Back in December, a wild seven-piece group called the Phantastics released its debut album with uncharacteristically little fanfare. Amid the holiday buzz and chatter, Closer (on Lawrence's Silly Goose Records) slipped quietly under the local radar.
But the Phantastics isn't the kind of band to go ignored for long. Since forming back in 2010, it has steadily built a reputation as one of the area's most accomplished party acts — party being not just a favored Phantastics gig site but also the best explanation of what its music sounds like. The band blends genres like a toddler attacking a fresh Play-Doh set. The six tracks on Closer incorporate jazz, gospel, hip-hop, neo soul, and even a few jam-band flourishes. It's an intense collision of sounds that probably shouldn't work together but somehow does.
Part of that success stems from teamwork. The Phantastics counts two lead singers: rapper Kemet Coleman — better known as thePhantom* — and Leigh Gibbs. They provide the lyrics and front the band, but they aren't its leaders. Neither is guitarist J.J. Cantrell, bass player Danny Florez, drummer Ashley Thompson, saxophonist D.J. Mitchell or keyboard player Austin Quick. The group functions as a collective — from songwriting to band management, an immaculately organized nimbus of different energies and disparate backgrounds.
"Sometimes you get thrown into a lot of interesting musical situations where you don't know what the other musicians know, and they don't know what you know," says Gibbs, who grew up singing gospel in church choirs. "You just have to hope that it works, and that's kind of what happened with us."
The Phantastics originally came together as a backup band for Coleman. In 2009, Florez, Cantrell and Thompson were performing as the prog-rock outfit Stone Deph. They brought Mitchell and Quick into the mix around the time that Coleman's Synesthesia came out, in early 2012. Coleman recruited Gibbs, who had sung on the album.
"Faces were melted," Gibbs says of the new group's first rehearsal. "Faces were melted for a lifetime."
Since then, the Phantastics' identity has evolved from backing band to full-fledged funk machine.
"We take a bunch of little pieces and figure out how to stack them to make one big piece," Cantrell says. "There's a sense of continuity from a whole bunch of unique, different soundscapes that we all instinctively draw from, because we're all from very different musical backgrounds."
Adds Gibbs: "Our goal is to create intelligent dance music."
Anyone who hears the Phantastics' debut will immediately understand what Cantrell and Gibbs are talking about. Closer doesn't wait for you to think about the music; it devours you whole, its all-encompassing songs swallowing you into a sweaty frenzy.
Without its three bonus tracks, Closer clocks in at just over 25 minutes — a span given over to grooving, dancing and general freedom. The opening track, "Phire," cracks with attitude as the entire group contributes to vocals, with Gibbs and Coleman commanding what is essentially the Phantastics' mission statement: Shake what your momma gave ya!
The pace remains exhilarating. "Cruisin'," a track driven in equal parts by Coleman's quick rhymes and Quick's spunky, Steely Dan–flavored organ, gives way to "Gimme Somethin'," a sexy electric hotbox that hints at a Janelle Monáe influence. And on the closing "Bananas," Cantrell delivers sizzling notes while the song furiously builds to a metallic thrashing (a nod, perhaps, to Florez's hardcore background).
But the standout is the slow-burning "Stay With Me," on which Gibbs repeats just these lyrics: Stay with me, baby, I need you to stay with me. It's a chilling performance, her creamy vocals sweeping over Cantrell's weeping electric guitar. The rest of the album is designed to conquer the dance floor, but "Stay With Me" shoots an arrow through the heart. Which was, Gibbs says, the plan all along.
"Our music is for everybody, without being over the head of some or beneath others," she says. "We want to create a sound that is relatable. ... And I love the fact that even though I don't know a damn thing about how he [Cantrell] plays or how he [Florez] plays exactly, we've learned to dance together."
"When we all got together to make music, we decided to make the music that each of us individually wanted to make," Cantrell says, "and then figure out how to make it work together without conflicting. It was about coming up with the way to make all those different pieces sound like it's not this guy's show, it's not this girl's show — it's everybody's show."