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all words: Paula Mejia
all photos: Nick Balleza

I can safely say that I have been to few shows that have made me question reality. Yet Phantogram’s breathtaking show this past Wednesday at Black Cat made me do just that.

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Without previously listening to the opener Exitmusic (save for my imagination immediately associating them with the hauntingly beautiful Radiohead song of the same name from OK Computer), I found myself stunned with their entire aesthetic upon walking into the packed upstairs at Black Cat.

I can see why Exitmusic is paired with Phantogram for this tour. The two acts exhibit the same sensitivity with carefully layered beats. With the difference that Exitmusic doesn’t immediately start out their songs with an infectious one.

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Instead, they build beats into methodical crescendos, crashing noise rock rising with the majestic and swelling buildups nostalgic of post-rock favorites Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky. Guided by the haunting vocals of newcomer Aleksa Palladino, a brooding but mysterious darker force drives the band’s sound. Heavy on both reverb and Palladino’s supernatural vocals, they bear the remnants of a solid Portishead influence. And the inevitable Radiohead, of course.

Consensus? Keep an eye out for this band- their nightmarishly good sound won’t be kept contained much longer.

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Lights flashed, violet and aqua. The crew tested the drum set, the kick drum illuminating into a spectrum of colors ranging from red to blue to green. All while contrasting the ethereal white hands adorning the set. Smoke filled the stage. It was all a tease before the band finally came out to a voracious crowd, hungry for beats.

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The stage faded to black. With only guitarist Josh Carter’s silhouette visible from the contrast of violet lights emanating from the back of the stage, the band began the set with the lush wail of shoegaze guitars. Suddenly, the beats exploded outward, propelled by Sarah Barthel’s dainty hands on the synthesizers.

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Phantogram sounds exactly like their name, an optical illusion. Materializing before you for a long second, enough to question how something that strangely beautiful exists. Then dissipating like thick smoke into the night air, just when you think you’ve just begun to figure them out.

The sound comes due in large part to Barthel’s vocals. A mess of choppy black hair covering her face, Barthel crooned to an invisible entity with a clear voice and an impressive range of sounds. I think I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I fell under the spell of her ghostly whispers and breathy voice, growling seductively into the microphone. I probably would have done just about anything she asked me to right then and there.

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Much to the crowd’s pleasure, the band melded together nearly every track from their debut Eyelid Movies along with the slightly more upbeat and Beach House-esque EP Nightlife that dropped this past month. I was curious to see how their sound would translate from the record to the live show. Songs such as “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small,” singles from their debut were unmistakably similar.

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Yet it was “Running From the Cops,” a personal favorite of mine – the beat in this song will just not quit – where the band was at their peak. Phantogram is at their best when they maintain the unity of the record while improvising with jangling shoegaze and psychedelic jams a la Stardeath and White Dwarfs (Wayne Coyne’s nephew’s band, collaborating with The Flaming Lips to cover The Dark Side of the Moon back in 2009).

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To my slight disappointment, their touring drummer turned out more methodical than I expected, more so than most I’ve seen paired with electronic bands (namely RJD2‘s incredible Chuck Palmer and Tobacco’s enigmatic unnamed drummer touring with them). While still awesome, a drummer that melds both the technical with the experimental can make or break an electronic show, bringing out elements otherwise unseen. But maybe that’s just a personal preference.

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But hands down, the unpredictable light show was one of the most exciting and visually spectacular parts of the show. From strobe lights pulsating back into your retina to colors shifting like fleeting images on a film reel, much like the aesthetic they produce,

Phantogram makes you unsure of what’s there and what’s imagined. And that’s a really, really good thing.

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