel’s voice live has the commanding presence of Victoria Legrand of Beach House, mixed with her individual tendency to push her voice into an instrument. Headbanging her silky hair, Barthel’s beauty, talent and post-rock wear make her an easy focus of attention. On the synth and working it hard, she is classy as fuck. Some guy shouted “Beautiful!” over my left shoulder, engrossed in the show. Watch out Kimbra – there may be a new model in town.

photo by Alix Critchley
photo by Alix Critchley

Carter, a skilled guitarist, lyricist and performer, serves the on-stage role of geek-chic awkward. Carter has obvious talent, precise musicality and a strong ear for harmony. Unfortunately, he does not share Barthel’s vocal range and wore the crowd’s attention a bit during the drawn-out “Never Going Home”. All the electronics left me wondering what was being played live at times but overall the two exuded such an electric lure and captivity in performance that one could hardly care.

The set list was an appropriate mix of all the hits shuffled with their new pysch-pop bangers. One of the fresh songs, “Howling at the Moon”, Barthel comments they technically aren’t allowed to play yet, but leaves the crowd grateful that they chose to break the rules. I’m a snob for encores and was disappointed they hadn’t saved anything but new songs to end with but was placated by the quality of the new songs. The pre-encore introduction of the band members reminded fans that this used to be a two-piece prior to the drummer and gentleman on keys and guitar. Certainly, they now carry a more impregnated sound, further driving the nail into this excellent performance.

The thing is that this was a Kool-Aid-drinking sold out crowd. Armed with talent, Phantogram had the crowd engaged at the first beat and focused to the end of their multi-dimensional act. All I’m saying is if you aren’t/weren’t a listener, know that Phantogram converts fans and trains missionaries by the sheer inertia of their performance. And at the end of it all, as I stumbled into the cold fall air, love-drunk with a post-show high, I knew one thing: Phantogram has us all by the diamonds – with their secrets in our pockets.