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PHIDEAUX

Phideaux is the musical project of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Phideaux Xavier, drummer Rich Hutchins, and a revolving and often extensive cast of supporting musicians. They have seven albums out on their own label Bloodfish, the only one I don't have being the 2003 debut Fiendish. The albums I do have all come with impressive, detailed, professional looking packaging to rival that of much bigger labels, with artwork that reveals a love of surrealism and quirky humour.

Musically, Phideaux have been described as psychedelic, progressive, or art-rock, none of which I would argue with. They also add influences from glam, post-punk and folk-rock, amongst other styles. Anyone put off by the prog/art-rock categorisation, expecting pomposity or wackiness, should not be dissuaded from giving this band a listen. They are progressive and arty in the true sense, not merely an excuse for self-indulgence.

Their second album, Ghost Story, features on its cover a cross-section of a human head labelled with such tags as 'lobotomy site', 'faceus liftus flap', 'weird bump' and 'tiphareth manifestation nucleus'. The music here is really exciting stuff, melodic and often upbeat songs with a predominantly 70s rock feel. Bits of psych, goth, prog, glam, spacerock, folk-rock and modern alt-rock are all thrown in to add extra variety. The music has a strong sense of creativity but is also very accessible. The band have attracted comparisons to Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and David Bowie, and I can see why (eg Kiteman has a similar feel to Songs from the Wood-era Jethro Tull), but no way is this stuff a straight ripoff of them or any other bands/artists from the past. Every track on this album is an absolute winner, and I would go as far as to recommend it to not just anyone who digs prog, psych and other forms of 70s rock, but anyone who appreciates music of any sort. It really is that great.

Chupacabras is an "oddities and curiosities" album, comprising material that didn't fit in on their previous albums, but you wouldn't know that if the sleeve notes didn't say so. It has the feel of a cohesive, complete album. The title track follows a format typically associated with prog, an elongated number over 20 minutes long, comprising 7 parts. The songs that make up this track are lavish, sophisticated melodic rock, less upbeat than most of the material on Ghost Story. There are classical touches here and there, synthesised (but realistic sounding) sitar, spacey synth, a few quite bombastic moments (but they don't go overboard with the bombast like a lot of the big name 70s prog bands), and an unexpected instrumental section successfully blending country, Peruvian, classical and Middle Eastern music.

Party is an effective synthesis of prog, folk-rock, gothic rock, psych and early 80s-ish synthpop. The folk-influenced section of this track recalls Legend, a band who put out three excellent prog-folk-rock albums back in the 90s, and maybe also a touch of Steeleye Span. The main influence on this track however seems to be New Romantic music. A somewhat bizarre mixture of styles, but one that works. Fortress of Sand is a predominantly instrumental piece combining old-school melancholic indiepop, shoegaze, maybe a touch of goth, with heavier prog rock elements. Ruffian on the Stairs introduces some fierce, frenetic metal, while Sunburnt is an intelligent and emotional alt-rock piece with some psychedelic touches. Titan is a song that dates from the time of Phideaux and Rich's previous band Satyricon. This is sophisticated, laid-back contemporary rock with quite a dark atmosphere.

Next up was the album 313, which has superb colourful, surreal, psychedelic cartoon artwork by Margie Schnibbe. The title is pronounced Three Thirteen, not Three One Three, and I would guess that its significance is that this is Phideaux's 3rd 'proper' album (not including Chupacabras) and contains 13 tracks. Railyard combines a Jethro Tull-like melody with piano and bleepy spacey synth. Have You Hugged Your Robot? is an upbeat, tuneful song, essentially powerpop, but also making use of spacey synth bleepery and vocoder. A Storm of Cats is prog-folk-rock, along the lines of the more folky side of Jethro Tull as heard on Songs from the Wood or Heavy Horses, or a prog version of Steeleye Span. In Search of Bitter Ore is prog rock with dark gothic undercurrents. Body to Space returns to the musical and lyrical themes previously explored in A Storm of Cats and Railyard, but incorporating a variety of sounds and moods, including an ethereal and quite experimental section with echoey choral vocals played backwards, and a section that blends folk and spacerock. Watching Machine is upbeat psych-rock with occasional similarities to The Bevis Frond. Run Singing Tiger is a psych-folk-rock song with imaginative, surreal lyrics that have a certain childlike innocence about them. Benediction is laid-back, atmospheric and slightly eerie psych-folk.

This is another superb album from Phideaux. Whilst the main influences here seem to be prog and folk, with a dash of psych and spacerock, the overall feel of the album soars above any narrow confines of genre and has the potential to appeal to people who don't normally consider themselves fans of any of those styles, as the music is so strong, catchy and well crafted.

