Phantasiai is an album that sets out to answer the age-old question that I physically cannot stop tumbling out of my accursed brain anytime anyone utters the phrase “I’m dying”: “Is it blissful?” Well, according to multi-instrumental wizard Leila Abdul-Rauf, while it might be like a dream, the answer is a resounding “NO.” The album is a high-minded journey through ancient philosophy, existentialism, performance art, and much more all wrapped up in dark textures and eerie beauty that showcase her immense talent at a wide variety of musical fields. Just be careful of how deep you go.
While Leila Abdul-Rauf might best be known as a member of illustrious bands like Vastum, Ionophore, Cardinal Wyrm and more, Phantasiai is hardly her first venture into solo composition and performance (it’s her fourth, in case you were wondering). For Abdul-Rauf, this album marks what she considers to be her “coldest and most sinister” album yet, and also one that touches deeply into emotional and philosophical territory. “In Hellenistic philosophy, phantasiai are our impressions, the ways in which the world is represented through our senses, preceding actual thoughts. This is where music-making lies for me: in the space between senses and thoughts, having the power to express where words fall short,” says Abdul-Rauf of the writing process. While Abdul-Rauf encourages listeners to create their own story and meaning from Phantasiai, the album, which is divided into two suites of four movements each, has a loose concept of a character being consumed by an addiction so powerful it completely obliterates not only their body, but also their mind and soul. In act two, the self is renewed into a new being, which might sound like a happy ending except for the discomfort and disorientation of becoming something fundamentally different than one was before. Ultimately, this is a story about the nature of reality, and in the end there are more questions than answers provided.
Abdul-Rauf is a consummate multi-instrumentalist, but on Phantasiai, the instrumentation primarily consists of glockenspiel and trumpet, with vocals coming and going and a scant smattering of anything else. How, then, does something so sparse have the ability to be so compelling? Well, it certainly has to do with the combination of Abdul-Rauf’s skilled compositional skills coupled with her technical prowess, but I think the real secret weapon on Phantasiai is the production, which is also supplied by Abdul-Rauf. The deep, reverberating tones of the glockenspiel seem to fill the whole space with only a few notes, and there is a real dream-like sense to the way each and every note crashes and pulls away like a wave cresting on a beach. Everything feels far off and blurry around the edges, much like an impression on a canvas or the space between sensory input and concrete thought. For as high-minded as this concept is, the way the compositions are put together absolutely nails it in terms of execution. Phantasiai is equal parts ethereal beauty and ominous dread. I often describe albums as being “moody” or “atmospheric,” but I think Phantasiai goes beyond mood; it touches on something much deeper in the psyche than that, and ultimately this shows just how well done of an album it is. It’s something that is experienced more than it is listened to.
Phantasiai is another in a great list of albums this year that show music can be just as high-minded of art as anything. It might be a little hard to get at first, but there is something deeply compelling about diving into a work this rich and, dare I say, cinematic. It’s worth your time to invest in this one, and invest in the best possible quality you can. There’s a lot to discover when you look inward.