Artist: Machinae Supremacy
Album: Phantom Shadow
It’s May 2016 and Phantom Shadow came out in August 2014, so you may be wondering why I am writing a review of this album nearly 2 years after its release, and if I’m just doing it for fun, why am I not backdating it and sticking it in the archive where it belongs? The reasons behind my madness are twofold: the first is that I never really understood this album the first hundred times I listened to it, so it has taken nearly 2 years for me to get the full feel of it. The second is that this post is a little album story teaser for our special feature that’s coming out in August where we will reveal the full story behind Phantom Shadow!
Phantom Shadow was always a really good album. A really good album. Then theories began to develop about the story and it became a great album. But, after learning the real story, it has ascended to an unbelievable album, if totally convoluted. This album deserves a review more than half of the albums I’ve reviewed, so better late than never, right?
At this point, so as not to spoil the surprise, I’m only going to hint at what’s going on here. You’ll just have to wait for our special feature to hear the full story! [Convoluted spoilers/teasers ahead]
[This review has been backdated from 2016]
Listen along here, if you like:
1. I Wasn’t Made for the World I Left Behind
This spoken-word introduction is a rather eerie and wonderful start to the album. It has everything you want in the beginning of a story – mystery and intrigue – the things it takes to lure you in and make you want to turn the page, or in this case, listen further.
2. The Villain of This Story
How fucking cool is this song? Seriously! If “I Wasn’t Made for the World I Left Behind” is a perfect intro, this is the perfect starting track. Telling the story of Skye (front and center on the album art) and her awakening and disorientation (as a killer without a purpose) after a 10-year cryogenic sleep, this song’s high energy and fantastic SID riffs make it a picture-perfect MaSu song and sets the album off to a great start.
3. Perfect Dark
This song very nicely shapes Skye’s character. She doesn’t have a cause of her own, but under the Soren’s (the bearded man) orders, she has a purpose. She finds Jovi (top left) and Agnes (bottom right) under attack and does what she does best – brutally murders their attackers. They wonder what she is, but she assures them that they are safe with her and in fact, probably safer with her than on their own, seeing how helpless they were when under attack.
Oh how I love the SID intro to this track. You’d think things might slow down after the hard-hitting intro of “Villain…” but this song just keeps it going. Man, it just has the best feeling and such a great chorus that’s perfect for singing along. Skye knows she’s not a “good guy,” but she will get things done.
This song follows an encounter between Edge (red hair) and Skye, which resulted in Skye shooting him in the head (not that that would stop him). Things have gotten “real” for the activists – it’s not just fun and games anymore.
This track is a really bold change for MaSu and quite well executed. The addition of Ingeborg Ekeland as the voice of Skye was a phenomenal addition and they harmonize beautifully together, though it does make you wonder a bit why she is featured mainly on this one song and not the others, considering that most of the story is told from Skye’s perspective.
5. Throne of Games
This is a bit of a backstory track, and perhaps the most out of place on the album, which explains how Agnes and Jovi have been recruiting their network of activists – through the online gaming community. This isn’t one of the best songs for a casual listen on the album, but again, knowing the story, the musical choices make so much more sense. This is probably the most traditionally gamer-centric song on the album, and gets points for tipping its hat to A Game of Thrones. It is a little cliché in concept though, no? Well, we’ll allow a little nerdiness to shine through. What would MaSu be without some nerdiness after all?
6. Meanwhile (in the Hall of Shadows)
The girl in the top right, shrouded in darkness, is Sara. She’s one of the leaders of the Corporation that’s ruling from the shadows. In this song, she learns of Skye’s existence and wonders who she is. It’s not exactly a traditional MaSu-style song, but Victoria Clare‘s juvenile yet ominous performance makes her an excellent (and oh so creepy) villain.
7. Phantom Battle
The heroes are ambushed and it looks like the end for them. Skye knows what the phantoms are (essentially the failed versions of what she is – mindless, overpowered killing machines) and knows that chances are, they won’t escape, but perhaps she can give Jovi and Agnes time to get to safety… no Agnes! Not that way!
This song has some fun energy in spite of its rather sad and ominous ending. I love the cocky “bring it on” attitude of the chorus, as well as Skye’s attitude even in facing certain death.
