Label: Underground Symphony Records
Author: Kira L. Schlechter
Titanium is a fascinating substance. It doesn’t rust, so it’s used in things like fishing lines and submarine hulls. It’s extremely strong, so it’s used in things like aircraft and missiles. It’s durable, so it’s used in things like tennis rackets, golf clubs and bicycle frames. It’s nontoxic to the human body, so it’s used in things like hip balls and sockets and dental implants.
And it’s steely-gray sheen is subtly beautiful, so it’s used in things like jewelry and sculpture.
It’s also a completely suitable title for the sophomore effort by the Dutch band PHANTOM ELITE in that many of the album’s tracks carry a theme of resilience delivered with subtle but powerful beauty.
The band is Brazilian-born singer Marina La Torraca (Exit Eden, live vocalist for Avantasia), guitarist/bassist Max van Esch, keyboardist Koen Stam and drummer Joeri Warmerdam. Sander Gommans (ex-After Forever) helped with songwriting and production. ‘Titanium‘ is the follow-up to 2018’s ‘Wasteland‘.
‘Conjure Rains‘ starts as many of the tracks do, with keyboard programming and a hectic groove with a solid crunch that kicks into a frantic tempo. Joeri’s drumming is spectacular across the board, here with a quick little solo and what he delivers under the chorus. Max’s solo between verses is just enough, giving him his musical say after Marina delivers the condemning first verse, likely about the end of a relationship (“We’ve said goodbye, game over / You’d thought I’d fall into despair”). She’s doing just fine, thank you (“I carry on without you / Riding high without a care”), but the second verse is a warning, as the other person has been “Burning the bridge behind you” and is confident in their righteousness. But she knows that “All the seeds you’ve sown / Have made you karma’s little bitch,” a nice stinging commentary in this pissed-off little track. The phrase “conjure rains” is clever in that it could be saying “fake some emotions” (like the rains could be tears) in showing your regret, but I’m not buying it (“I’ll be here standing tall”) and knowing that in the end “Your cheap games will fall”.
Marina’s voice is so effective throughout because it’s never histrionic or melodramatic or hypersexual — there’s no reason for it with this material since it’s so personal and she knows that. She handles the material with taste and restraint — not to say she lacks emotion or is cold or distanced, because the opposite is true. Her diction is deliberate; she has a command of dynamic and no vocal affectations.
This is a super-tight unit, no one stepping on each other’s toes, no over-reliance on one element. There’s traces of techno/dance (a la Amaranthe) and symphonic metal in their musical blend (with the odd choir vocals and snippets of orchestration here and there). And the songs are nicely vague lyrically, not frustratingly so. Sometimes their themes are overt, sometimes they just give you hints to mull over.
And there are outstanding examples of both, like ‘The Race‘, whose melody is established by keyboard, the guitar giving it toughness and fabulous drumming that mimics the keyboard almost exactly. The instrumental segue after the second verse builds anticipation for a chorus that turns out to be spectacular in all its forms. The second chorus is acoustic; the final runthrough adds Marina’s soaring descanting vocal overdub.
This is rather a commentary on the pace of life these days, the pressure (“Come to play and see what’s on / Neon angels that await you” might be about anything from television to social media). “If the world may drown in mud / Hell sounds like so much fun / Bring on all your ammunition” is kind of a veiled environmental reference, like if we’re going down, let’s have as much fun as we can, because “Every minute counts in the race”. The chorus is sobering despite the gloriousness of its sound: “You throw your hands to the sky / For a moment / Fight for the broken / Truth has been spoken,” like there’s a moment of reckoning of a sort, or a quiet moment of reflection, then “Pull the pin and just detonate the stillness / In a million shattered pieces through the darkness” and just that quickly, it’s over.
