There are some albums that, upon first listening, you immediately know will be a favourite. They resonate with you, and the songs are all caught in your head for days following your first listen. Phideaux’s Infernal did not give me that experience, and yet it’s still leading the pack to being my favourite album of 2018.
Infernal is an album with a lot of history behind it, so here’s the quick version: Phideaux Xavier is an Emmy award-winning daytime soap opera director who, along with a talented band, produces strange, wonderful, progressive rock music that, while not widely known, is held in very high regard in the online prog rock community. Infernal was announced years and years ago, the third part of what Phideaux calls his “eco terror tale,” which began with The Great Leap in 2006 and was quickly followed with Doomsday Afternoon the following year, which is widely considered his best work. Two unrelated albums followed (that, along with Doomsday Afternoon, represent his modern, more prog-focused era). The most recent was released in 2011, and for the seven years since, there has been nothing but anticipation and the occasional assurance that Infernal was coming to tide fans over. While their work has always been complicated, Phideaux serves as a relatively accessible example of modern prog, without diving head first into some of the eccentricities that many in the genre embrace by always keeping listenability in mind.
With those sorts of pressures, it’s no wonder Phideaux wanted to take the time to make a carefully crafted album, and in that regard, Infernal delivers. It certainly doesn’t sound like a hobby project, with elaborate, multi-instrumental tracks, and career-best performances from the whole Phideaux band. The music alternates between moody and upbeat, emotional and bizzare. Pianos take centre stage often, with violins and guitars playing a more secondary role compared to previous albums, and one of Phideaux’s strongest suits has always been its vocalists. Xavier’s vocals have a raspy, almost hollow quality that gives them an appropriately eerie sound, but it’s the four women in the band who provide truly amazing vocal performances — just look to the album’s a capella third track, “Crumble” (the third song with this title in Phideaux’s library) for an example. And when all of those elements come together, such as towards the end of the 14-minute “From Hydrogen To Love,” the result is amongst Phideaux’s best work.
However, taken as a whole, the album did at first underwhelm me — while there are definitely good songs, it lacked the cohesion I’d expect from a concept double-album ending a trilogy that tells the story of a dystopian society ravaged by a part-ecological, part-biblical apocalypse. Unlike concept albums like the work of Ayreon (who Xavier has worked with), the narrative is not spoon-fed to listeners, and songs seem to either set up characters, like the wonderfully foreboding “Inquisitor” or the setting, like the aforementioned “Crumble.” It’s hard to get a sense for what’s “happening” in the narrative.
But on relistening, I’ve found more and more buried beneath the surface — musical and lyrical references between songs, and between albums, that provide hints to the truth. A careful, concentrated listening (ideally with the lyrics open in front of you) is rewarding and worth your while, especially after listening to the previous two albums in the trilogy. And the thing is, this is how Phideaux’s always worked — it’s just been so long since their last release that it’s easy to forget there was a time when I wasn’t already very familiar with their music.
While perhaps not Phideaux’s most accessible work (which is probably 2009’s Number Seven, or one of their pre-Doomsday Afternoon works), Infernal lives up to the expectation of over a decade, after you take the time to acclimatize to it and sink back into the right headspace. The result is an intricate work of modern prog rock artistry that will absolutely be considered a classic in the genre for decades to come, even if it doesn’t have the same immediate appeal as some of their past work.