8. Captured (Sara’s Theme)
There are no words, only an ominous feeling. Agnes is now in the hands of the enemy. That can’t be good…
If you haven’t noticed (of course you’ve noticed!), this incredibly kickass song starts on the same note as the old 2002 track, “Nemesis.” This song had to grow on me but it’s one of my favorites on the album now. I love the cocky attitude in which Jovi’s part is sung, which sounds a bit weird coming from his character until you consider that he’s addressing a group of badasses in an underground fighting ring. The conversation between Reyn and Skye is particularly good. “So it wasn’t a fair fight.” “There’s no such thing.”
Musically, this song really works as a recruitment anthem and does everything to hype me up and get some hope back into me after the loss of Agnes. And we all know I’m a total sucker for a marching beat. It’s a great track.
10. Beyond Good and Evil
Musically this is one of the most media-praised songs, and even though it has some seriously good competition, I’m inclined to agree that it is one of the finest works on this album. Finding your path and figuring out what you’re doing with yourself, regaining your soul… it’s a good progression for a main character, and for a side character. The parallels between Reyn and Skye at this point are clear.
The SID remains ever-present, and it’s got really good, fun energy, and Robert Stjärnström, whose vocals you either love or hate, really crushes it this time. It’s another song on the list of songs that really grew on me the more I listened to it. Also, props for the fan-filmed music video!
11. The Second One
Soren has finally shown his face in the story, but Skye finds her own direction and doesn’t need him to guide her anymore. Skye is sorry for losing Agnes, but what could she do? She woke up all alone…
This is definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album, even if I am largely outvoted on the matter by the masses. It’s clearly a thematic and musical successor to another of my favorite MaSu songs, “Indiscriminate Murder is Counterproductive” from 2010’s A View from the End of the World. Before this song, I’ve never consciously noticed a band intentionally reworking a riff into something the same, but different. And the idea from “Indiscriminate Murder,” of a gamer having too much fun killing NPCs fits so well into Skye’s personality as a murderer – “I thrive on murder but a fight is still a fight and I / suppose I might as well fight for what is right and make it up this time.” Just brilliant!
12. The Bigger They Are (the Harder They Fall)
This song breaks my heart into so many pieces every time I listen to it. It tricks you into thinking it’s going to be an instrumental (even the title has the brackets, like “Sara’s Theme” or “Skye’s Requiem”). Here, Skye learns that Agnes is not dead after all, but rather, she’s been taken captive by the Corporation and turned into a phantom… now she has to destroy the girl she had vowed to protect. Of course, things don’t always happen the way you expect them to. I have trouble listening to this song because it’s so depressing. Even the delightful SID sounds don’t make it any easier to hear.
Ah, Skye and Soren… they have a fascinating relationship. You can hear Skye’s thoughts toward her mentor here, how she knows that she’s not the best person in the world, but her evil is nothing compared to what he capable of doing, followed by his thoughts on what she has become – her own person, who doesn’t need him as a guiding light anymore. Man, listen to that chorus! The battle is raging all around them and they launch their final attack. There are some seriously powerful melodies in here! Throw this on the list of killer tracks on this album. I love it!
14. Mortal Wound (Skye’s Requiem)
Well shit, we all know what that means.
15. Hubnester Rising
I never got into this song when I didn’t know about the album’s story. Alone, it didn’t strike me as much, but in context… fuck! This really is the epic finale! You can feel Jovi’s resolution in this song… there’s fear, apprehension, bravery. There isn’t resignation, rather, he’ll face his fate like a man and do what has to be done. This music is so conclusive and dynamic, it’s exactly what you need to end a great story!
Concluding thoughts? Musically, this album is absolutely phenomenal. The integration of their signature SID sounds into a hard-hitting metal album with such a gritty concept is just fantastic. After hearing me gush about it for so long though, you might wonder why I didn’t give it a perfect score, especially considering I think every song on the album has its place (even “Throne of Games”). The reason is simply that I believe concept albums should tell a story that can be comprehended. Don’t get me wrong, Phantom Shadow certainly tells a story, but if you were planning to dig deep and figure it out, the best you’d get is something like my fan theory, because this album only really scratches the surface of the real story. We were never really given a chance to find out the story. So as a concept album, it didn’t really succeed, but if we ignore that particular mindset, the album is a masterpiece both in music and concept. Final score? Like you had to ask. 9.5/10, 5 stars! Well done guys – you nailed it!
Text: Amy Wiseman