Album Review: Soaring Wayne Phoenix - Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth

It doesn’t happen all that often, but every once in awhile, music is still able to surprise me.

Maybe it happens more than I am acknowledging—maybe there are levels to the way music can surprise me still, or maybe the level of surprise, as it were, is somehow based within the genre in question. 

Maybe I can still be surprised by pop music, and how I am, sometimes inexplicably, drawn to a song, or in some cases, even an entire album, by an artist that I, as a depressive white man in my late 30s am, by all accounts, not really thought to be in the listening demographic for.

Maybe I can still be surprised by music that I see reflections of myself in, and when I do, I feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me; or how there are certain moments in a song—a borderline perfect song—when everything tumbles together to create something so staggering and beautiful, that all you can do is just marvel. 

Sometimes an album is so fascinating and bizarre—even with as unnerving as it can be to listen, you’re still drawn to it.

There was a time when I would say that I probably wouldn’t have been ‘ready’ for an album like Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth, the dissonant, captivating, all too brief debut from a new, completely unknown, enigmatic artist named Wayne Phoenix. 

I say this because there was a time, well over 20 years ago now, when I first heard Pre-Millennium Tension, it was an album that I was, at the age of 13, most definitely not ‘ready’ for—in fact, it took a very, very long time and countless attempts for me to really find my way into it. At times, that album is brilliant; it’s 100% difficult and completely stark—and even though I eventually figured it out, it’s the kind of record that keeps the listener at an arm’s length, and even after listening to it, from beginning to end, so many times over the course of two decades, it can still make me wildly uncomfortable at times.

But art is supposed to challenge, right? 

There is little backstory to the origins of Soaring Wayne Phoenix, and what backstory has been revealed is almost too compelling that it seems somewhat deliberate, or calculated: the product of a trained pianist, Soaring Wayne Phoenix, allegedly, was recorded over a decade ago as a sort of ‘audio diary’—this idea alone explains the album’s surprising opening line, “Tonight, I will sing the story of my life so far” (except it isn’t really sung, it’s spoken.) The material was, again, allegedly, filed away in a drawer, and as the press material on Boomkat states, the album ‘resembles a time capsule of a former, or parallel, self; one the artist is only now at ease to come terms with.’

There are a number of words one could use to describe Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth: it can be harsh, startling, pensive, confusing, and dizzying; it’s also frustrating—because there are moments where you feel like you are on the cusp of understanding it, or having it opening up to you just a little more, but then those moments vanish, and you are left in a literal darkness.

Tonight, I will sing to you the story of my life so far…..

Spread across only nine tracks, Soaring Wayne Phoenix is a sparse 18 minutes long, taking up exactly one side of the limited edition, yellow vinyl it is available on. It’s an unrelenting 18 minutes though, with pieces—I hesitate to even call them ‘songs,’ colliding one into the other; at it becomes a challenge to tell where one ends, and the other begins. And that’s the point, or at least one of the points of this record—it is the kind of thing that you have to listen to, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. 

I think, at this point, it goes without saying that Soaring Wayne Phoenix is either a headphone record—something you keep secret, and keep safe—or, something you play very, very loudly on your turntable, sitting near your speakers in order to pick up all the nuances and layers the album has to offer. 

And it’s here that I should discuss some of the similarities between this record, and an album that I cam across just around this time, last year—Solitude, from the recently reconstructed (and now a duo) King Midas Sound. There are, of course, myriad differences between the two projects, and as a music writer, I do really dislike falling back onto a device such as this (comparing one thing so directly to another, or relying so heavily on pointing out the similarities), but it’s where my mind, and my ears, went almost immediately.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I purchased both records, a year apart, from the UK, on Boomkat; perhaps it has to do with how they share similar themes, or shared ideas run throughout; perhaps it has to do with the dissonant canvas they both work in. In the press materials on Boomkat, Soaring Wayne Phoenix is compared to, or at least recommended to fans of Young Echo Records, of Burial, and of Tricky—and yes, I can hear all of that running throughout this record’s 18 minutes. But, Soaring Wayne Phoenix is something wholly original; I stop short of saying it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before, but, because it surprised me so, maybe that’s true. It’s all at once a startling, confrontational, comforting experience.

The album opens with one of Phoenix’s most easy to digest tracks, “Mood,” which in a sense is like the thesis statement for the record. He’s going to sing to you the story of his life so far, an audacious opening statement, on an audacious, bold, borderline fearless album.

“Tonight, I will sing to you the story of my life so far,” “Mood” begins, over a minimal, swaying pattern of droning, with some minor, extremely unsettling moaning vocals in the background. “I don’t know what it means to be secure, or to have…’s just to have the things that make life matter to… 

Then, shortly after that, “Loneliness isn’t something to be afraid of, or…it’s become my home. I don’t know, or want to know, what it feels like to be around so many people that you can’t be yourself.”

