There are no half-measures for Pepe Deluxé. For 25 years, the Helsinki-based electronic act have shifted from cool downtempo jams toward weirder, wilder directions. Today, hints of eccentricity have given way to genuinely bizarre invention with vintage underpinnings that fully displace the band’s music from humbler realities. In short, no one is doing it like Pepe Deluxé. Who else could ever hope to pull it off?
Fortunately, questions of improbability have never stopped Pepe Deluxé. On the new full-length album Phantom Cabinet Vol. 1, their first in almost a decade, the duo (producer James Spectrum or Jari Salo and multi-instrumentalist Paul Malmström form the core of what plays out as a much larger troupe onstage) are once again in full force. In Phantom Cabinet‘s eclectic palette, tongue-in-cheek testosterone, carnivalesque brass, psychedelic folk, and Bollywood-style thrill all come into play.
Bolstering the theatrics, Malmström and Salo have continued their quest for the world’s most outlandish musical instruments since 2012’s Queen of the Wave, with which they became the first artists to write and record an original composition on the Great Stalacpipe Organ. The list of heretofore never (or rarely) recorded sound sources on Phantom Cabinet is jaw-dropping, ranging from the birth scream of Malmström’s youngest daughter on “General Deluxé” to a recording of Alexander Graham Bell singing through his infamous ear phonautograph on “Big Fat Woodpecker” to the biggest cowbell in the world. Large instruments seem oddly mundane beside instruments made from human skulls or Erkki Kurenniemi’s “sexophone”, which generates sounds from the skin-to-skin contact of its handcuffed performers.
As intriguing as these material oddities are, it’s how Pepe Deluxé put their unconventional sonic archives to work that makes them worth knowing. In contrast to Queen of the Wave’s cohesive operatic arc, Phantom Cabinet is a nonstop showcase, ripping through genres like tissue paper. “General Deluxé” is a full-bodied anthem full of power pop majesty. It’s followed quickly by the self-aware raunchiness of “Girl from Satanville”, in which hair metal meets chain-smoking blues-rock. “A Morning Beautiful” has blissful, baroque touches reminiscent of the band’s masterfully whimsical Spare Time Machine, with a denouement that sounds like organ notes caught in a sandstorm.
The album’s catchiest track might be “22nd Century Dandy”, an infectious piece of futurism, or it might be the New Orleans-adjacent bombast of rocker “Big Fat Woodpecker”. Finnish mythology gets the retro documentary film treatment with “Halls of Kalevala”, which juxtaposes narration in the baritone voice of artist Cyrus Faryar against the largest pipe organ in the world for layer upon layer of over-the-top gravitas. A cinematic “Fire Up the Crimson Lion” leads into exquisitely wistful “Sommarland”, where sauna steam, dreamy vocals, and fully tuned mosquitos evoke late-night sun over Nordic lake country.
“Placebo PCB-1” brings the energy back up, a typically zany Pepe Deluxé interlude in the form of an over-the-top two-minute commercial for a guitar pedal advertised as “the first-ever gadget to fully utilize the placebo effect”. The album ends with “Tyger Boy, Rocket Boy”, a grand finale with an earworm of a chorus and mellifluously quirky layers of voices, synths, and bone-shaking percussion.
Phantom Cabinet, Vol. 1 strikes an ingenious balance between everything Pepe Deluxé have done so far: the digestible, the conceptual, the dramatic. The record speaks to an extreme amount of commitment on behalf of its creators, and it requires the same of its listeners. There are no easy cuts here, no Muzak moments. When you open the Phantom Cabinet, you have to jump in with both feet. Even setting wacky instrument antics aside, it’s a musical baptism worth total immersion.