Len Sander – Phantom Garden

The serge in popularity of electronic music has given rise to a new kind of artist, an artist who neither wallows in the obscurities of dance music nor conforms completely to the accessible format. They rely on popular forms in an electronic aesthetic to add a sincere depth to pop culture without alienating the masses. Portishead, Snow Ghosts and The Knife are a few artists I could mention off the top of my head and the latest to the join the fray is a group out of Switzerland called Len Sander. Their debut album, Phantom Garden arrived with a note encouraging the listener to experience the contents at midnight through a set of good headphones. Following the band’s instructions I sank into the album as swells of reverberating bowed tones and Mirjam (Blanka) Inauen’s vocals almost instantly began to float around the stereo field. It soon made sense why the group insisted on that particular situation in which to hear their album.

One can immediately draw comparisons to the likes of Snow Ghosts on the first listen, but Phantom Garden also hides something unique in its make-up. Most of the aforementioned acts share the inherent displacement of an electronic act arriving at an accessible disposition through the addition of a vocalised expression. It means that many of the songs subscribe to an electronic dance form where repetition is a prerequisite, and is usually constructed from simple rhythmical patterns on a drum machine. Tiga would be an obvious example here. Len Sander however, is anchored in popular formulas that call on the synthesised sound pallets of electronic music and this is a distinct characteristic, not often employed by their peers. Most notably the tracks on Phantom Garden all employ verse-chorus forms, the kind you find in all popular music, and like in the case of the title track chorus, even harmonic movements appear to be appropriated directly from popular music’s accessible canon. It’s able to engage with listeners on a universal plane, in the same manner a Beatles song would in the past, and when the listener has passed beyond the recognisable aspects of Len Sander it reveals a musical world with far greater depth than the average pop song.

An introduction to the group came by way of the first single from the album, Ungrowing. After a brief intro, the first few notes play on an acoustic piano recalling the minimalist aesthetic of somebody like Terry Riley, just before it falls away into delay which dissipates into a sine wave that seems to stretch the sound on to infinity, before modulating to the next pitch. Mirjam‘s voice floats effortlessly between these two elements, evoking the torment of a lost love, highlighting the group’s ability to flit between traditional live instrumentation and electronics in a very undisruptive manner. It’s something that is consistent throughout the whole album, and gives Phantom Garden its continuity in its long format. The restraint they show in their textures never exasperate the listener and gives him/her enough time to find a way into the music and especially to wonder at the curiosities, like the vocal or never-ending delays.

Nightshade starts each new phrase of the chorus in a dissonant key, that Mirjam’s voice strains to get out, before lapsing back into the tonal centre, creating an uncomfortable discord before restoring calm with the lyrics “They say it’s too much weight to balance in my hands.” The press release mentioned that the music was written by a group of broken-hearted romantics, but any sense of a broken heart is only ever in Len Sander’s arrangements and not through the abstract metaphors they apply to their lyrics. It appears however at times that the lyrics are merely the symbiotic glue that connects the listener to the music. Inauen annunciates “Electrocardiography” during the second track in a way, that it not only highlights her quirky accent, but also gives the chorus of that song a new rhythmical dimension that compliments the distorted guitar. How the chief lyricist, which I assume is also the lead vocalist, came upon that specific word might always be a mystery, but what is certain is that the vocal line would only have worked through those eight syllables, suggesting that the lyrics were moulded to accommodate the music.

Again it shows Len Sander has a formidable grasp in bringing the traditional instrument of the voice together with the experimentalism that’s inherent in electronics. And what’s more significant is the command they show in not falling into either thoughtless popular functional forms or pure expressive experimentation. They give each part the room to breathe and make it stand its own significant ground within every song. A tendency to use words like float and ethereal to describe their music is too obvious to resist. Everything emerges as a single entity in its composed form, which allows the listener to drift through Phantom Garden, unperturbed by his/her surroundings. It is now blissfully clear why Len Sander want their listeners to enjoy the album enveloped in the solitude of darkness and cut-off from the outside world.