New Zealand musical titans The Phoenix Foundation are releasing their 6th album, Give Up Your Dreams on August 7th. They are a band who have earned rock god status in their home country and are hoping to break it open internationally with their latest prog/indie rock release. Give Up Your Dreams is the follow up to the band’s 2013 double album Fandango which garnered them well deserved recognition in the UK.
The band was founded in 1994 by co singer guitarists Samuel Flynn Scott, Luke Buda and Conrad Wedde while they were students at Wellington High School. They later added Tim Hansen on bass, Richie Singleton on Drums and Willie Ricketts percussion. The band took their name from the fictional organization on the popular TV show MacGyver as a laugh down your sleeve joke. Their third album, Pegasus garnered them acclaim in New Zealand. With its release they toured with Neil and Tim Finn as an open act and then followed up with a theatre tour. Their 2011 album Buffalo was a grand success in New Zealand and was followed by the gigantically audacious Fandango which cued up an appearance on Jool’s Holland’s ‘Later‘ and earned them a spot at Glastonbury. Cut to recent day and the addition of Chris O Connor to replace Richie Singleton on drums. The Foundation reconvening to produce themselves at the band’s Car Club headquarters in Wellington. Flynn Scott stated, “We felt for the first time totally comfortable and confident in taking on the production duties in their entirety.”
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The band approached Give Up Your Dreams in a very free form improv fashion. Band members also got more heavily into synthesizers. For the band synthesizers are the yin to the rhythm section’s yang and have always been the bedrock of the band’s music but now they take front and center this go round. Flynn Scott stated, “We spent a great deal of time messing with an old Eventide h3000; there were very few sounds we didn’t try messing with.” In the end the turnover in the drum department lead to new line of thinking. This resulted in an almost completely absence of acoustic guitar from the repertoire, it is as if it have been locked out of the studio for all its non appearance on the album.
With the change ups in musical direction and personnel what remains is a sardonic shimmering rhythmically driven sound. The optimistic feel all but undermining the command of the title to Give Up Your Dreams. It is defiant, joyful and celebratory. The first release and kick off to the album is Mountain which has this amazing tribal overlay that makes for a hypnotic atmospheric sound. Layers of vocals and guitar make for a driving afro kraut groove. The pop filled track Bob Lennon John Dylan is a clever transposing of the names of John Lennon and Bob Dylan. The upbeat energetic tune is engaging as it tries to merge both legendary songwriters themes and styles.
Another clever track is Playing Dead which was informed by a 1950’s Time/Life essay on the people of Tierra Del Fuego in Southern Chile and their ghost rituals. It has a swirling catchy sound with the synths married to a righteous tribal beat. Catch the cool tripped out last third of the song which makes it very intriguing.
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Prawn is an ebullient tune that channels the Spilt Enz, Johnny Marr’s Smiths era guitar stylings and Ocean Blue. The guitars are front and center on this song. At this point in the album I am struck by how the album effortlessly glides along as it skims across genres and moods. The song Jason is the most personal song on the album. It examines Buda’s relationship with the mother of his children and his “Band Wife” Flynn Scott. It also reveals the story of his back problems that made him reliant on painkillers to function everyday.
The songs Celestial Bodies and Silent Orb come across as companion pieces and are no less worthy of notice. Both are synth driven with hints of jazz and R&B fueling the beat and feel of the songs. One of the deeper tracks and a favorite is Sunbed with its marimba opening and reverb vocals. It is a large expansive sonic tune with a swirling attack of keyboards supported by solid drums. The title track, Give Up Your Dreams is a full on New Order meets Neil Finn via Spoon sonic fest. The wonky guitars and vocals oscillate around as they come out of the speakers. The song cheekily begins by telling you to abandoning your dreams to take on responsibility. It is ironic and tongue in cheek as it states” Liberal education won’t mean much when your down in the mud” and questions “How does one transition from a mortal to a god?” To further pile on it follow this up with the spoken word overlay of “don’t let anyone say your special,… don’t let anyone tell you the world is your oyster, the world is not an oyster.” In actuality the song is attacking every negative thought that goes through anyone head when taking a risk, and then in the grand tradition of “Wayne’s World” shouts Not!
The final song Myth was inspired by the works of St. Isadore of Seville. Who in the 19th century attempted to gain and compile all human knowledge. It is a heavy electronic tune with a trippy hallucinogenic feel. The song switches up half way through to a trip hop beat then transitions into a trance like lullaby.
The Phoenix Foundation have certainly shaken up what they do with this release. With the change in drummers they seem to have found another rich vein of musical goodness to mine. The album is a skilled rumination on existential quandaries yet doesn’t get too esoteric as the music itself is energy filled and ebullient. It is hard to know how it will fair in today’s erratic music market, but it is a noteworthy release.