We had an interesting discussion come up in our group chat the other day, specifically concerning vocals. Not only do I have no problem with a language barrier between myself and the lyrics of a song, often times I prefer it. I don’t tend to get too hung up on lyrics and phrases, with some notable exceptions. I’m more of a sucker for a good melody, and if the vocal melody is solid, I can listen to someone sing about just about anything (within reason, of course). Enter, then, Ploho and the Siberian trio’s new post-punk opus Phantom Feelings.
Ploho hail from the icy north of Novosibersk, Siberia, Russia, and while they are relative newcomers on the post-punk/synthpop scene, they’ve managed to put away four albums and several EPs, which have made them something of a household name in their native country, as well as across Europe. In fact, they’ve been labeled as frontrunners in the “New Wave of Russian Music” category, alongside friends and collaborators Molchat Doma. They’ve also been featured in a great article on, what else but, post-punk.com, where they describe how growing up in high political and socioeconomic tensions ultimately led them to music, and how latching onto the retro 80’s sound that defines them is allowing them to make a name for themselves. Obviously, a lot of their influences come from other Russian bands of their time and before, partly because of convenience and partly because the Russian synthpop scene really is an untapped gold mine here in the West, so even though bands like Kino aren’t super ingrained in the Western canon, their quality holds up with other prominent influences on Ploho like Joy Division and Bauhaus. Ultimately, their style of music takes its cues from their homeland: cold, wistful, maybe a little melancholic, but ultimately full of life and vibrancy. The trio of Victor Uzhakov (vocals/guitar), Andrei Smorgonsky (bass) and Igor Starshinov (synths) weave together retro synths and programmed drums, upbeat, driving basslines and highly melodic, delicate guitar lines, all capped off with Uzhakov’s trademark deep, droning vocal style. It’s a formula that truly captivates, even if I can’t understand a word of what they’re saying: you understand everything you need to by simply listening to how the vocals blend in and play a part in the whole composition.
Despite the fact that a lot of bands are gravitating towards a retro style as a gimmick, there’s a real sense of honesty to what Ploho do on Phantom Feelings. First and foremost, the band just write great songs, ripe with infectious melodies, hooks with barbs that will stick in your brain for days, groovy basslines and beats that are insanely hard to resist. It goes beyond merely aping a style, these songs get to the heart of what makes people fall in love with that style of music in the first place. It’s light, poppy, upbeat, and highly melodic. There’s a really great balance of energy in the overall track order as well, with bursts of energy being spaced out by more contemplative, lighter tracks. It’s in these moments of quiet that Phantom Feelings really shines though. Opener “Between Us” features the typical high energy claps and synth hooks, and “Forgive Me” drives forward with a bassline that could plow a hole in a concrete wall, but tracks like “Kind People” and “Dancing in the Dark” showcase just how great at writing melodies the band is, taking on an almost indie rock vibe that reminds me a touch of emo revival bands like Turnover. Closer “A Song of Windows and Walls” might be my favorite track on the album because it showcases just how smartly everything from acoustic guitars and synths blend with funky bass and simple vocal melodies. Ultimately, the triumph of Phantom Feelings is just how well every part blends together and works off of every other one, and how effective pop songs can be when they are kept simple.
I can honestly say that since I first picked up Phantom Feelings there has been little time that I have put it down. It is that ingrained in my system, and truthfully it has been since that first time. There is so much in these songs that immediately catches you and holds on, that it is impossible to ignore it. I can’t remember the last time I vibed this hard with a synthpop record that wasn’t one I participated in the making of, regardless of the fact that I have no idea what they are singing about. This is a record that will speak to your soul, beyond the need for language.