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The Scaramanga Six
Phantom Head Sean Kitching , May 16th, 2013 07:55

If there were any justice in the pop music world, Scaramanga Six would be in for some well deserved kudos right about now. Phantom Head is the seventh album to be released on their own Wrath Records since their inception in 1995, which is the kind of dogged persistence that may yet see that imprint attain the legendary underground status of Cardiacs’ own Alphabet Business Concern. That Cardiacs are still mentioned when discussing the band is as much due to the involvement of main man Tim Smith on production duties on their early recordings as the fact, far less obvious now, of his once palpably present musical influence.

In fact, the self-styled ‘evil pop group’ are musical magpies drawing from a wide range of classic sources - The Stranglers, Pixies, Queens of The Stone Age, Led Zeppelin, to name but a few. Although being based in Huddersfield in Yorkshire, rather than London, can’t make matters easy when it comes to designing your plan for musical world domination, Scaramanga Six aren’t lacking when it comes to attitude or ambition. Having seen them perform once, I can attest to the tremendous energy and dramatic impact of their live act. It was no doubt with this in mind that the decision was made to head for Chicago to enlist the services of Steve Albini and his Electrical Audio studio.

The first half of the album is particularly strong, each song increasing in intensity and refusing to let the listener off either their melodic or lyrical hooks. ‘I Will Crush Your Heart’ is a darkly romantic crooner in the vein of late period Pixies that starts with a harpsichord tinkling of keys and ends with dueling guitars reminiscent of Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel'. A susurrus of descending water droplets and atmospheric thunderclap sets the tone for ‘I Am the Rain', a tale of murder told from the perspective of a remnant spirit left caught in the eternal cycle of precipitation. ‘Blunt Force Trauma’ opens with guitars that sound like Cardiacs covering the theme to the old Batman TV show and lyrics that read like an episode of CSI Yorkshire. ‘The Spider’ is a good example of the ‘evil’ part of the SC6 equation, beginning with a subtle disco beat that fools the listener into believing it might be the start of an Abba track, before clanging guitars inject an art-rock dimension into the penumbral tale of ultimate revenge against a vicious schoolboy tormentor.

‘We Are the Blind’ sees the band operating over a slower building dynamic and contains some of the album’s most biting and cynical lyrics: “Welcome to the never ending intestinal tract you will come to call your vocation... those of you with a functioning brain must report to your supervisor immediately, whilst those of you with merely the vestigial remains are hereby promoted to supervisory status." ‘They Put You on a Pedestal’ ventures far too much into pop crooner territory for me personally, although other listeners may find the variation in pace and change in tone that it offers to be a welcome respite from the album’s overall intensity. ‘Twist the Knife’ is another track that doesn’t quite work, as the lyrics fall short of the overall high standard and Albini’s production makes it sound a little too generic for its own good.

‘Missing‘ and ‘The Cardinal,’ however, see the album getting back on track, with the latter featuring a highly effective subtle touch of piano that at first recalls Madness before transforming into a church organ sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a Goblin-penned Dario Argento soundtrack. The lyrics of closing track ‘The Stepford Bands’ offer a matter-of-fact glimpse of what it must be like to view the external pop world from the perspective of a fiercely independent band who have been around as long as the Scaramanga Six: "Well I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go/when they shake your hands then that’s when you know/you’ll be strangers again in a year or so... Here comes the Stepford Bands to execute their plans..."

Overall, this is another great album from a band that really deserve a much bigger audience. Scaramanga Six newcomers would be best advised to start with Phantom Head, as it represents the most immediate statement the band have made to date. Personally speaking, I think I slightly prefer their two previous albums, Cursed and Songs Of Prey, with their broader sonic palette and greater evidence of musical experimentation. With such a wealth of past material for the uninitiated to investigate, however, there is ample room for disagreement as to which is their best record. Dip in and discover for yourself.

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