‘Diamonds And Dark‘ has a memorable lyric piano part as its foundation that holds its ground amid Max’s crisp riffing and Joeri’s varied, eclectic drumming. Again, they switch up the dynamics of another terrific, expansive chorus and maintain songwriting continuity, with the piano leading both into the second chorus and again into an acoustic take on it, where the mix on Marina’s voice is intimate and warm. In the third chorus, they play intriguingly with the rhythm, going from a quicker pace to the original tempo; Marina draws out the final line and sends her voice soaring. The bridge plays on the piano theme a little, then it gives you that chorus melody as the guitar solos and modulates above it.
While the theme here is not as obvious, the “diamonds and dark” of the title makes beautiful lyric sense in context: “I’ve been looking for the answer / I’ve been looking at the skies above / Of diamonds and dark” (that is, the stars against the night sky, just lovely) / All the suffering among us / Must come to an end / Beyond grains of sand”. This is searching for meaning in something bigger than oneself. The first verse is a bit more esoteric and ambiguous (“Feel redemption’s call / See the angels fall”), but the second is the realization that we have to “Try to see beyond / My own hued reality / All the buzz that colors every moment”, as if to say all the distractions we have in life, and that “Space and time are blurred in me”, like everything goes by so fast. The expansiveness of the chorus and its themes then serve as our grounding.
‘Worst Part Of Me‘, with guest vocalist Stef Rikken, begins and ends with terse guitars and keyboards; they make up the heart of the groove when the keyboard takes over and the guitars riff. Max shows off his considerable bass skills in the verses, which give them a resonant, internal quality. Marina’s prechorus is in that wonderful minor key and she powers up into Stef’s harsh vocal — it’s a great lead-in and she does it again going into the brief solo section. Stef takes the next prechorus and the music twists and crashes around him before she takes over in the chorus. It’s the most aggressive track here, perhaps in keeping with its theme, which, if anything, could be a very subtle reference to addiction. When she asks “Can you fix the worst part of me” is she asking the heavens or a higher power? When Stef rages “Get me out of here”, is he serving as the voice/personification of the addiction? There are other little hints, like “And all the symptoms a higher dose” and “A glass of something, just hide away” and “Can’t avoid the urge” and “Can’t get enough / I am free falling”. Her most probing question is “Can you see the tiers around you”, the layers and walls you’ve built around you — an intriguing line.
‘Glass Crown‘ is definitely direct, a cautionary tale that’s decidedly about social media culture, delicately and carefully drawn, but barbed nonetheless. Those lines “Eyes on the throne / It takes it all to win / This game of micro sin” and “Shout to the world / Your every single move / You’re in the hashtag groove” are plenty clear (we all know people who do that!). It also touches on the pressure that’s placed on influencers (bands too, by the way, and I’m sure they’re including themselves in this observation) with lines like “In the dark you see yourself crumble down / With every hour you fear the stealing of your crown” and “Sad, poor girl you cannot hide / Try to cover up with lies / But perfection never lasts … Gotta feed the crowd / You gotta show the fans / How you keep it flawless”. The imagery of the “glass crown” then becomes apparent, how fragile the whole social media thing is — you’re huge and then you’re nothing unless you constantly feed the beast. The last chorus flips its closing line a little, to “Will they see what’s deep inside?” from “May the fooled see what’s deep inside,” as if to fear what would happen if they did see too deep.
Of course, it’s the title track — that starts frantic and driving before settling into a stately, ponderous groove (that’s neither heavy nor oppressive) — that drives home the implication of the word “titanium.” Its seven glorious minutes feature an intricate bridge, a shimmering segue with Marina’s introspective vocal and a bluesy, emotional solo and effortless, tumbling transitions in rhythm that never, well, miss a beat. The chorus is slower and soaring and hopeful, the legato of Marina’s perfectly phrased singing easing along over the syncopation of the drumming. Its theme is maintaining inner strength despite the doubters, both the internal and the external (“Someday you’ll fix what is broken / And see beyond yourself”, this being an internal reckoning). You’ve gone through means of self-delusion (“And we can fill up the void / With lies and pretty pearls”), but that’s done, now “Let’s jump ahead”. The external voices tell you “You’re nothing but a mistake” (“Now be gone”, she counters) and “You’re never gonna escape” (“But I’ll fight”, she vows). Ultimately the chorus is self-reliance: “I’ll light the way / When all the shadows fall / Scale my fences and walls / We’ll get through it all”, like you’ll make it despite yourself and the obstacles you place in your way and “I’ll pave my way / Washing the tears away as I go”.
