Litany Reviews: Phil Western's Dark Features - by Corey Goldberg
Phil Western (a.k.a. Philth) has proven himself to be an integral part of virtually all SubConscious Communications releases since the label's inception. Phil was a good friend and partner of Dwayne Goettel and together they shared the debut SubConscious 12". Soon after, Phil became a founding member of Download and has appeared on all of the band's subsequent releases. He has also participated in other SubCon projects including platEAU and cEvin Key's "Music For Cats" and has released one solo album, "The Escapist". He has also worked on projects, both solo and with other collaborators, under such names as Off and Gone, Floatpoint, and just plain Philth. This new record, "Dark Features", is a collaborative effort with Tim Hill, who co-produced "The Escapist" and has also appeared on some SubCon releases including platEAU's "Space Cake". Tim was also responsible for the films which provided the visual aspect of Download's now-legendary 1996 tour.
Much of Phil's previous work can be (rightly or not) tagged with that elusive yet loaded label known as 'techno'. His contributions to the SubCon compilations illustrated a taste for a programming-driven techno style not unlike Dwayne's solo work. On "Dark Features", however, Phil surprises with a vastly wide palette of styles, weaving progressive rock, ambient, dub, acoustic singer-songwriter, ethnic/world, and 'experimental' sound collage styles into a diverse, yet unified, tapestry.
Personally, I am not a big fan of 'techno' music in general. I think that the style has led to a proliferation of music which is largely homogenous and unimaginative and which owes more to the gear itself than the people who play it. Of course, the work of Dwayne and Phil is usually an exception, but overall the genre is just not my cup of tea. "Dark Features", however, challenges and surpasses those cliched limitations to create something above and beyond the techno norm. In this respect, it is a progressive record in the truest sense of the word. This is not a techno album. With authentic drum kits, guitars, and basses forming the foundation, much of the record has a thoroughly rock atmosphere that couldn't be considered techno in even the broadest sense. Furthermore, the techno-styled material on the album is of a far superior grade than you're likely to hear on your typical electronic compilation. The tracks on "Dark Features" are actual songs, not merely glorified loops extended to fill six minutes of mindless dancing.
This is one of those records that, just when you think it can't get any better, the next track comes on and, gosh darnit, it does. It journeys into a number of unexpected areas and there are simply too many great moments for a mere summary, so I've decided to give my impressions of the whole thing (if you're wary of spoilers skip to the end).
"Colourspeaks" opens the record with one of the more techno-styled tracks. This track is a gorgeous, densely programmed yet bright work that is uniquely uplifting. It's impossible to listen to "Colourspeaks" and feel depressed. This song is an example of true electronic artistry; not something that anyone who has a shareware copy of Rebirth can squat out with a mouse click.
"Fight No More" immediately changes the pace with a dub-like bass line joined by rock guitar chords and an amalgam of electronic and acoustic drums. Phil's vocals complement the groove nicely and various processed sounds float in and out of the mix.
"He Never Showed Up" integrates some rather funny samples into the track. The music carefully punctuates the dialogue (a la Doubting Thomas) giving the song a defined structure and form.
The spoken lyrics of "Dirty" chronicle the experience of an obsessive-compulsive over the song's rock-style riff (which actually has a chord change, something your average techno artist wouldn't know if it bit him in his ultra-hip arse). Capping it off is a lush synthscape.
"The Imploded Man" features a deliciously groovy bass-line and both electronic and acoustic percussion. With some of its almost cartoonish sounds, the track evokes the sense of humor of some Download and aDuck material.
One of my personal favorite tracks is "Chaos / What Are We Gonna Do?", a sound collage not unlike early Skinny Puppy tracks like "Unovis on a Stick" and "Meat Flavor" or some of Jim 'Foetus' Thirlwell's instrumental work. Various chunks and loops of dialogue, music, and sound effects play off of each other cinematically, building to a noisy, yet textured, climax.
"Seeing But Not Seen" offers a more improvised-sounding techno track that would've felt quite at home on Download's "Effector".
The excellent "Bring That Home, Buffalo" is based upon the unlikely instrumental choice of the banjo, surrounded by dramatic, art-rockish guitars and poignant synths. Sampled singing (again recalling Doubting Thomas) adds another emotional dimension to the track.
"Embryo" begins with lush, eastern-flavored ambience that shifts to a slow, ominous rock vamp cushioning some wonderful guitar work by guest Ben Sherazi. The track closes by bringing us to an even higher plane of atmospheric synths. This song is one of the album's highlights.
"Be the Fool" holds the biggest surprises; the folk-rock troubadour styled track is based entirely on acoustic guitar and Phil's subdued vocal delivery. Yep, Phil sings! In fact, vocal textures permeate the entire record, lending even the more electronic tracks an organically based sound. This feature is one of the album's strengths and it's no surprise that "Be the Fool" is a superb track.
"Duke" begins with march-like percussion that gloriously opens upon a glowing melody. It paints in sound the image of dark clouds parting after a storm, letting the sun warm the moist ground below.
Continuing the bright vibe, "DMT" offers an addictive, uppity alterna-rock groove. It's another infectiously positive track that, in a mutant universe, would be one of those summer hit songs.
Finally, "The Machine Elves" closes the album with a nervous, processed soundscape set amidst dissonance.
This eclectic record is for anyone disappointed with the narrow-mindedness of most new music. Anyone who enjoyed the sonic wizardry of Download's "Effector" or the tongue-in-cheek genre straddling of ohGr's "Welt" should check this album out immediately. With its fusion of progressive-rock and electronic music, it will also likely appeal to fans of The Tear Garden/Legendary Pink Dots, Radiohead, and Twilight Circus. Whether you're an established Download fan or have never heard anything of Phil's before, "Dark Features" has a great deal to offer, proving that Phil and Tim are capable of a coherent, satisfying, and original work. They have created a subtle and varied album that is not to be missed.