Yes, it sounds like something pulled directly from someone’s journal (this is an ‘audio diary,’ of sorts, after all) or like it’s from some unhinged person’s manifesto—this kind of brutal, chilling honesty can be, maybe, a little much, and a little arresting at first, especially since it’s the opening track. However, musically, it’s reserved enough, and just dissonant (and not yet abrasive) to ease you into the cacophony that is to come.

There’s a dramatic bait and switch that occurs as Phoenix pulls you into the harsh, buzzing sounds of “Alone.” “I used to feel so alone,” he says. “It was horrible. I just remember looking for ways to distract myself, you know, as a way to protect myself…” but, you can barely hear any of this words (I hesitate to call them lyrics) because of the way they are absolutely buried in the noisy, distorted mix, and I mean, at one point, he even steps away from the microphone almost completely so you really have to lean into the entire piece to hear what is being stated.

“Place,” musically, is a source of some comfort, as huge, warm, synthesizer tones wash over you, but it’s also where something partially beautiful, or at least not totally hideous, is butted right up against something that is completely unsettling—outside of the skittering, noisy bursts of untraceable samples that explode at various interrupting the landscape of the song, it is mainly based around a weird, wordless, vocal noise Phoenix continues to make.

The track that is most reminiscent, as the album moves forward, of both Burial, and Tricky’s earliest work, is the 30 second interlude, “and Sleepless Skies,” and I guess the only reason that this piece is akin to those artists is because of the dusty rattling that runs throughout the short clip, as well as the vocal sample, which sounds like it’s being broadcast from another dimension, spoken in a thick, raspy, lower class Cockney dialect.

I don’t want to be anyone’s beloved,” Phoenix states—again, another completely audacious statement, cutting and honest; and, again, buried underneath punishing levels of heavy noise, on “Burn False Messages.” However, there’s a surprisingly hopeful message tucked in near the end of the piece—it’s tough to make out though. It seems to be a statement on the idea of ‘human greed.’ “I think think that the need for human contact is stronger,” he says, which is a surprising discovery and reversal from pretty much anything Phoenix has uttered since the album began.

Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth doesn’t so much become more palatable as it continues on into its second half—it’s also tough to tell where a ‘second half’ really begins on something that is nine tracks and 18 minutes, and meant to be ingested as a whole. But following the assault of “Burn Falls Messages,” the album segues into two instrumental pieces, which also happen to be the longest in their running times. “I Gave You Power,” and “Reserve,” provide two very real moments of reprieve from the rest of the album’s overall tone, offering warmth, comfort, and some reassurance.

The album ends with the dizzying “Death is Pure Objectivity,” a piece constructed primarily around explosive synthesizer tones and other bursts of what can only be accurately described as swooshing noises, with Phoenix firing off a bizarre, contextless, sample of a voice saying, “Do you remember what you said—that Isaac actually died? I’ve been thinking that maybe were right about that."

It’s an unsettling, somewhat confusing way to conclude an unsettling, confusing album—an album that, in the end, asks more questions than it ever could provide answers for.

Wayne Phoenix, as an artist, or performer, or whatever you want to call him, is purposefully remaining shrouded in mystery with a project such as this. There are no photos of him on the album’s sleeve, save for a transparent, shadowy image of his profile, and the only ‘promotional’ photo of him that I have seen out there regarding this record finds his face partially painted white to blur his identity even further.

He’s revealed both so little, yet so much, about himself with Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth—he’s let the press materials for the record do most of the talking, with the hyperbole comparing him to Burial, Young Echo, and Tricky, among others, generate a hype, which obviously succeeded. The album, released on January 10th, was limited to 300 physical copies, which are now sold out, but even when he’s kept himself cloaked in intentional shadow, the fact that Phoenix created an album’s worth of an ‘audio diary’ a decade ago, left it sitting, and opted to release it now, speaks volumes to the type of serious individual he more than likely is.

It goes without saying that Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth is not an easy, or light, listen—it’s one of the most challenging records I have ever heard, and one that demands, at times, almost too much from a listener. It’s not the kind of record that you are going to want to listen to regularly, or to have on while you are doing banal chores at home; much like King Midas Sound’s Solitude, or any other difficult album, it’s the kind of thing you have to be in the right state of mind for, because once you open yourself up to it, for 18 minutes, and even for long after the record has come to an end, it is the kind of thing that is going to swallow you whole. 

Soaring Wayne Phoenix Story The Earth is out now as a digital download from Halcyon Veil, or you can buy the limited edition vinyl off of someone on Discogs.