Band: The Mask of the Phantasm | Album:New Axial Age | Genre: Progressive rock | Year: 2021
From: Austin, USA | Label: Independent
For fans of: Bent Knee, The Dear Hunter, The Mars Volta
It is likely unsurprising that the author of a progressive rock blog is not the biggest fan of punk. Post-hardcore is a variety I’m particularly not fond of (mostly due to the vocals), but post-hardcore is also the variety most often melded with prog. There have been some successes in the realm, most notably The Mars Volta’s earliest releases, but a lot of it fails to tickle my fancy.
The Mask of the Phantasm’s debut is one of those uncommon records which uses post-hardcore in a way which I like. There’s an emotional rawness to New Axial Age, as well, which is absent in a lot of prog. Thomas Pridgen (formerly of The Mars Volta) provides drums on this album, and the raw intensity he brings serves it well. All the members of this band perform excellently, from the impassioned vocals to creative keyboard parts, to the strong compositions provided by their guitarist.
The album begins with “Red/Blue/Black/White”. After a sound collage intro, it explodes into a big, bombastic riff. The verses are aggressive but melodic, and there are some very strong ideas. Despite that, this cut feels a bit long; maybe a verse could have been cut off. It closes on a nice, weird synth solo played over an awkward, irregular, start-stop rhythm.
“Exit Wounds” has a slinking, vaguely Middle Eastern feel to it, and Pridgen’s drumming is the real star of the understated verses. (Compare that to some of his past work, like The Mars Volta’s “Soothsayer”, where his playing simply felt too busy.) His drumming feels purposeful and not just a technical maelstrom. This cut closes on another noteworthy synth solo, this one with a crunchier tone paired alongside some saxophone.
My immediate reaction to the gentle, ballad-y opening of “Last Night at the Duplex” was not a good one, but the song quickly improves. It escalates slowly throughout its runtime, and the sax is the highlight here. “Escape from Wide Island”, though, has a much more pleasing opening, with a melodic, dramatic guitar line leading the charge. The verses are murky with weirdly detuned guitar embellishments. This cut features another strong sax solo, and the bassist gets a chance to show off with lots of fills and flourishes.
“Like a Wraith” is probably my favorite song on the album. It begins with a jumpy, jangly guitar line that almost feels like chiptune. This guitar line acts as an ostinato, being present throughout the entire song’s length. As the rest of the band joins in, the verses are fueled by slightly bluesy guitar and organ, and the chorus has very strong forward momentum. As the song progresses, the swirling organ and pounding drums give the impression of a storm.
Faux old-timey piano opens “Last Call, for Anxiety”, which has a nearly cabaret-like feel. This is another song that is a bit longer than would be ideal, but there are some rather Van der Gaaf-y moments where piano and sax take the lead. “Caught in a Trap” features some post-punk influence in its guitar tone and overall coldness, and the closing “How to Make It through Act III” balances a hopeful chorus against anxious verses.
New Axial Age is a strong debut for this Texan quintet. It’s melodic, sophisticated, and emotional without being overwrought. The post-hardcore influence is present but muted, and this is a wonderfully balanced, diverse album. A few songs feel a little long, and there were one or two which were decent but just failed to stick with me. Overall, though, this earns a strong recommendation.