The High Dials: War of the Wakening Phantoms

Hunter Felt

This is the sound of a psychedelic pop band wrapping itself into a cocoon, changing, hopefully, into something prettier and more distinctive.

The High Dials

War of the Wakening Phantoms

Label: Rainbow Quartz
US Release Date: 2005-07-26
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate

If you've heard the neo-psychedelic pop of the High Dials before, feel free to forget all about it, as the High Dials have made a mostly successful leap from the derivative psych-pop of their debut into a fuller, more atmospheric sound. Although War of the Wakening Phantoms is a transitional album, suffering from a lack of the fun and frivolity of the High Dials' earlier incarnation, it has enough pleasant moments to make up for its missteps.

Of course, there is a little bit of fun and frivolity on the album. The opening "The Holy Ground", is a good, stomping rocker fueled by a thrilling shouted chorus of "come on", which is backed by another rave-up, "Soul in Lust", the song clearly designed to be the album's single. Although the rest of the album is significantly more muted and more serious in tone, there are a few breezy pop songs, including "Higher and Brighter" and "A River Haunting", that enliven the proceedings. The High Dials are typically more successful on these lighter songs, my personal favorite track being the catchy, synthesizer driven "Sick with the Old Fire", the most clearly lighthearted song on the album. However, about half of the album is far too murky, occasionally lethargic, saddling great hooks and fantastic production values with needless instrumental breaks and dull verses. It seems as if the High Dials are trying to mature faster than they are actual capable of doing so, playing to their weaknesses rather than their many strengths.

"Our Time is Coming Soon" is the best example of the High Dials finding a great song and then, quickly losing it. The song itself, a sort of call to optimism, starts with a ferocious energy that is missing from other cuts. The song, initially, keeps up interest, but then it dissolves into a pretentious bridge where the words "our time" are whispered-sung in beat with the music. It is saved by a violent, maximum overdrive climax that brings the song to a close. Except that it doesn't. The band continues for over a minute past the song's natural end point, overstretching the climax to the point of tedium.

Part of the awkwardness of War of the Wakening Phantoms is the fact the High Dials are switching genres and are basically learning an entirely new set of skills. Where their early work was pure psych-pop fetishism, the High Dials are now taking the skeleton of that sound and trying to create something grand and atmospheric, in the style of Echo & the Bunnymen or the Church. War is supposed to be a big-sounding album, filled with countless instruments, expansive songs, and hints at a grander meaning. The problem is that the High Dials haven't yet to figure out the difference between a truly epic song and a song that goes on far, far too long. The High Dials haven't learned what not to include, how to trim songs to their proper length, or how to get rid of needless song sections and distracting instrumental contributions. Plus, they are clearly more comfortable playing up-tempo songs rather than ballads. (The crushingly dull "The Lost Explorer", for instance, sounds like the Flaming Lips binging on Nyquil.)

It's difficult to put much of this against the band, the High Dials are onto something interesting with their new sound, and this album shows plenty of evidence that they are on the right musical path. For every song that sounds like a horrid Moody Blues outtake, see "The Drum", the High Dials do discover a pop gem. The short and sweet tracks "Strandhill Sands" and "A River Haunting" take a cue from bossa nova, a sound that fits well with the grand, atmospheric sound that the band is attempting to forge. For all of my complaints about their inability to keep songs at their appropriate length, the longest track on the album, the mesmerizing "Your Eyes Are a Door", is one of the most effective songs. Riding a Krautrock-esque lazy mechanical groove for the track's eight minutes, the song acts as a minimalist balance to the more grandiose songs on the album. Its recurring watery guitar riff acts as sort of a hypnotic guidepost, keeping listener attentions throughout the course of the (literally) spacey song. It's quite remarkable, and it also suggests that the High Dials could effectively incorporate more electronic sounds into their songs.

So, War of the Wakening Phantoms is overlong, overstuffed, and has some of the dumbest song titles I've seen this side of emo, but it is a definitive turning point for the High Dials. No longer content to stick, mostly ignored, in the crowded psychedelic revival scene, the High Dials have made a bold leap to a new sound. I may not love it, at least right now, but, if I may borrow the immortal words of Wes Mantooth, god-damn it if I don't respect it.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.