Band: Custard Flux | Album:Phosphorus | Genre: Progressive rock, Folk rock | Year: 2022
From: Detroit, USA | Label: Independent
For fans of: Phideaux, Van der Graaf Generator, Jan Dukes De Grey, Hawkwind
Mostly-acoustic Detroit band Custard Flux is back with their fourth full-length album (and their third to be named after an element), Phosphorus. Following 2020’s fantastic Oxygen, Phosphorus doubles down on some of the band’s previous innovations. The songs are longer and more complex, and electric instrumentation is integrated fluidly.
This is also Custard Flux’s longest release to date, and by a wide margin. At 80 minutes in length, it’s nearly 20 minutes longer than their debut and almost twice as long as either of their last two records. And though the melodies and overall ideas remain as strong as ever, this album isn’t without its excesses. There is a lot of bloat, with certain ideas being repeated over and over for much too long.
Phosphorus, much like its predecessor, starts off with a two-part piece. “The Pretender/Memory Ends” starts with a jerky acoustic pattern intercut with psychedelic, melodic vocal passages. There’s a great blistering electric guitar solo in this first part, too; I’ve really enjoyed the way electric instrumentation has been included in increasingly-organically ways on successive records while retaining the overall acoustic vibe that the band strives for. The second part of this track is slower and dreamier, with lovely backing vocals and mandolin, but it drags on for a bit longer than it needs to. This problem is a recurrent issue on Phosphorus: there are a lot of good ideas, but they often just get pounded-away-at for longer than is needed.
Next comes the title track, with jittery percussion and idyllic guitar patterns. Saxophone adds a lovely textural touch in the opening minutes. Around the midway mark, the song takes a harsh, discordant turn, and an evil-sounding series of guitar solos take center stage. The chord choices here are very Van der Graaf-y, and when the sax solo starts, that only strengthens the comparison. Much like the opening track though, this song could have been trimmed down, especially in the opening and the very end.
“Station” is one of the shorter songs on the album, and it’s got an infectious energy to it. It’s catchy, enchanting psych-folk with smart pop sense. “The Gardener”, meanwhile, reminds me of The Kinks circa Arthur with its structuring and quirky story. Saxophone is again deployed very well here, adding emphatic punches of energy. Unfortunately, though, this song also carries on for too long.
An irregular, ascending acoustic guitar line opens “Strawberry Squid”, along with jangling mandolin. After building up some promising, nervous energy, the song resolves into torpid folk topped with an electric guitar solo. It’s fine, and the drummer puts on a great performance; but the backing track overall sounds uninspired. Gradually, though, the pace picks up, and as it gains momentum the song becomes more interesting. “The Man In Blue Wants Out Of His Suit”, meanwhile, is another fine piece of psychedelic folk, though it too could stand to be shorter.
“Roses and Wine” brings back the eerie feel of the opening of “Strawberry Squid”, and the plaintive vocals add another spooky layer. This addition makes for a sharp contrast to the rather sweet, conventional chorus. I feel like a broken record, but this song also becomes repetitious by its end, due in large part to how many reprises received by the chorus.
Next up is another two-part song: “The Devil May Care/Sifting the Stars”. It’s got a fun, energetic opening which is slightly funky and non-conventional. There’s a lot of tension to this track, always threatening to burst free. This opening section seems at points like it might slip into the reoccurring tedium so often encountered on Phosphorus, but it manages to avoid that at the last moment by swerving into an airy instrumental passage. Where this song does become tedious, though, is in its second half. This four-minute guitar solo could have easily been trimmed down to about 90 seconds, and nothing would have been lost.
“Orbital Transport” is a fittingly calm, spacey instrumental, but it suffers from its placement in the track listing. Following the slog that is “Sifting the Stars”, this track doesn’t add anything to the arc of the album. It also doesn’t need to run for nearly six minutes.
“Staring Straight into the Sun” is the shortest track on the album at four-and-a-quarter minutes. It’s a fairly average Custard Flux track. It’s enjoyable enough, it doesn’t drag on for too long, and there’s nothing especially noteworthy about it.
Following that, though, is the album’s longest song: “By the Order of the Grand Vizier”. Echoey piano and a Gilmourian guitar line open the track. The intro is a bit longer than it needs to be, but it does eventually resolve into a dramatic electric theme. The expansive atmosphere of this song lends itself better to its length than some of the other long songs on Phosphorus, and its extended instrumental meditations are less egregious. This song’s mood shifts from drifting to anxious around the seven-minute mark, as an Eastern-tinged acoustic guitar line takes the lead. This composition is the only long track on the album that feels like it utilizes its length well.
Phosphorus ends on “The Face of Mankind”. It’s got a mournful feel to it, but there is a flute line that helps add a hint of optimism. It’s an enjoyable enough song, and it doesn’t feel too terribly overlong.
Despite how much I harped on about this record’s bloat and repetition, I did enjoy it overall. Gregory Curvey is a skilled songwriter with a knack for strong melodies and some inventive compositional ideas. However, he needs to be more aggressive in trimming his songs down. This record could probably lose close to 20 minutes and come out stronger for it.