Philadelphia’s Stinking Lizaveta celebrates their thirtieth anniversary next year, and what better way to mark that impending event than with their eighth studio album? For a bit there based on interview comments from the band it seemed like 2017’s Journey to the Underworld might be their last true album based on changing music industry trends, but whatever circumstances have led to this year’s Anthems and Phantoms I’m happy to have more instrumental rock to explore. Using guitar, drums, and upright electric bass for what could be seen as a pure distillation of the rock ‘n roll power trio, Stinking Lizaveta has always embraced the power of the riff and rock ‘n roll swagger alongside some jazzier and more experimental elements. Anthems and Phantomscontinues the stripped-down sound and brevity of its predecessor, but the bass pops a bit more this time around and the songs explore a wide range of high energy and moodier moments. A few come and go without fully sinking their teeth in, but the ones that do make this another strong showing from a group that deserves more notoriety.
Stinking Lizaveta has always managed to find a balance between the accessible and the complex, sometimes going for more straightforward hard rock and rock ‘n roll swagger that could just as easily have vocals but manages to tell a story without them. Other moments have run the gamut of experimentation within rock and even played around with some of metal’s sharper tonality, but rather than writing one flashy passage after another for the sake of showing off their musicianship, this trio has always emphasized how a simple riff can drive things forward and then be transformed into something much different. Eight albums in that continues to hold true and Stinking Lizaveta is as tight of a unit as ever. Continuing the stripped-down production approach from Journey to the Underworld but bringing the bass out a bit more, Anthems and Phantoms feels like a good approximation of what you get from the band in a live setting. Tracks like “Let Live” give equal space to each instrument as they settle into a mid-tempo groove with both the upright bass and drums creating a weightier foundation as the guitars soar over top of them. It’s an approach that’s effective in both loud and soft contexts, as closer “Light of Love, Darkness of Doubt” gives enough space for each instrument to breathe as they explore more subtle textures that remind me a bit of Earth’s spaghetti western sounding albums.
The biggest question for an album that’s entirely instrumental is usually, do the songs have what it takes to hold your attention and draw you back? Anthems and Phantoms answers that with an enthusiastic yes, and while a couple songs came and went on repeat listens without fully sticking out the amount that do outnumber them. “Electric Future” starts things off at a brisker pace and provides a rollercoaster ride that feel like a cross between a heavy metal gallop and a more fluid, psychedelic rock approach. “Nomen Est Omen” is a highlight for me, with its immediate rock ‘n roll swagger mixed with the lumbering bass that gives a slight tinge of stoner rock or metal, and it’s also a great demonstration of what continues to make Stinking Lizaveta different. The more restrained approach here lets a groove drive things forward before whipping things up into a shredding type solo, but then it’s back to that more methodical groove with additional layers of instrumentation added in. Most instrumental rock and metal bands these days would let the shred drive and throw as many transitions and notes at the listener as they can, but Anthems and Phantoms really emphasizes the journey and how the songs get there. Admittedly “Daily Madness” and “Serpent Underfoot” just kind of came and went for me over repeat listens and almost felt like they bled together into one song rather than separate ones, which could be due to the shorter run-times. But that run from “Blue Skunk” to “Light of Love, Darkness of Doubt” more than makes up for it, as the more reflective and sprawling approach to the songwriting lends itself to some cerebral moments that have quite a bit of staying power.
I’ve been a fan of this band since Sacrifice and Bliss came across my desk in 2009, and while these days there are a bit less effects and the songwriting is a bit more direct, I appreciate how close it gets to what they sound like on-stage. They still nail that build-up from catchy groove/lead riff into soaring solos, with some elements of jazz and prog woven into their sound that makes things just a little less predictable. A few of the songs didn’t quite stick, particularly some of the shortest ones that didn’t feel like they fully reached their peaks, but the others have some earworm grooves and explore so many different facets of what rock can be that you’ll want to keep coming back. Albums from Stinking Lizaveta are a bit less frequent these days, but the quality is still there when we do get them. Anthems and Phantoms is available from SRA Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg