Sound on Sound: Phantogram strikes back

Phantogram plays Friday at Sound on Sound Fest at Sherwood Forest Faire in McDade. Photo contributed by Chad Wadsworth/Sound on Sound Fest
Phantogram plays Friday at Sound on Sound Fest at Sherwood Forest Faire in McDade. Photo contributed by Chad Wadsworth/Sound on Sound Fest

Without the chops, Phantogram goes buried in Spotify playlists as another synth-leaning buzz band. But the grandiose-scheming four-piece act on Friday showed the Dragon’s Lair stage what they’ve been cooking since 2014’s “Voices.”

Barreling right into “Black Out Days,” the band’s catchiest song to date, the Greenwich, New York outfit went fearless and shed the recent past. It was a cylinders-firing mission statement: We’re festival headliners now, get acquainted.

“You guys like that one don’t you?” singer and keyboardist Sarah Barthel said after trying out cuts from October’s new album “Three.”

“You guys ever drink for no reason?” she asked later. “We call that celebrating nothing.”

As she told the Charlotte Observer, producing songs for fellow Sound on Sound performer Big Boi gave Barthel the confidence to find a more bold stage persona who experiments with fashion. Friday night she donned thigh-high leather boots, shorts, and blonde hair. And while Barthel and co-songwriter, guitarist, and producer Josh Carter were not short on confidence, the new direction meant experimental, sorrow-laden music.

In January, Barthel’s sister committed suicide. Onstage she seems to have channeled the loss with all-in musical escapism.¬†Even 2013’s “Fall in Love” blanketed takers with blaring, pulsing keyboards.

This was thunderous rock star headlining.¬†This was industrial, lunch pale light and magic; an essential appearance by a band that’s made the leap to “night festival slots only.”

Phantogram finds its ‘Voices’

Phantogram performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 12, 2014.  JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Phantogram performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park on Sunday October 12, 2014. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

You could call Phantogram as an easy breakout back in March during South By Southwest when it overloaded The Mohawk for a Friday afternoon day party. Unlike swaths of synth-oriented present-day pop acts, the two-piece Greenwich, N.Y. band stretches out its hollow eyed-mood music into a harder live product with two additional touring musicians. Think almost nu-metal drum kit work.

Extra credit to singer Sarah Barthel for playing hurt Sunday at the Miller Lite Stage.

“We’re so pumped to be playing this festival,” Barthel said almost without a voice. She bantered in whispers between songs that featured soaring vocals.

Dressed in a white tank top, black pants, and adorned in gold-colored bracelets and necklaces, Barthel played the royal. The delicate stage presence masked her savvy and attacking keyboard acumen.

Co-songwriter, guitarist, and singer Josh Carter made the most of his spotlight solo duties, taking the lead sporadically. But Barthel emerged as the indispensable centerpiece–decorating the pulsing “Black Out Days” with a wall of howl. It stomped speakers like the most balanced trip-hop.

This year’s “Voices” is an easy year-end list add. But there are bands naturally built for the great outdoors and those ideal for private listening. Of the many of these bare bones acts attempting to crossover, Phantogram’s bold live palate will help it vastly going forward.