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Smoke And Mirrors Ben Graham , September 2nd, 2010 12:19

Once upon a time, in Montreal, there was a VJ on Musique Plus - the French-Canadian MTV - called Elsie Martins. Now, Elsie was something of an Anglophile, and in particular loved the gloomy British post-punk music of the late 70s and early 80s, when the likes of Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and – especially - Joy Division made records that conjured up, for her and many like her, smudged grey images of a drizzle-bound island nation roamed by introverted, neurotic poets, skinny and pale in raincoats and improbable haircuts, who wandered through decaying industrial towns and over lonely moorland, before returning to drab and dingy bedsits to eat strange, colourless food by a coin-operated, three bar fire and wait for the pubs to open at seven. It was an impossibly romantic place, this grey, post-punk Britain, which seemed to symbolise, for her, the natural homeland of every sensitive outsider who never managed to fit in. People read books in Britain! They drank tea! She had to go there. And she did.

In 2000, or thereabouts, Elsie Martins arrived in London; one can imagine her disappointment. Eventually, however, she found musical kindred spirits among the myriad of young bands and musicians that, somewhere to the east of Bunhill Fields cemetery, had coalesced into a kind of scrappy, arty, neo-gothic revival. Counting the likes of SCUM, Ipso Facto, Project: Komakino and Micron 63 among her peers, Elsie re-emerged around 2006 with her own band, The Phantom Lovers. A five-piece, with guitars and drums augmented by a keening violin, they were perhaps the most traditionally gothic of the lot, with Elsie's vocals in particular suggestive of some slick hybrid of Skeletal Family and Curved Air. A download-single, 'Heroes and Idols' was released at the beginning of 2008 (the video can still be seen on youtube) to no little indifference. A rethink was clearly in order, and soon after the band shortened their name to Phantom, and slimmed down to just Elsie and unrelated co-conspirator Johnny Martin. Finally, in August 2010, they released their debut album, once again as a download only. Which is where this story ends, and the review proper begins.

Smoke and Mirrors consists of two long tracks, each equivalent to one side of an old-fashioned LP. Each track is actually made up of four or five songs, segueing seamlessly into each other, without cues or breaks. The idea is that the album be taken as a whole, rather than broken up into random tracks on your ipod shuffle. For a download release it's a bold, even pretentious move, but appropriate, for Smoke and Mirrors is old-fashioned too in the sense that it's an album that takes you on a journey, and conjures up a whole world within its classic forty-five minute duration.

So moody instrumental opener 'Sphinx' comes on like early Tangerine Dream with gravel in their third eye, a reverberating guitar line scything through an abandoned tube station before a fragmented piano melody hints at the epic cinema score that remains, tantalisingly unwritten, beneath the foundations. 'We Float' finds Elsie's jagged velvet tones imposing a spare, urgent torch song over an abstraction of buzzing drones, clanging bells and labyrinthine guitar echo. After the doom-laden church organ and hammering beats of 'Blood Music,' the Death in Plains remix of this same song closes the first "side" and, rather than seeming like cheap repetition or disrupting the flow of the piece it brings it full circle, with Elsie's voice transformed into a distant refrain and the guitar riff brought forward as the insistent skittering rhythms drive the sequence towards a fittingly cinematic climax.

Part two begins with the repeated phrase, "I'm not a musician" over a bed of ominous found sounds and pulsing rhythm. It's not just a throwaway sample, but an important statement aligning Phantom with the artists who, since Eno at least, have used the form of popular music as an open-ended vehicle for their ideas and imaginations- an approach formalised by post-punk, but perhaps reaching fullest fruition with bedroom techno boffins from the Aphex Twin onwards. Shedding the constraints of a traditional band line-up has allowed the two Martins the freedom of this fraternity, able to approach songwriting in a manner somewhere between film soundtrack composers and gleeful dada experimentalists, while at the same time never sacrificing accessibility or dramatic structure. The press release makes much of the varied sound samples that have gone into creating the basic rhythm tracks of Phantom's songs, mentioning antique typewriters, clacking heels and letters dropping through boxes, as well as the sound of the Mars Space Rover rumbling across the red planet's surface. These sources surely are listed as much for their associations- the timelessly mundane meets the futuristically alien- as anything else, as they are barely recognisable in action. What is apparent though is an atmosphere of unspecified menace, of tension and doubt and things moving, shifting half-detected in the shadows.

With an almost singalong chorus, 'Voodoo Romantic' is a comedown classic for boys in ripped fishnets and girls with blood on their patent leather heels, occupying a similar sonic space to the Sisters of Mercy's 'Afterhours.' Indeed, the whole album could be seen as a contemporary revision of that strain of 80s gothic that gave its neuroses the space to uncoil; from Martin Hannett's Joy Division productions to Bauhaus's experiments with freaky, paranoid dub. The urban lament of 'Fever' takes us through a fractured nightmare of London after dark, where the streets close in on themselves and the club kids hang like zombies in empty warehouses and burnt-out factories. It also references - lyrically if not musically - those other romantic poets of the city's dark underbelly, Suede, with Elsie addressing the song's sentiments to 'My Insatiable One.' This covert name-checking runs throughout the album, with 'Blood Music' borrowing the phrase "Sanity Assassin" from an obscure Bauhaus track, while 'Love in a Void' takes its title from the Siouxsie and the Banshees song. Along with the constant mentions of London itself, these seem less an acknowledging of influences and more an incantation of resonances, summoning a world view and a lifestyle through these reference points much as Morrissey, to very different effect, did on early Smiths records; the dark, imaginary England, in fact, that Elsie dreamt of all those years ago in Montreal, when British post-punk seemed in such stark contrast to the artificially-brightened, mainstream McPop that filled her dayjob hours.

"It's just a spell I'm howling" Elsie concludes, as this last song follows the rain clouds out along the Thames, away from London's enclosed spaces and towards the open sea. "I make a pact with the tide in your eyes." The city is seen through a glass, darkly: The Smoke, as viewed from the other side of the Mirror. Measure by measure, drop by drop, Elsie Martin is redefining London Gothic for the second decade of the twenty-first century.

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