Obscure musical finds can be confusing, flashing their provenance, refusing to submit to easy categorization. Phantom Payn Daze is no exception. There’s certainly a hint of mystery about it, with sounds reminiscent of a latter day krautrock album that was actually recorded throughout the 90s. Its release was delayed by a decade, and it seems to have gestated very slowly over the years, like a long running Jenga tower constructed over many days (daze?) in a student flat. Just like this teetering monument to idleness, you can hear in it the sound of hands returning to work then abandoning the project over and over again throughout slow, painful, wasted eras. De Stijl records finally released Phantom Payn Daze last year, and happily it answers to their definition of the ideal indie antique: a fine example of ‘basement arcana’ as they call it.
Although ex-39 Clocks member Juergen Gleue was a typical obscurantist art rocker in his day, there is more to Phantom Payn Daze than its rarity, there is what happens in the silence of its obscurity, the tangible outcome of steering a course away from the mainstream. De Stijl released a promo video for “Paradox Box”, which appropriately sums up the value of lost musical artifacts in terms of their mysteriously acquired patina. The process of making Phantom Payn Daze seems almost built into the fabric of the album itself: the lyrics suggest days of weak sunshine and jam sessions that coalesce into complex songs built on simple riffs, over time becoming lo-fi enigmas – “Afternoon Non Happenings.” On “Paradox Box”, Juergen Gleue starts out by saying that “there’s nothing extraordinary about this ancient box” but the ancient box turns out to have mysterious powers. Strange tales often begin with the discovery of seemingly ordinary objects, but even so, Gleue’s delivery is so dry and diffidently cool that by taking the ancient magical box for granted you feel like warning him, as with the idiot in the horror film, not to take this box for granted. It’s an ancient box for fxsake, of course it’s extraordinary!
But just because something is ancient is it necessarily a special find? Archaeologists spend most of their time painfully unearthing junk that just happens to be 2000 years old. Likewise, the discovery of “lost” albums is often celebrated for its own sake. However, what Juergen Gleue deems special about his “Paradox Box” is not that it is ancient, but that it “weaves a pattern once it gets unlocked.” And this, as it happens, is what makes Phantom Payn Daze an interesting find. Simple themes are interwoven throughout the album – mostly played on keyboards without percussion. These mantras lyrically emphasize romantic stoner apathy (“sitting in a waiting room ‘til the world ends”) and musically show how simple themes can breed complexity if you overlay them. The structure in “Paradox Box” is regular and even monotonous, but the layers of baritone blues guitar, watery bongos and atmospheric keyboard effects are so effective at weaving an aftermath in memory that the jam spins itself into infinity. We get a sense that by meandering through the creative process over a series of unremarkable days, you might stumble upon a hypnotic theme and get stuck in the elaboration of it.
To hammer home the comparison once and for all, “Paradox Box” is like a little microcosm of the Phantom Payn Daze album itself. I can go even further and point out some fun associations between Phantom Payn Days’ precursor 39 Clocks and the Deist idea of watches abandoned by watchmakers: machines that appear to have been lying around for a long time, that show evidence of intricate design, but are otherwise nothing but abandoned, mechanical objects. The 39 Clocks were rumored to have behaved unpredictably at shows, mocking the shifty self conscious attitudes of their contemporaries on songs like the Payn Days’ “Art is Dead”, so it is hard to know how seriously Juergen Gleue took this whole art-rock thing anyway.
Whatever was intended, this album is like the missing link between the Velvet Underground, Suicide, and our own lo-fi keyboard aficionados of today. It’s almost as if we’re witnessing a slower, alternative modification of musical history, where the original painstaking way of making ‘lossless’ experimental rock music without guitars has evolved into a new approach to percussion and harmony by default – bypassing cheesiness and funkiness and danceability and all these venalities of mood. Because many musicians have now ‘updated’ their sound by hauling up a keyboard from the basement, Phantom Payn Days’ choice of instrumentation isn’t remarkable anymore, but what stands out is the intricate way in which the resonance of harmonies propel repetitive riffs into convoluted, clockwork resolutions. This is not just a way of creating a reverb’d, electric guitar effect without the benefit of strings, though it may have started out that way. “Resonance 21” in particular illustrates that these experiments with harmony are fresh: it sounds like psych film music, with mariachis clicking atmospherically like insects on a summer night behind a wall of keyboard chords submerged in shifting harmony.
Phantom Payn Days may be absent (or absent-minded) creators — like the German art-rock version of Dawkins’ blind watchmaker (the watchmaker who wears his sunglasses after dark), but Phantom Payn Daze seems to bear the mark of all those long days creating, detouring, jamming, and recording. In other words it isn’t just an antique curiosity; it is marked by the actual processes that went into it. Since the band finished making the album, Juergen Gleue has abandoned music altogether for comic books. But regardless of what its creators are turning their hands to these days, the album still ticks away according to its own bizarre internal logic. It depends on your point of view whether that functioning holds any interest for you. Curiosity does play a part, but you may find yourself uninterested in the absent creators, or obsessed with the mystery of how this artifact came to be. Either way, it’s a well constructed thing you’re going to find, and you better watch out in case you find yourself humming some distinctly radio unfriendly tunes for days (daze).