Album: Super Furry Animals

Phantom Power, Sony
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The Independent Culture

The title Phantom Power wields an ambiguity perfectly appropriate to the Super Furries' attitude. It represents both the mysterious synergy operating within the band itself, and the hidden external forces - usually political - imposed upon our lives. No matter how grim and dismal a situation may be, it's invariably presented with a winsome charm and good humour - as if bad energies could be neutralised by good intentions, and dark powers earthed by transcendent beauty, both qualities in plentiful supply here.

The title Phantom Power wields an ambiguity perfectly appropriate to the Super Furries' attitude. It represents both the mysterious synergy operating within the band itself, and the hidden external forces - usually political - imposed upon our lives. No matter how grim and dismal a situation may be, it's invariably presented with a winsome charm and good humour - as if bad energies could be neutralised by good intentions, and dark powers earthed by transcendent beauty, both qualities in plentiful supply here.

The formula is set out in the opener "Hello Sunshine", which, after a looped sample of folk singers Wendy and Bonnie, slips into a relaxed SFA welcome, with Gruff Rhys admitting: "In honesty, it's been a while/ Since we had reason left to smile". It's immediately obvious that things are on a smaller, more homely scale than the epic Rings Around The World.

There is a hangover, however, from Rings's theme of rampant media saturation, in tracks such as "Out Of Control" and "The Piccolo Snare", whose lyrics seem not so much torn from tomorrow's headlines as cut up from yesterday's news bulletins. The latter's mellifluous anti-war message employs plenty of military terminology - loaded phrases like "exclusion zone" - sung in silky multi-part harmonies, while the former nails its pacifist colours to the mast with terse, epigrammatic lines like "Holy wars/ Phantom power/ Phantom lies/ On the hour". Elsewhere, radiation poisoning - the sinister flipside of another "phantom power" - is confronted with sleek harmonies and curling pedal steel guitar in "Bleed Forever", while the pre-revolutionary Russian tale "Cityscape Skybaby" develops along prog-techno lines quite effectively, particularly given the unpromising opening line "She came in smelling of cabbages".

As you'd expect, there's no shortage of whimsy, with robots being programmed to lie in "Sex, War & Robots", a child confiding in her pet tortoises in "Venus & Serena", and the allegorical tale of "Liberty Belle". "Golden Retriever", meanwhile, is a galumphing blues boogie of a specifically British cast, with the devil encountered not down at the crossroads but round about the roundabout.

Though nowhere near as flamboyantly diverse as Rings Around The World, there's plenty of musical variety on Phantom Power, with steel pans, flugelhorn and strings employed judiciously, and tracks variously recalling the Velvets' third album, Pet Sounds (of course), Neu!, The Association, and even Röyksopp. Indeed, it's hard to think of another band working today whose albums offer the sheer breadth and invention we've come to take for granted with the Super Furry Animals, qualities displayed here with their usual whimsical panache.

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