The next album was The Great Leap, featuring striking surrealist cover art by Molly Ruttan, who also appears as vocalist on selected tracks on this and other Phideaux albums. Wake Up blurs the boundaries between alt-rock, classic rock, glam, powerpop and psych. You and Me Against a World of Pain is basically alternative rock with tinges of psych, having rather a dark mood. It incorporates some effective use of synth arpeggios, cello and brass. The Waiting is simultaneously retro and forward-looking, a strongly melodic pop song with some rockier moments. Abducted seamlessly blends goth and psych and even throws in some honking geese sounds! Rainboy brings together cheery Beach Boys-style ba-ba-bas, sombre and subdued psych-pop, prog bombast and heavy rock guitar soloing. One Star combines punky powerpop with prog and psych touches. Last is a poignant, melancholic number in which the voice and acoustic guitar are augmented by stark synth, Fender Rhodes and military-style drumming.

Although Phideaux combine an astonishing variety of genres on this and their other albums, they do not do so in a way that sounds like a deliberate attempt to sound More Arty Than Thou. The music comes together completely naturally; the songs flow rather than coming across like a consciously contrived hotchpotch. Essentially, the music transcends genre rather than sounding like a conscious effort to combine genres. As with all Phideaux's music, the songs may sound strange when described in writing, but in reality are actually very accessible, and have the likelihood of appealing to people who don't generally listen to prog or psych.

"Is this phase two of The Great Leap?" asks the cover of the next album Doomsday Afternoon. Certainly the artwork continues in the same vein, being more of Molly Ruttan's thought provoking surrealism. On the front cover, laughing and grimacing faces and a demonic horned fox stare out of a blood-red cloverleaf, just as similarly gargoyle-like figures were seen emerging from a four leaf clover on the cover of The Great Leap. Doomsday Afternoon is a concept album combining themes of environmental destruction and the controlling nature of organised religion. The songs, and the artwork that illustrates them, contain multiple layers of metaphor. Molly Ruttan's illustration for the song Thank You For The Evil shows a post-apocalyptic Eve plucking a radioactive apple from a barbed wire-surrounded Tree of Knowledge, whilst a near skeletal Adam gazes transfixed into a huge television. Elsewhere, the wily fox-demon reveals himself to be a Christian cleric.

The album features a variety of guest musicians, including Martin Orford of IQ, Mathew Kennedy of Eyestrings, Matthew Parmenter, and a 15 piece orchestra. Micro Softdeathstar is a classical-tinged prog track of epic proportions. The Doctrine of Eternal Ice (Part One) is a very fine instrumental combining classical, prog, spacerock, Middle Eastern and Renaissance music. Some of the musical motifs from this return in The Doctrine of Eternal Ice (Part Two), an extravagant prog song with effective use of Rhodes piano, spacey retro synth and synthesised harpsichord. A Wasteland of Memories is a hugely sophisticated classical-inspired piece. Formaldehyde combines prog, folk and the richly embellished nature of classical music.

This is in many ways a more characteristically prog album than most of its predecessors. It captures the essence of prog in its use of the concept album idea, the addition of an orchestra, and the epic, luxurious, ambitious, sophisticated nature of the music. There is a very high level of sophistication and seriousness here, but unlike some of the more famous 70s prog bands, this never strays into being excessively over the top, self indulgent or stereotypical. They also avoid that deliberately contrived, 'trying too hard to be arty' feeling that sometimes comes across in prog and art rock. Albums like Ghost Story and 313 incorporated influences from other styles, that meant those albums had the potential to appeal to a wider audience than just the prog crowd. Doomsday Afternoon is much more of a niche market album, but for anyone interested in that particular niche, namely prog rock, this album simply cannot be missed.

The latest album, Number Seven, is another concept album, this time using the metaphor of an escaping dormouse to illustrate the importance of religious and political free thought. The themes of controlling religious dogma and complete environmental destruction, as explored on Doomsday Afternoon, are continued here. Number Seven shares the extravagant outlook of the preceding album, and whilst there is no orchestra here, there are touches of violin, piano, synthesised flute and synthesised harpsichord, providing classical and baroque elements that add to the sophisticated mood. Occasional hints of jazz also appear courtesy of saxophonist Johnny Unicorn. Sometimes the jazz influence is more overt, as in Gift of the Flame, an ornate mixture of heavy prog rock, jazz and folk. The nursery rhyme-like Interview with a Dormouse is followed by the huge, bombastic instrumental Thermonuclear Cheese, and the very fine laid-back prog-folk-rock of The Search for Terrestrial Life. Love Theme from Number Seven is an extended, multifaceted prog instrumental.

This is a full-on theatrical prog album, as opposed to the more accessible face of prog as heard on their earlier albums. As with Doomsday Afternoon, Number Seven cannot be ignored by serious followers of progressive rock. A follow-up to this album, entitled 7 1/2, is due for imminent release. For more information on Phideaux, visit www.bloodfish.com

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Text Kim Harten, 2010.