Austrian collective, Phal:Angst, don’t write songs. They create moods. For their fifth album, they aim to compose cinematic pieces for a film you will never see but might think you’ve seen. You know you’ve been here before, but was it a dream or a traumatic memory you buried long ago as a coping mechanism? Whiteout is an experiment in post-rock with progressive electronica foundations and maudlin reflections on the loneliness of human existence. It’s also a record that pushes through the one-hour mark and demands an abundance of patience.
You need to be in a calm and serene place to get the most out of the opening title track. The brooding piano bass notes and minimalist high-register keys offer the promise of a melody the way a cold spring morning holds out the hope of sunshine. Slow-picked guitar arpeggios and primitive tom drumbeats keep you in a state of unease. The unknown is your greatest nemesis here. Phal:Angst create the conditions for you to build up to a slow deterioration of your nervous system. It’s a relief when the vocals enter at the four-minute mark with a whispered rasp that requires no special talent. Why does it feel like the end goal of this song is to take you to the pre-stage anguish of post-metal? Fuzzy guitars look for melody among the effervescent angst. Layers of instrumentation merge together like blotted rainbow colours. Eight minutes feel like six.
The most notable feature of this album is the high quality of its first three tracks. ‘Severance’ is like a post-rock take on Depeche Mode’s Music for the Masses album in the key of E minor. A bubbling synth bass fills the gaps between the electronic snare and the dreamy guitars as the musicians add more layers to the mix like chefs preparing a soup. ‘Least Said, Soonest Mended’ is the one attempt to incorporate a futuristic Kraftwerk ideal of the symmetry between an educated society and the technology that provides its comforts. You’ll detect the introspection of Mogwai over the top of this minimalist synth utopia. The vocals are much more poignant here as double-tracked passages that aim to resemble the robotic austerity of the vocoder. An avalanche of melody lies in wait but remains dormant on purpose.
If this band once played a post-rock version of doom metal, they show how to move beyond it on Whiteout. It might not be for the best. ‘What Rests Mute in Blight Corners’ is a triumph of slow piano and bouncy kick beats that prefer to avoid anything that could resemble an upbeat rhythm. ‘Unhinged’ should be the crowning piece with its distorted guitars, synth basslines, and growling vocals, yet it sounds like a synthwave band scoring the music for an art-house sci-fi movie when it settles down. The eight minutes here drag like the weight of a heavy backpack. You’re unprepared for the twelve-minutes of ‘What a Time to be Alive’ because your demeanour is one of increasing agitation. Twelve minutes of M83 and Air in the doldrums of a depressive episode with only an inch of hope in their bloodstream is hard to appreciate unless you have it on as background music while doing other things.
Though it starts like a puzzle you can conquer, Whiteout ends as an impenetrable enigma. Adding on two further remixes as bonus tracks at the end is self-indulgent even if one of them is from Jarboe (Swans). Yet despite all this, there’s a musical sophistication here that’s worth your perseverance. Nothing is predictable apart from the melancholy mood, which is its best feature. Give it a listen and see if you can find the rainbow in the autumn drizzle.
Release Date: 13/01/2023
Record Label: Noise Appeal Records
Standout tracks: Whiteout; Severance; Least Said, Soonest Mended
Suggested Further Listening: Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses (1988), Retaliate of Anger – Relic (2020), Clinic – Internal Wrangler (2000)