Thursday, July 19, 2018

Phantom - 1974 - Phantom's Divine Comedy part I

Phantom's Divine Comedy part I

01. Tales From A Wizard 5:21
02. Devil's Child 2:21
03. Calm Before The Storm 3:26
04. Half A Life 4:06
05. Spiders Will Dance (On Your Face While You Sleep) 4:11
06. Black Magic / White Magic 3:18
07. Merlin 5:24
08. Stand Beside My Fire 5:31
09. Welcome To Hell 5:12

- Phantom (aka Tom Carson) - vocals, guitar, piano
- Gary Meisner - guitar
- X (aka John Bdanjeck) - drums, percussion
- Y (aka Dennis Craner) - bass
- Z (aka Mike DeMartino) – keyboards

The use of the term 'goth' will usually be associated with the Cure or Nico. Or even Dead Can Dance.

This album will do at least as well as any other in suggesting that word (whether we're talking genre definitions, or just feel). But I'm not making a bulls-eye description of this, either. On the surface, it first presents a lot of dragon/wizard/medieval imagery; backed by a somewhat familiar early Seventies progressive rock template. And one could say that there's quite a bit of early heavy metal here as well - intended or not. And the whole thing seems to want to preserve a late Sixties hard rock/psychedelic feel; like Iron Butterfly or something.

Okay, now on to the real goodies - the album's legendary (or not so) reputation as a hoax album. I have no idea what band member Tom Carson (or was it Ted Pearson?) and/or his Detroit-area bandmates (generally believed to be a band called Walpurgis) had in mind regarding reports that the album was promoted by some as a secret project by all 4 members of the post - Morrison death Doors, or at least 3 Doors and a Stooge. But this isn't Iggy (and the singer usually sounds almost nothing like Jim Morrison. Okay, there's an exception. Check out "Black Magic/White Magic" on your favorite music sharing site. Or "Calm Before the Storm." But even then it's only in the baritone portion of the vocals on the former, and what seems like a stylistic imitation on the latter. And the music does sound Doorsy; if in their post-Morrison incarnation). 

There's no way Iggy would have been disciplined, coherent and stable enough to have weathered such a professional effort as this. Ray Manzarek himself rejected Iggy as a serious work mate for that reason. Carson's vocals do sound quite similar to the Iggster's, though, in spots. 

Phantom's Divine Comedy were sort of America's Klaatu (a Canadian band reputed to be the Beatles after their break-up). In rumor and legend, that is. The band did go to Los Angeles, and even attended a 1974 Morrison tribute show at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. There are even photos showing Carson with Iggy and Ray. And the Doors did have quite a few connections to Detroit. But only a few tracks even suggest the Doors ("Tales From a Wizard" and "Calm Before the Storm"). More songs suggest that handover point between heavy prog and early heavy metal (like early Judas Priest and not so early Sabbath. And elements of Iron Maiden).

So in that sense, more people should check this out. Even if you have no belief in some Doors connection, you will feel something oddly uncanny about the album and music; if only for the startling professionalism. It's like checking out that clip of Dark Side of the Moon lined up with The Wizard of Oz. Not necessarily convincing, but amusing and entertaining in its own way. And furthermore, there are spoken word snippets between songs that have a teaser element to them. They seem fully aware of the rampant Jim-didn't die speculation.

The album seems to alternate between the wizard/prog/metal approach, and the more earthy, sentimental later Doors style. Hell, "Calm Before the Storm" does sound like a convincing projection of what the Doors might have sounded like had Jim survived until 1974. That's where any Doors-related genius may lie here - not in the form of any perfect imitation, but rather a weirdly skillful projection of a future not realized. One might have to be familiar with the 2 post-Morrison Doors albums to perceive this, though. Or at least the L.A. Woman album.

But the lyrics of the Doorsy stuff here do not approach the standard of Morrison's - even though he himself moved away from arty poetry to a simpler prose style, anyway. And Krieger wrote many of the songs.

Are you confused by this review yet? So am I. Here's an attempted recap. There seems to be multiple vocalists on this album. One does sound a lot like Morrison. And another sounds a lot like Iggy Pop. But the majority of the vocals ultimately suggest someone else entirely - and maybe more than one person there. See, this is one of the things that confuses me about all this. And then a couple of decades later another album from this mysterious incarnation comes along, but this time it's a "lost album." Like this one isn't? And that collection is even more confusing; when it comes to trying to validate when it was recorded.

I'm even open to the idea that Ray Manzarek had some tapes with Morrison singing from an obscure demo tape or something, and gave them to members of this band, or their label (Capitol Records). It's my understanding that Elektra Records took some legal action against Capitol to prevent them from releasing this. I'm still trying to get more info on this. But again - only a few songs have that Jim or Iggy sound or vibe.

Most of these songs are almost perversely good - if you can get past all the wizard references. So if this was supposed to be somebody's idea of a joke, it's a damned fine one. Just not in quite the same manner some say it was. More people seriously need to run through these songs at least once; in any context. Make of them what you will.

Anonymity aside, this is a wonderful album, superbly realised and performed. If they'd had some decent publicity at the time, I posit that they could have been, and should have been, huge. This has to be a contender for the greatest album that no-one has heard of and is nothing short of sensational.

Hearing their second album ("The Lost Album") for the very first time recently made me re-visit this début. It's impact is still immense and it never fail to amaze me as to just how good it is. Stylistically. it is a very laid back psychedelic journey, based on Arthurian legend. This was obviously an aspect admired much by, at least, the leader of the band who called himself Arthur Pendragon. He actually turns out to have been a guy called Tom Carson. 

It has excellent musicianship, especially the guitar work and the guy sure can sing, possessing a truly fabulous tone. The very best aspect are the arrangements; the band's skill at blending the right level of light and shade and the sheer sense of grandeur cannot be overstated.

When I first heard this album, in a small independent record shop in the South of England back in around 1994/5, I claimed it was the best album I'd ever heard. Superlatives come easy when you are immediately blown away and I did temper my thoughts somewhat. It still is, however, a colossus of an achievement and still ranks in my top 20 or 30 albums. Some music gives the impression that to change a single note would be disastrous - this is one such album. Amazing!

Postscript: Just to muddy the waters further, I found this in an Amazon review for the album...

"I don't wish to get into a big arguement about this, but the Phantom was a local rocker from Oxford, MI named Ted Pearson Jr. I went to school with his brothers and sister and knew Ted his whole life. Most everyone from my generation who lived in Oxford has a copy of the Capitol 45 of "Calm Before the Storm." I saw him perform several times at local venues."

So, who knows who actually made this album. It seems that people, apparently in the know, offer conflicting "truths". Ultimately, it doesn't matter one jot now. Whoever made it is either too dead or too old to contribute any more meaningful information to the legacy that is Phantom's Divine Comedy. Let's just revel in what has been left and leave it at that.

If you think you understand 1974 music, or early heavy metal, or later psychedelic rock, or the Detroit rock scene, but aren't familiar with this - you might want to rethink that.

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