It’s been almost a year since I regrettably missed Phantogram in D.C., so when I finally had the chance to catch them at Baltimore’s Ram’s Head Live, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. Anticipation had built and I was sick and tired of hearing people tell me what a phenomenal set I missed the last time around. So here I was, making a rare trip to Ram’s Head for a night of supposedly stunning electronica accompanied by unknown openers who promise low-key, ambient rhythms. With these expectations in mind, I was pleasantly surprised when Ki:Theory kicked things off in a much more aggressive manner.
Ki:Theory’s set started out with softer tones, and the electronic-based set was complemented handsomely by a tremendous touring drummer that played an electronic kit in addition to a traditional kit. Joel Burleson, the mastermind behind this project, hammered away at synth pads so rapidly that his hands became blurs, carrying a frantic energy as he managed loop after loop. The stark transition from soft ambience into nearly hardcore, pop-punk style breakdowns threw everyone for a loop, and surprisingly won over the restless audience. After thoughtfully crafted instrumentation, vocals begin to emerge, and it wasn’t long before Burleson abandoned his station at his keys to sing freely, moving in a manner that I’ve only ever seen from frontmen of pop-punk groups at Warped Tour. From there, the set flipped between ambient and thrashing, with occasional cartoon voices being sampled, and a later addition of guitar. The highest point was a captivating remix of Ladytron’s “Runaway,” which was no surprise as Ki:Theory is probably most well known for having quite an extensive list of remixes. The room was abuzz after such a high-voltage set and Burleson had surely won himself some new admirers.
After a quick break, Phantogram took the stage, providing a sharp contrast to Ki:Theory’s showmanship with their own impossible cool. From the start of their set, Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter were wrapped in a humble black package, the antithesis to the amped up crowd that greeted them. After anticipation built during their intro, they dove straight into “Bloody Palms.” With Barthel dancing at her keyboard, appearing to feel right at home at the cavernous venue. Initially there was very little vocal balance with Barthel struggling to be heard at times - it’s an issue that can be typical of live electronic shows - but such stunning, floating vocals (not to mention a bit eerie) deserve to stand a chance against the instrumentation. “Mouth Full Of Diamonds” stunned the crowd next, providing, quite literally, a glittering gem early on in the set, with the band and the soundman finally finding the perfect balance for the venue.
It’s worth pointing at this point adding a drummer to the tour was a smart move, filling out the sound in a potentially calculated set. The aggressive drumming compliments Carter’s droning tones just as Barthel steps out from behind her keys to dance. She’s a slave to her own beats, stomping around on stage. At this point, I’m not sure who’s more entranced, the audience or her.
Next we were greeted by sounds from 2011’s Nightlife EP, starting with “Turning Into Stone.” The tones drifted somewhere between shallow and floating before being submerged in bass. A somewhat passive crowd had just began to take notice of the spectacular sensory blast before them, and started to dance a little more sincerely. “16 Years” and “Don’t Move” followed, the latter finally throwing the crowd into a frenzy. It’s at this point that Phantogram finally seemed satisfied with their performance, and can you blame them? A great performance demands a great audience. What’s even more impressive was the effortless shift from the upbeat and sparkling to the urgent and foreboding. The drive of “Turn It Off” keeps the pulse of the crowd steady, and “Make A Fist”, which was without a doubt the highest point of the set, carried the trend. It was the moment that Phantogram lived up to all the hype, giving subtle nod to shoegaze, with soaring vocals and a groaning breakdown that gracefully maintained a polished feel, but impressively abandoned the calculated feel to the set for the briefest moment.
Phantogram ended their set with the track “When I’m Small”. Bittersweet and almost a little haunting, with Barthel’s soft, breathy echoes, while it was a beautiful end to a gorgeous evening, it still left you yearning for something bigger; something more demanding. Yearning aside Phantogram succeeded in delivering a memorable, thoughtful, bright and memorable set. Days later, I still feel haunted by the floating melodies, and I know that I won’t soon forget the shivers in my spine that their music provided.