‘Bravado‘ depicts its narrator’s evolution musically and lyrically. Subdued programming and a hinted melody introduce bass and Marina’s tentative vocal to show the beginning of the healing process. It builds in intensity in the verses as her confidence grows (“Way stronger than you think”, she says). This, too, is about self-sufficiency, self confidence, coming out of tough times. Yet another superior chorus asserts “Throw all your stones, it won’t break me / Under my skin, I know what’s deep within”, like I know how strong I am, I can take it. “Way out of reach / Far from the influence you bring” shows I’m resistant now. The lead-in to the first and second choruses is just slightly different. “A fearless declaration / We’re coming out of this alive / Words that resonate and…” and then “A fearless declaration / We’re rising on the other side / Words that resonate in / A bravado soaring high”. The first is we’re almost there, we’re on the edge, the second is we’ve made it, we’ve achieved that inner strength. It’s “bravado,” yes, but not in the arrogant or cocky sense; it’s a quiet strength based on self-knowledge. It ends with that same programming, maybe to show that vulnerability is never far away.
It’s as close as the next song, in fact.
The imagery of the storm and the sea in describing mental anguish is so well done in ‘Silver Lining‘: “Stormy skies cloud up your mind / The darkness builds up from inside / Playing tricks on you / It’s hard to see the truth beyond” and “Your dreams sail away in haste”. The chorus continues the visual with “You enter the hurricane and pray / For a silver lining”, but it changes in the final line to “But where there are stones, there’s often gold / And a silver lining” — what a beautiful way to say that adversity often hides opportunity or better times. The repeated line “You know rock bottom is too low” is a warning to save yourself before you get there. Guest vocalist Amanda Somerville does the verses and her voice blends beautifully with Marina’s in the chorus; she has a bit more vocal richness and a deeper range, making for a stirring contrast. The hope of the last line of the chorus that leads into an aching solo section is like an anguished plea; it’s perfectly done.
The instrumental ‘Haven‘ is just that, a quiet acoustic guitar interlude, a moment of rest, with a delicate, optimistic melody.
A bouncing, erratic rhythm led by drums and feedback-heavy guitar is the hallmark of ‘Deliverance‘ — it starts off the second verse as well and a variation of it begins the solo section and continues through it. This is a slippery little one lyrically in terms of theme — it’s like personifying the concept of deliverance (“I am the voice echoing in your head” and the great line “And some might say it’s predictable / How it all goes / But I’ll oversee the despicable in you”), like “deliverance” will allow you to be your worst before it steps in. The second verse might be about making choices in our perception of things — “Choosing between / A different reality / Going from red to deepest green”, the colors representing negativity and positivity, perhaps. The chorus is then perhaps the search for that deliverance — “Dawning light / Bursting through my heart / Land in sight / It’s like we’ve never even been apart” and later “Can you see me / Out of control / Can you save me”.
‘Eyes Wide Open‘ uses Koen’s keyboards to establish both the crystalline, metallic melody and the groove. Joeri’s drumming here remains distinctive but unobtrusive at the same time. Marina’s purr grows in intensity in each verse and she really stretches it out in the chorus; Amanda Somerville‘s backing vocals there are subtle and evocative. She hits her upper register in the descant over the last chorus — because she uses it very sparingly, it’s especially potent. This has a simple sentiment: “It’s never too late to be who you really are / You know your voice can be found / Just reach out and scream out loud / Like no one else is listening”. So it feels like a bit of a letdown, at least thematically, from the strength of the rest of the album, relying on cliche to make its point.
PHANTOM ELITE has much to say and a unique way of saying it. They have a certain maturity that belies the fact that they’ve only done two albums. The strength and beauty of ‘Titanium‘ the album will remain with you as the substance itself endures.