In the past few months, the members of the Phoenix Foundation have become cultural ambassadors of sorts. After an entirely self-financed United States tour, they captured the attention of both executives of the fledgling label Young American Recordings and government officials in their home country, New Zealand. Believing that the Phoenix Foundation could spread New Zealand’s culture overseas, the government agreed to support the band’s future travels. With the upcoming American release of their first album, Horsepower, the Phoenix Foundation is preparing to share the music of its homeland with the world. All of this hoopla begs a simple question. Just what exactly does the music of New Zealand sound like?
As it turns out, the music of the Phoenix Foundation isn’t radically different from that of its British and American counterparts. Record stores will probably file the band’s album in the rock section, but that classification certainly has nothing to do with the intensity of the band’s sound. Aside from “Going Fishing” and “Bruiser (Miami 4000)”, which features distorted, computerized vocals, none of the tracks on Horsepower are really rock songs. Normally, the vocals sound something like a cross between Chris Martin and Gruff Rhys. The songs are clean and ethereal rather than straightforward and muscular, and the mix is washed in delicate keyboard sounds. The Phoenix Foundation is a guitar band, but the guitarists use their acoustic and electric instruments in unique ways. Echo is a more common effect than distortion, and slide playing gives some of the guitar work bluesy and country flavors.
One of the Phoenix Foundation’s greatest strengths is a mastery of sonic nuance. The arrangements are rich and colorful, but the texture never feels too thick. Most tracks feature understated vocal harmonies, multiple guitars, organs, drumbeats, and piano, but the different parts never interfere with each other. Listeners will quickly be swept into the music’s soothing overall effect, and many will probably be unaware of the instrumental complexity. Another refreshing aspect of the Phoenix Foundation’s approach is their ability to write music that is both progressive and ambient without being overwhelmed by electronics. Beats and effects appear infrequently, and they add color without detracting from the organic feel of the album.
The Phoenix Foundation’s ambiguous lyrics complement the band’s subtle, understated instrumental approach. The album opens with “Sister Risk”, in which a background of gently bouncing bass, echoing keyboards, and wah-wah guitar supports the evocative line, “You split the light in two”. The next song, “Let Me Die a Woman”, contrasts cryptic verse lyrics about a king and his subjects with a chorus about physical unity. In “Going Fishing”, the line, “I’m done with all this thinking”, fades into a wall of throbbing, distorted guitar and bass.
Horsepower isn’t a perfect record. While fans of mellow, atmospheric rock will find the album delightful, others will simply find it dull. The Phoenix Foundation is focused on the slower side of life, and even fans will not find it suitable for every occasion. Horsepower is the perfect accompaniment for a quiet evening or pensive meditation, but it isn’t the type of album most people would want to hear over and over in a single setting. Ironically, multiple spins are essential for a full appreciation of the album since much of the music’s complexity escapes an initial listen.
The Phoenix Foundation might be breaking onto the American music scene, but they are unlikely to infiltrate the mainstream. This is somewhat ironic, considering the group sounds like a number of popular acts. They fall somewhere on the musical spectrum between Coldplay and Sigur Ros, and one can even hear echoes of groups like Pink Floyd in some of their instrumental work. Overall, though, the group is just too subdued for an average pop listener, but anyone else should find the Phoenix Foundation’s music to be rewarding. In a rock market saturated with high-octane releases, Horsepower is a welcome change of pace.