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Music Review: Phantom Band – Phantom Band and Freedom Of Speech

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For fans of pioneering Krautrockers Can, the band’s later years can be a touchy subject. The final three LPs—Saw Delight (1977), Out Of Reach (1978), and Can (1979)—found the group embracing a much more radio-friendly sound than ever before. They even had something of a hit single with the disco track “I Want More.” Die-hard adherents to their early, arch avant-garde material abandoned them during this time, and it was all over by 1980.

One of the more obscure groups to rise from the ashes of Can were Phantom Band. Phantom Band were led by one of Can’s founding members, drummer Jaki Liebezeit. They recorded three albums in the early 1980s: Phantom Band (1980), Freedom Of Speech (1981), and Nowhere (1984). Bureau B has just issued the first two Phantom Band records on CD, and both are fascinating documents of the era.

In addition to Liebezeit, the initial incarnation of Phantom Band included vocalist/bassist Rosko Gee (who had also played with Can), keyboardist Helmut Zerlett, guitarist Dominik von Senger, and percussionist Olek Gelba. All were leading lights of the underground music scene of Cologne at the time, so it is surprising to hear the direction they took with the debut.

Phantom Band opens with “You Inspired Me,” which sounds like nothing so much as a contemporary R&B single. If a radio station had slotted the song in between some George Benson and Grover Washington Jr. at the time, nobody would have noticed it. Phantom Band is all about the rhythm, in fact. “Phantom Drums” is a short 1:21 showcase for Liebezeit, and acts as something of a prelude to his “Absolutely Straight.” I was more than a little surprised to recognize the bass line of “Absolutely Straight,” as a near-exact replica of the one from “Bad Luck,” by Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes.

A bit of Fatherland camaraderie is achieved on “Without Desire,” a song that manages to pay tribute to Kraftwerk in its opening bars. Another founding member of Can, Holger Czukay, makes a nice cameo appearance on “For M.” playing what is described as “occasional horn.”

Freedom Of Speech was released just a year after Phantom Band, yet it sounds almost like it's by a completely different group. Rosko Gee had departed by this time, leaving the quartet with no bass or vocals. They soldiered on without a bass, using keyboards at times in its place. For vocals, they used spoken-word performer Sheldon Ancel, with some unique results. “Freedom Of Speech” kicks things off in a typically bizarre way. The drumhead military beat is enlivened with some nearly indecipherable proclamations from Ancel, while wild sound effects fill in the empty spaces.

Repetition is a key quality of Freedom Of Speech, and is the driving force behind “Gravity” and “Brain Police.” The loss of Rosko Gee is most keenly felt on “E.F. 1” and “Experiments,” both of which nod toward reggae, and would have benefited greatly from an actual singer.

“Brain Police” has a fairly obvious antecedent in Frank Zappa’s “Who Are The Brain Police,” and even shares a musical mood of paranoia. One of the more interesting parallels occurs in “Experiments,” which at times sounds almost like a carbon of “Ghost Town,” from The Specials. Since both were released around the same time, I think it is just coincidence, but the similarities are somewhat striking. While Freedom Of Speech is certainly Phantom Band’s own work, I also hear elements of Funkadelic, Talking Heads and the great Afro-beat pioneer Fela Kuti at times. Which proves they had great record collections, if nothing else.

Phantom Band and Freedom Of Speech are both key pieces of the post-Can continuum. For obsessive fans such as myself, their release on CD is a cause for celebration. As always, Bureau B have done a great job, with plenty of information and pictures in the packaging. These are a couple of records that definitely merit a listen.

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