“Retro” is a term that to some, applies solely to bands that are derivative, stagnant, unoriginal, uncreative, and too mired in the past to produce anything of value, like your dad’s bar band. I must say that retro psychedelic progressive rockers AJ Froman prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is not true at all on their latest release, Phoenix Syndrome (well, not necessarily true, anyway).
Everything here sounds like it could have plausibly been written and recorded in the 1970s. The riffs, bass lines, and synths wouldn’t sound out of place at all. I mean no disrespect by that whatsoever, as some of the greatest progressive masterpieces ever came out of that decade. Now, I know progressive rock from the ’70s encompasses a wide variety, so allow me to explain. Phoenix Syndrome lies more in the Pink Floyd school of prog- artful, epic, and psychedelic- than the mathy virtuosity of King Crimson or the esoteric bombast of ELP. That’s not to say the band sounds just like Pink Floyd; their sound is way more intense for one, but in terms of overall approach and mood the comparison is appropriate. I’m making a point that this sounds like a ’70s record because I think recent music history and the corresponding evolution of language makes it harder to talk about. I also want to call this heavy, but it’s heavy like Black Sabbath, not like Meshuggah.
The songs are diverse, dynamic, and carefully constructed to hold your attention. The instrumental action alternates between intense, groovy, syncopated riffs and more psychedelic and chill breakdowns. Occasionally there are some vintage synth sounds and even violins and djembe used to great effect.
The focal point of the band, and I think what makes it special, are Sarah Norwood’s powerful vocals. Her expressive voice recalls Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine much of the time, occasionally using a bold falsetto that makes me question if I’m really listening to The Mars Volta (listen to “Freedom Ticket” and you’ll see what I mean). Her performance just blows me away.
The evocative lyrics benefit greatly from such a spirited vocal delivery. Thematically, the songs and accompanying lyrics occupy one of two poles – vivid illustrations of the alienation and existential despair of modern life, foiled by uplifting optimism for the future and the unbounded potential of humanity in spite of all that. Personally, I mostly listen to instrumental music and otherwise tend to ignore lyrics whenever possible, regarding vocals as just another instrument. Well, I didn’t find it to be possible here. It’s not that the lyrics themselves are poetic genius in isolation, but rather that they play such a crucial role in shaping the feel of the songs – the album would be much less compelling in their absence.
Overall, I find this album a highly enjoyable listen that keeps me coming back. I can’t think of anything bad to say about it- probably because I don’t think that being retro is inherently bad. I suppose what grips me is the synthesis of the elements of ’70s rock, prog or otherwise, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. I mean, just because a certain approach is 40 years old and out of style in the mainstream doesn’t mean there’s no room left for innovation within that framework. After all, there are no original ideas, only original combinations of existing ideas. And who cares how old the existing ideas are? The freshness here is in the recipe, not the ingredients.