Burlington, Vermont has long held the identity of a jam band town to people outside of the state who know little about the music of the area aside from Phish. It’s not that they’re wrong, per se. I have lived here for seven years now and there’s definitely a scene; though it sometimes seems largely comprised of people who came here to attend the University of Vermont with dreams of a wookie wonderland bathed in patchouli oil, with billowing clouds of pot smoke hovering as far as the eye can see, and they’re the ones who continue the jam tradition as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. However, isolated as we are up here (Burlington is the biggest “city” in the state with a year-round population of 42,000), the average person is most likely unaware of the sheer number of great heavy bands per capita.
But the tunes don’t lie. Until a couple of years ago Burlington was home to 242 Main, the longest-running all-ages punk club in the country. The main reason it closed was because of building code issues, and there are still efforts to re-open it in some other capacity. There are intriguing and influential bands like Drowningman and The Cancer Conspiracy in the town’s lineage. More recently artists like Tyler Daniel Bean and Ghastly Sound have made waves and helped bring some additional attention to the local scene. One of a number of high-quality heavy bands active at the moment are the trio Phantom Suns. They would have fit seamlessly alongside 90s heavy alternative (pre-post-hardcore??) bands like Helmet, Quicksand, Gruntruck and (early) Filter, and today they stand as not only a welcome throwback but also a legitimate breath of fresh air. They are a band with no gimmicks and zero bullshit, who aren’t desperately flailing to create some wacky mashup of subgenres – just straightforward, aggressive riffs, weighty grooves and plenty of both to spare.
Their new video is for the track “Brontoscorpio,” from their debut album Caldera, which released in November of last year. The album was recorded at former bass player (and current producer) Ryan Cohen’s Robot Dog Studio, and benefits greatly from his ability to deftly balance clarity with sheer volume. Just listen to the way the bass thunders throughout the track; it easily could have overwhelmed the mix, but the guitars, vocals and drums are still allowed to shine equally.
The song is propelled by the glorious dropped-D chugging of singer/guitarist Seth Gunderson, while Chris Mathieu’s muscular drumming holds down the considerable low-end with Cohen’s bass (Chris Knauer is officially the band’s bassist, and the person you see playing in the video, but Cohen recorded the parts for Caldera before leaving to focus on his production work). It also possesses that signature vocal-mimicking of the guitar riff and clashing between dissonance and melody that made that mid-90s post-hardcore sound so unique. Especially during the chorus, it’s almost like the more harmonious elements are trying to break away from expectations and tumble into discordance, but the composition captures the moment when everything is on the verge of tearing apart and crystallizes that specific sound. It possesses the ability to both be engaging and keep the listener off balance in the same moment. But beyond all those more precise compositional details, it’s just a raw, ferocious example of heavy alt-rock that conjures some great memories while also creating a newly fresh template that I sincerely hope more bands take inspiration from going forward.
You can purchase Caldera from the Phantom Suns Bandcamp page.