Marianas Trench – Phantoms [album review]

Commentary, Music

Marianas Trench tell a dancefloor-friendly ghost story on their latest record.

The Vancouver pop-rockers have long had a thing for concept albums, starting with their 2009 pop-punk opus Masterpiece Theatre. Its dance-y follow-up Ever After was a twisted fairy tale, and 2015’s Astoria was an-over-the top adventure straight out of the eighties. Their most recent offering, Phantoms, plays like a musical take on The Haunting of Hill House.

The album features Trench’s trademark combination of dancefloor-ready beats, heartfelt lyrics, and rock opera grandiosity. The musicianship here is stellar, as usual, with the band effortlessly shifting between genres and moods. Lead singer Josh Ramsay’s distinctive voice sounds equally great buried under layers of production or wailing in its unadorned glory.

Phantoms also benefits from a rich and coherent storyline. The lyrics, which reference everything from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King’s IT, tell an old-fashioned ghost story about a man haunted by a lost love, taking the listener on a disturbing journey through a tormented psyche.

The album starts off on an eerie note with the Queen-influenced, Poe-quoting “Eleonora,” before segueing abruptly into “Only the Lonely Survive,” a stuttering pop tune about a doomed romance (“I know, a love like this will end in tragedy”).

The following track, “Echoes of You,” sets hallucinatory gothic fantasies to a dancefloor-ready backbeat. “I’ve never given into madness,” insists Ramsay, a manic edge already creeping into his voice; “I keep an eye on the chamber door.” This paranoia sets the stage for some of the band’s most hauntingly poetic lyrics (“Those remnant faces, fleeting traces of you haunt the corner of my eye”). Fittingly, the next song sees the narrator drowning his sorrows to try to drive out the memories, with mixed success.

Electro-pop banger “Wish You Were Here” is the catchiest tune on the record, with snappy verses and a synth-inflected chorus so infectious that you almost miss the creepy lyrics about “night terrors” and darkness “crawling in.”

The band really commits to the horror theme on the latter half of the album, with death-obsessed tracks like the Kesha-esque “Your Ghost” and spooky torch song “Glimmer.” Nostalgic pop-rocker “I Knew You When” is comparatively lighter, but still has an air of sadness hanging over it; it’s a song for the summertime blues.

Penultimate track “The Death of Me” is an electro-ballad that has the narrator trying to move on, only to realize that he’s become as lifeless as the lover he can’t quite bury: “I would love you if I could / but my unsteady heart’s not ready / and you would only get what’s left of me.”

Ramsay’s lyrics here are better than they’ve ever been, mixing macabre literary flair with psychological insight as the narrator is besieged by memories and apparitions alike, his tics and obsessions mirrored by the hypnotic and ever-shifting music. It’s the pop-rock version of “elevated horror.”

At first listen, Phantoms is less sonically diverse than some of its funky pop-punk predecessors. The band rarely strays far from their standard sound, and one gets the sense that they’ve consciously traded musical eclecticism for thematic unity. At one point, I even feared that Phantoms was going to omit the epic rock suites that typically open and close Trench albums. Thankfully, they saved that for the finale.

Closing track “The Killing Kind” initially sounds a bit like Panic at the Disco at their least poppy, before unexpectedly morphing into a glam-rock battle cry right out of Astoria. From there, the song becomes something between prog rock and Broadway, mixing rock-n-roll shredding and crashing pianos with eerie sound effects and spooky background vocals, distorted and stretched out to sound like wailing ghosts. It’s the most thrilling song on the album, a disorienting final chapter in the 2019’s most danceable psychological thriller.

Phantoms takes a few listens to get your ear around the hooks and let the story under your skin. But once it does, it becomes apparent that this album is one of Marianas Trench’s most complex and well-written records to date. To steal a line from Stephen King’s Hill House review, I think Shirley Jackson would approve.


Title: Phantoms

Artist: Marianas Trench

Year: 2019

Track Listing:

  1. Eleonora
  2. Only the Lonely Survive
  3. Echoes of You (feat. Roger Joseph Manning Jr.)
  4. Don’t Miss Me?
  5. Wish You Were Here
  6. Your Ghost
  7. Glimmer
  8. I Knew You When
  9. The Death of Me
  10. The Killing Kind

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