Increasingly people are saying the album, as a format, is dead. With Phantoms Marianas Trench prove – once again and unequivocally – that the reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
“I think we’re going to see more artists releasing singles and not really doing albums anymore,” says Marianas Trench’s Josh Ramsay, “but that doesn’t really inspire me.”
What inspires Ramsay is creating a self-contained universe for the band’s songs to exist in. On their fifth album, Phantoms (604 Records), it’s a space possessed by the spirit of a lingering, unforgettable loss. “I was basically thinking about someone falling into madness while living in a house haunted by the ghost of a former love. As dark as that sounds, for me that also means a rebirth,” Ramsay says. “And that comes from a healthy place.”
“The vibe was really healthy and happy, and the setting opened up a lot of options for what we could get away with creatively,” puts in bassist, Mike Ayley. Not that Marianas Trench has ever shied away extending their creative reach substantially with each new album. From the release of their debut, Fix Me (2006), to 2015’s Astoria, the Vancouver-based four-piece have consistently raised the bar for themselves with ever more ambitious records.
Astoria’s framework was a coming of age story inspired by the sci-fi adventure, The Goonies. Phantoms mines a different vein of life experience entirely, one buried in the wreckage of the certainty that the one, incomparable love you’re due in life is lost forever.
The band drills down into the consequences of that loss deeply on lead single ‘I Knew You When’ – a track fuelled by deep bass and relentless beats that showcases Ramsay’s staggering vocal range and the band’s ample musical chops in equal measure. “A lot of love songs look at the pretty things, the easy things,” Ramsay says. “’I Knew You When’ is about having a long history with someone, accepting the faults in each other, acknowledging it’s going to get messy here and there, and still being up for it.”
“I was looking for inspiration in a lot of arenas,” he continues. I read a ton of Edgar Allan Poe and was also inspired by the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, and the idea that ghosts mean different things to different people, and can also represent hope.”
Some songs came straight from titles, Ramsay says, ‘The Death of Me’ for example – an old saying Ramsay uses to examine the consequences the kind of loss that underpins the record can have on new relationships: “When somebody thinks, ‘This is real’ and the other person wishes it was but just can’t feel that, the only decent thing to do is bow out.”
“Once we had the idea everything was set in a haunted house, that immediately suggested a sonic landscape, a rulebook.” Imposing parameters, he adds, was inspiring rather than limiting: “I wanted the songs to feel like modern pop, but sound very organic, with real instrumentation. So, if it sounded creepy, I’d use it,” he says, pointing to the hauntingly manic, ‘Echoes Of You’, featuring Jellyfish lead singer, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. “That starts out with a solo harpsichord. But I never would have made that choice without that setting.”
From harpsichord to Theremin to custom guitar sounds specifically created to mimic keyboards using old school techniques, “tricks” and effects: “Almost every sound was very deliberately, patiently and consciously chosen,” Ayley puts in.
But the opportunities each new framework, or universe, provide extend well beyond the sonic landscape. On every record, Marianas Trench set out to challenge themselves to a greater degree, individually and collectively. “Each time we do an album, I try and write something that’s out of my vocal reach at the time. Then we tour for two years and it forces me to get better,” Ramsay says, adding that bassist Ayley, guitarist Matt Webb and drummer Ian Casselman, his “three favourite collaborators,” are equally dedicated to pushing their limits vocally and instrumentally.
As they have on past records, Marianas Trench draw on well-established strengths – their trademark, heavily layered harmonies, as well as blazing guitars set against club-worthy beats – but Phantoms also finds them pushing the boundaries, musically and lyrically, in a way that’s difficult to define. “Even for us it’s hard to pin down,” Ayley says. “There are signature Marianas Trench moments, but the feel is definitely different.”
Ramsay and the band, like so many of the artists that influence them, are defined, in part, by their total lack of predictability, constant reinvention and reevaluation. “To stay inspired I need to be doing something new,” Ramsay explains, “which is why I always have a setting with a new set of rules and, also, a new set of inspirations. Each of our albums is sort of a scrapbook of my life at the time. The goal is always to write a set of songs that complement each other. Not just to go chasing hits.”
Granted, multiple tracks on Phantoms could easily stand alone as singles; from urgent beat-driven tunes like ‘Only the Lonely Survive’ and ‘Don’t Miss Me?’ to borderline power ballad ‘Glimmer’. And every track on Phantoms telegraphs the sense of abandonment and loss that focused Ramsay’s songwriting from the outset. But listening to Phantoms, as a whole, is the best way for listeners to find the room that best suits them individually, among the many in the house the band has built.
“It’s a journey,” Ramsay adds, one that finds Marianas Trench guiding listeners through a extremely personal space, while still allowing them room to wander on their own and connect with the songs on their own level, with their own stories.
From Phantoms jaw-dropping opener, ‘Eleonora’ – a heavily layered a cappella salute to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1842 short story of the same name – to the unapologetically epic closer, ‘The Killing Kind’, with it’s deep orchestration, ripping guitars and vocal gymnastics, Phantoms sheer emotional weight and brutal honesty will leave a lasting mark on listeners.
“It’s about messy, real-life love with consequences; the kind of relationship that takes years to build,” Ramsay sums up. And for him, it’s personal. “Fun fact: every love song I’ve ever written is about the same girl.” Although Phantoms draws inspiration from a decidedly personal place, however: “It’s not like you’re just listening in on someone else’s life. Everybody has that experience. That’s just living. And Phantoms, I think, will allow people to connect on their own level, with their own story, to the ones that we’re sharing.”