It’s difficult to determine how Phantogram’s music should be categorized. Wikipedia lists at least six different genres, spanning from R&B to electro rock. Perhaps this could pose a problem for the duo in their journey to expand their audience and find a niche — just look at the initial responses Kanye West received when he tried his hand at electropop with “808s & Heartbreak.” But the duo proved that their flexibility only gives them an edge as they more than warmed up the audience for Miike Snow at the Hearst Greek Theatre on Saturday.
After first opener Klangstof, the duo took charge of the platform with the rapid bass of “You’re Mine” as its only introduction. A grid of flickering black-and-white squares set the backdrop of the stage. Whether the duo intended for it to complement the meaning of the song — maybe, the black represents the emptiness that’s evoked when Sarah Barthel sings, “No one’s gonna love you”— or just wanted to induce an epilepsy within the crowd will forever remain a mystery.
The stage design maintained this simplicity with vertically reflected fluid visuals (think Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” music video) and a filtered live recording of the duo’s performance that looked like it was taken from the “pop art” effect on Photobooth.
As the set progressed, a lack of clarity in Barthel and Josh Carter’s vocals became increasingly noticeable. Anyone who has listened to Three likely quickly caught on to Phantogram’s affinity for distorted, hazy, and atmospheric vocals. On the album, these effects, coupled with Barthel’s husky voice, is an asset.
But in a song like “Howling At The Moon” live, one is left forever wondering what she could possibly be saying. Although the duo’s sound is understandably difficult to translate to live performances, it’s definitely not impossible — bands like Tame Impala have made names for themselves doing it.
But besides that, their set was an enjoyable emotional rollercoaster. From their dark, synthy, and energetic “Black Out Days” to their slow reflective love song “Answer,” Phantogram aggressively swings the audience from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. You could see their music work its effect amongst the audience as some would slow dance and embrace each other as if no one else was there except for them.
The duo stuck with the crowd pleasers and performed its more popular songs. The two often jumped around their discography, going back to its roots to play “Mouthful of Diamonds” from their debut album before fast forwarding to “Answer” from their most recent album Three.
Toward the end of their set, Phantogram appropriately transitioned from downers like “Destroyer”— a song with the lyrics “I can kill you all”— to uppers such as “Calling All” where Barthel gets to encourage the audience to bring out its inner promiscuity. As “WE ALL GOT A LITTLE BIT OF HO IN US” flashed word by word on the screen, the speed of the mood change in the audience purported that everyone had just taken a caffeine pill at the same time.
The man in the audience who ripped his shirt off during the song is a fair indicator that Phantogram has satisfied its fans and then some. As the duo closed with their most recent hit single “You Don’t Get Me High Anymore,” a testament of the current generation’s disillusionment and “wanting to feel something strong and doing whatever it takes to feel it again,” one can only hope that Barthel and Carter have found their fix of dopamine. It’s only fair as they, rest assured, continue to provide a satisfactory high for their audience.