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Some bands have art and the cerebral embedded in their music from the very start. I'm thinking about bands like Pink Floyd, Sonic Youth, Radiohead, Tool... bands that I like listening to in the dark to be better immersed in their sounds and musical textures... bands that just seem to beg higher thought. I can see Phoenix and the Turtle being a band I can add to that list, although they are certainly not clones of any of the ones I mentioned, or any band really.
Heralding from Yucaipa, California, Phoenix and the Turtle are definitely in the progressive realm of rock and roll, with a sweeping symphonic sound that is subtle, but full of incredible textural depth. Normally I'm not one for more symphonic sounds as I feel that strings on rock records has been vastly overused and a bit of a cliche, but I don't get that feeling with this band at all. Their instrumentation, which includes guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, strings and who knows what else, seems to create a sort of ethereal musical backdrop that is dreamy, psychedelic and hypnotic. The vocals are somewhat sparse, giving an a almost instrumental feel to their sound. Those vocals that are present though, sometimes harmonized male and female leads, are extremely effective with thought provoking lyrics. They fit perfectly with their compelling, cerebral, sonic landscapes that are quite encompassing and enveloping... definitely music to listen to with headphones... in the dark.
Unfortunately I could only find 5 songs from Phoenix and the Turtle to listen to (so far), but the songs I've heard, although not necessarily catchy in the traditional sense, are hypnotic, creative and have such musical and compositional depth that I'm excited to hear what else this band has in their catalog.
I find these songs some of the most difficult music to describe because it is primarily about feel, more so than many of the other bands I've discussed. A specific feel is so subjective that it can be difficult to describe in a way that will sound coherent to anyone other than me. Still... lets give it a try...
Start with "It's Not You It's Me", the first track I heard from this band. With it's very hypnotic opening riff, quiet and hauntingly delicate female vocals, and subtle piano parts, it create an atmosphere that is dark and slightly melancholy, but still extremely airy and melody rich. That atmosphere seems to permeate all of the songs I've heard, but in distinctly different flavors. "Pianos" appropriately has piano lines with a classical flair, a minor tinge... maybe even a gothic feel, but not in a cliche way. This is emphasized by those same subtle and haunting female vocals, and then there is the single stringed instrument lines. They echo melody and counter melody back and forth over the swirling background with just enough cut to make them standout without being over the top. Just an incredible piece of composition and arrangement where every part seems to perfectly aligns with the feel, pulse and emotion of the song.
"Pulling the Wool" is another song that has great string lines, opening with a slightly disjointed and ragged symphonic part before descending into a hypnotic ambiance of guitars and keyboards. The song then shifts textures again, pulling to near silence under vocal recordings, before slowly surging back out again with another melody string melody. It then shifts again, this time to something just slightly different, with what sounds like filtered air raid sirens going off over top (a subtle political/social comment touch maybe?), building layer upon layer before stopping abruptly. One epic of a song, but it never sounds overtly indulgent, more carefully crafted and composed. "The Man Who Was Death" brings a beat that sounds slightly akin to twisted circus music. It's in either 3 or 6 I believe, (I'm talking time signature) making is sway and waltz back and forth. The interwoven male and female vocals are harmonized perfectly for the minor key feel and their darker lyrics. "Disco Funeral" also is along the same lines as the other four, but features a slightly more pushed (just slightly) guitar riff and bass topped with keyboards and male lead vocals that is less haunting and more grounded than the more angelic female lead, but still very effective.
I'm thoroughly impressed with this band's mastery of subtly. Whether its the haunting vocals, the cryptic and quasi political/poetic lyrics, the symphonic instrumentation or even the just barely gritty tone of the guitars, they seem to have a less is more policy that keeps these songs from sounding melodramatic or overtly pretentious. Also, although I was really intrigued by each of these songs in their own right, I think there is something amazing in this music that I think really puts this band beyond some of the other indie artists with a similar atmospheric style. These songs really do sound like part of a whole, almost like different movements from the same symphony... and I don't mean like a concept album, or a band with a very specific sound that is always consistent... it's more than that. They seem to echo the same melodic ideas and motifs throughout, or counter melodies that are slightly twisted versions of the original, especially in the string parts. Whether intentional or not, it is extremely compelling and makes these songs seem to blend and weave together. Each song is like looking through a different lens at the sonic landscape. The same elements are there and they may even sound similar, but the overall picture is slightly different each time with a unique tonal color.
Overall, Phoenix and the Turtle, definitely a progressive band worth checking out. I can see fans of Radiohead really liking this band. Although they're using a bit of a different formula and a unique sound, they capture the same cerebral atmosphere. I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for new music from them as I look forward to hearing their latest album and I believe they have a previous release as well that should be interesting to hear.
Check out the band's Myspace page here: http://www.myspace.com/phoenixandtheturtle
And their Virb page here: http://virb.com/phoenixandtheturtle
The band also has a website at www.phoenixandtheturtle.com, but it just points to the other two sites, both of which have players to listen to their music.