At its best, Cologne's Phantom Band offered a sense of what Can might have sounded like had the group pursued its original vision into the 1980s.
Not to be confused with the current Scottish band of the same name, the Phantom Band was a German group formed by ex-Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit in 1980. The band released three albums, the first two of which have now been reissued by Bureau B. Both albums provide examples of the strengths and weaknesses of late Can, with the second album, 1981's Freedom of Speech, standing up very well indeed. Accompanying Liebezeit on both albums are percussionist Olek Gelba, keyboard player Helmut Zerlett, and guitarist Dominik Von Senger. Vocals and bass are handled by Rosko Gee on the first album, while the second eschews bass and replaces Gee's soft rock croon with the spoken-word vocalizations of Sheldon Ancel.
Gee, a former bassist for Traffic, had played on Can's final three studio albums, Saw Delight, Out of Reach, and Can (later retitled Inner Space). His contributions as a bassist were noteworthy and showed that the band, while perhaps no longer a leader in the musical field, was at least able to adapt to contemporary styles in a competent manner. Gee's songwriting and vocal contributions, however, were less successful, leading the group into MOR territory and alienating many of its remaining fans. The same mixture can be found on Phantom Band, which contains three tracks written or co-written by Gee. The first of these, "You Inspired Me", fades in on a seductive bed of bass and percussion, but almost immediately breaks the spell with the introduction of Gee's bland vocal and equally bland lyric.
"I'm the One", a Von Senger/Gee co-write, is better, mainly due to the lack of vocals for most of the track. Again, the bass is solid and Von Senger's guitar lines, alternating between new wave spikiness and histrionic yearning, are ably complemented by Zerlett's keyboards. The first four minutes, while not earth shattering, are at least a reminder of much of what was good about the post-punk sound upon which Can, as much as anyone, had exerted a major influence. However, a rather silly spoken-word lyric and too-sincerely sung chorus offer a reminder of much that was bad about the soul-inspired rock of the period. "Rolling", which kicked off Side 2 of the original album, is another Gee-based number that evokes the blander end of 1970s country rock, all emotive vocalizing and yearning guitar curves.
The most successful of the vocal tracks is "No More Fooling", which fuses bluesy harmonica-backed lines with high-pitched roots-reggae-inspired vocals and dubby bass to hypnotic effect. The best tracks on Phantom Band, however, are the instrumentals. "For M." offers up reggae/dub-inspired rhythms alongside guitar lines that drift between the lackadaisical and the eloquent. "Phantom Drums" is a brief Liebezeit-composed exercise for drums, seemingly inspired by African music. "Absolutely Straight", another Liebezeit piece, masterfully stitches together Afrobeat percussion with Zerlett's swirling keyboards and a horn contribution from former Can man Holger Czukay. Czukay was also responsible for mixing the album alongside Conny Plank, another legendary figure from the German electronic music scene (for more of Plank's work, check out the brilliant recent compilation Deutsche Elektronische Musik on Soul Jazz).
"Without Desire" adds a tropical element to the proceedings, another premonition, perhaps, of some of the directions pop music would be taking in the ensuing decade. "Pulsar" is much closer to the kind of thing one might expect from modern German electronic music, elegantly creating a sense of space as Zerlett's spare, occasionally dissonant keyboard stabs work alongside Liebezeit's assertive drums. Album closer "Latest News" is equally good, with its mesmerizing percussion and almost Middle Eastern vibe. More experiments along the lines of these two tracks might have made Phantom Band a great album rather than an occasionally interesting one.
Freedom of Speech is an altogether darker, more experimental affair. Thankfully free of Gee's soft rock mannerisms, it presents instead a spikier, less melodic but more sonically adventurous musical program. The album kicks off with the title track, featuring Sheldon Ancel's ominous spoken-word delivery atop Liebezeit's stripped-down, militaristic drumming. Ancel seems to make a specialty of channeling authority figures: the tannoy-flattened imperative of the public announcement on "Freedom of Speech", the calm mastery of the new age illusionist on "Relax", the bluff assurance of the salesman on "Dangerous Conversation". The sense of creating the listener as subject -- as one who is subjected, commanded to obey -- brings the Phantom Band bang up to date. No longer following the lead of others, they suddenly seem part of the post-punk zeitgeist.
The group's reggae influences are also more explicitly on show on the second album. "E.F. 1" is essentially an exercise in dub reggae, its elegant minimalism confidently sketching out the kind of spatial dimensions that the previous album's "Pulsar" had hinted at. A spiky reggae foundation provides drama and drive for another Ancel spoken-word piece, "Brain Police", which calls to mind the work of Suicide. The use of echo on the already resonant vocals adds a similar sense of urgency to Suicide's work, coming on like a scary, deconstructed Elvis. "No Question" delivers a similar effect, albeit that the overdriven vocals are here backed up by hard guitar riffing, more akin to Lou Reed's work than Suicide's.
By the time we get to original Side 2 opener "Gravity", it is clear that Freedom of Speech is an album that allows a glimpse of what Can might have sounded like had the group pursued its original vision into the 1980s. The instrumental backdrop is sonically adventurous, even hinting at a kind of proto-techno in places, and Ancel does his best at channeling both of Can's famous vocalists, Malcolm Moody and Damo Suzuki. After the minute-long improv freak-out of "Trapped Again", we get the brilliant "Experiments", which starts out sounding like a conventional reggae number before introducing an electronically treated vocal and robotic synthesizer noises. "Dream Machine", like "Brain Police", is very similar to Suicide but stands on its own due to the apocalyptic brilliance of the keyboards, which herald the future of electronic bleepery as well as any forward-looking music of the era. The sense of scary malfunction is kept at adrenalin-inducing levels for the entirety of the song's five-and-a-half minutes, as Liebezeit adds a Can-like beat and Von Senger mercilessly shreds his guitar. "Dangerous Conversation" closes the album with another blast of paranoia to equal the opening track, while also fueling a desire for more.
Given the relative brevity of these two albums (especially Freedom of Speech, which clocks in at just under 36 minutes), it might have been better to compile them on a single CD. Even better would have been a double-disc edition incorporating the group's third album Nowhere (1984), which retained the line-up and paranoid aesthetic of the second. Presumably that is not possible due to Nowhere having been released by Spoon as part of the "Can Solo Editions" series. It's still available and well worth checking out. Of the new reissues, Freedom of Speech is by far the superior album and is strongly recommended to fans of post-punk, no wave, electronic music and, of course, other Can- and Plank-related projects.