Harmonic, the debut release of PHILM, is a record unlike just about anything I’ve heard recently, and comes full of surprises — especially if you’re familiar with the band members’ previous work. Most notably, Dave Lombardo is the drummer from Slayer, although PHILM does not resemble Slayer in any way. Bassist Pancho Tomaselli has been playing with ‘70s funk-rock legends War since 2003, yet the sound of War is even less evident than that of Slayer. Singer and guitarist Gerry Nestler is from ‘90s progressive metal band Civil Defiance, and while this band sounds most similar to PHILM, this new project is much more varied and interesting.
PHILM’s sound is particularly difficult to categorize, but I find the challenge of doing so quite entertaining. It could be perhaps described as alternative metal or heavy post-rock, and may draw comparisons to artists as varied as The Mars Volta, Tool, and Russian Circles, as well as …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead — rather than some of the more atmospheric bands associated with the post-rock genre. The long, flowing soundscapes that pepper the album sound as if you told Tortoise to play their take on metal. The individual band members’ contributions to the record are most telling of the overall sound.
Nestler’s vocals are surprisingly versatile. When not screaming, he sounds highly influenced by ‘70s British metal singers, particularly Ozzy Osbourne. He especially sounds like an American Ozzy on the songs “Hun” and “Amoniac,” but when the screams come out, it brings the sound back to the 2000s American metal scene. His guitar work on the album mainly takes a backseat to the bass and drums. The guitar is lower in the mix than is usual for metal, but it sounds appropriate here.
The contributions of Tomaselli are quite interesting given his membership in War. His bass work here is certainly not funky — in fact, it’s the bass more than anything else that earns PHILM the comparison to Tool, particularly the pre-1995 sound of Paul D’Amour. Most of the album is driven by Tomaselli’s deep, heavy basslines, which lock in with Lombardo’s drums.
Lombardo’s role in the album will probably be the most scrutinized. As the drummer for Slayer, he has amassed a following of metal fans envied by just about everyone else in the headbanging business. Given that PHILM’s sound bears little resemblance to Slayer, he has taken steps to moderate fans’ expectations: “When people hear about my involvement in PHILM, they automatically assume that it will compare to Slayer’s sound… They couldn’t be more different.” He has even taken steps to change the sound of his drums. For the album, he scaled down his sprawling metal kit to a four-piece set, to create a retro sound that he likens to the hard rock of the late ‘60s.
At more than hour long, the album is a lot to take in, and you wouldn’t be faulted for not being able to listen to it all the way through in just one sitting. The album is so sprawling that it becomes difficult to separate the different songs and movements. However, the most memorable track is the lengthiest: the seven-and-half-minute “Exuberance” is the crest of the album’s wave. It starts and ends with relatively quiet but distinct, noodling jams. The first one is a fairly typical post-rock crescendo, which gets progressively faster, looser, and wilder until it bursts into a guitar solo. The solo itself is a mix of ‘70s Frank Zappa and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, capped off at the end by an intense Lombardo drum solo. After the song climaxes and collapses, it bursts into a Latin jazz intermission, not unlike The Mars Volta, followed by about two minutes of guitar noise and sporadic drums.
This album has been rated divisively among music critics and bloggers. It has earned a number of perfect “10 out of 10″ reviews, as well as being completely panned by a few — and almost nothing has fallen in between. I think it deserves high praise, but I can also understand where the detractors are coming from, even though I disagree. Those displeased seem to fall into two camps: those expecting PHILM to sound slightly like Slayer, and those who dislike Nestler’s singing and believe the album would have sounded better as an instrumental piece. I actually enjoy his vocals, and I imagine that most in this camp are merely fans of the often-instrumental post-rock genre.
(Ipecac Recordings, PO Box 1778 Orinda, CA 94563)