Phern isn't afraid of getting weird on their debut record.
Maybe no label in history has had a more fitting name than the legendary D.C. punk label Dischord Records. The sound that set them apart was exactly that: discord. With slightly off-key melodies over completely raw bass lines and off-mark, often almost ugly vocals, MacKeye’s post-Minor Threat projects carved out a specific niche of don’t-give-a-fuck-post-punk. That niche has lived on and re-manifested itself countless times in the past two decades, but Montreal’s Phern is especially dedicated to metamorphosing the most off of those off-kilter elements into the highly contemporary indie landscape.
Cool Coma is a debut album of collected, chronologically arranged tunes and it takes all of about five seconds into it to get what the band is all about. The opener “Excavator” closely mirrors the opening aura of a couple of great Deerhoof records. It uses its truncated, repetitive arrangements punctuated with discordant, creepy-crawly bridges to highlight the band’s best features: their vocals, guitar, and bass. For the majority of the record, a glossy and high-pitched voice that sings psychedelic, non-rhyming lines dances up and down on the same notes with one foot in goofy territory and another in seriously disturbed. The tones of the guitar have a tendency to sound like the strings are breaking with each pluck, shooting from one note to another on the delay. But paired with a well-kept drum and bass rhythm allows the duet of guitar and voice to delight, even when it gets to its most ugly and grating. There is an undeniable playfulness to the way Phern operates, breaking rhythms into aural limericks much like Ava Luna or a variety of the Exploding In Sound crew. For those with not only an attention span but an appetite for clever songwriting, Phern is a band to watch over the coming years. Their music’s polyrhythms and assorted pedal techniques can make a guitar nerd weep as soon as they could make a casual venue dancer shake their head in confusion.
Many of the songs on Cool Coma that cram the most in, like “Golden Cushions” or the record’s single “Pebble,” play in a grayish area between dance and technical noodling. And most of the time, especially when paired with metaphoric lyrical refrains like, “Next thing I know there’s a pebble in my brain / pebble in my brain / pebble in my brain,” everything really works. There are moments, however, (ironically such as the album’s title track) where this can turn from invigorating to confusingly experimental. Songs like “Cool Coma” or the ending track “Samantha,” which recycles the same piercing loop, sound almost like a Black Eyes unfinished demo, highlighting the repetitive mosquito-sounding guitars but leaving behind the aggressive quality that make them more listenable. But Phern don’t seem to have much of an issue with basing your ears around every now and then. In fact, it’s part of their appeal. Lying directly in between those abrasive two tracks, they lay it all back, churning out perhaps their only slow burner of a tune, focusing on background noise and a drawn-out approach to some pretty stellar vocal tricks on “Flipper Twister.” This juxtaposition of the restrained and the caustic turn that burner into one of the album’s best moments. So for the moments like that, when the chemistry of the band really functions well enough to help you navigate the band’s jungle of noises, the mosquito bites seem like they were worth it all along.
Listen to Phern on bandcamp.
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Elijah Fosl is a freelance music and culture writer who's really bad at describing themselves. They hail from Louisville but live in Chicago where they work, ferociously devouring cassette tapes and local produce. Find them on Twitter at @elifosl or online at elifosl.com.