March 28, 2023

Blue Blood, Red Passion

No-one would argue that metal has continued to push its boundaries and while some people will lament when metal was called just, well – metal – it is understandable that some will become jaded with all the vast array of genre tags out there and especially with some of the kookier ones. If anything, Brazilian/Dutch three-piece Phantom Elite has been aligned with the “symphonic” end of metal on account of their front woman – vocal superstar-in-waiting Marina La Torraca – who has the vocal chops, for sure. Describing themselves as “modern metal” may seem middle of the road in descriptive terms, but Phantom Elite is far from a middle of the road band, and it is only when digging deeper into the detail that it all becomes clear exactly what modern metal and what Phantom Elite is all about.

Phantom Elite (L-R) Joeri Warmerdam, Marina La Torraca & Max Van Esch.

Marina La Torraca is both engaging and bubbly, laughing often but at the same time, her passion for her craft is deadly serious. On that basis, there may be the idea that Marina was always destined to be a singer from early childhood, but the response is something of a surprise. “I began singing when I was 15 back in my homeland of Brazil,” explains Marina. “I started singing – like everyone does – in cover bands but only when I started listening to metal. Before that, I wasn’t interested in making music, it was the metal community and the genre that really made me want to make music.” Brazil is something of a hotbed of metal including – but not limited to Angra and Sepultura. “Sepultura was not one of my favourites,” laughs Marina. “I started very mellow and with Iron Maiden, I began impersonating Bruce Dickinson, I watched what he did and just tried to mimic. Somehow, I got far with that, not sure how [laughs]. It definitely put me on the right track for learning how to do more powerful vocals, but it all began with me impersonating Bruce.”

Phantom Elite: Marina La Tarroca

When VT asks what steps Marina took to sing professionally, there is no pause for thought or deliberating over the answer. “I always had the objective of doing it professionally,” says Marina. “From the get-go I was going to learn how to do this properly and I’m going to be in bands, get signed to a label and I don’t fucking know [laughs]. I had all these ideas in my head but how I got better at it was just by doing it and as I said I joined a few cover bands. There was one band that I was with for many years, and we played in São Paulo almost every weekend for a while, we played a lot.  I went to school, and I went to rehearsals or shows during the weekend, I wasn’t partying and wasn’t doing other stuff that teenagers do, I was so focused on getting there somehow and really going for it. To be honest, I had a few singing lessons back then. At some point I was ‘ok, I can get better, I can’t just learn everything myself, I need help’ and I went to an amazing Brazilian metal vocalist, his name is Mario Pastore and I took lessons from him for a few years. Eventually, I began singing with musicals, I got interested in other genres of music beyond metal and had a few lessons with some very good teachers in Brazil. I also went to a school in New York and studied musical theatre. I auditioned, I got accepted and since then everything I’ve been doing is professionally orientated.”

The origin of Phantom Elite is not a simple and straight forward story as Marina just starting the band, it was a more roundabout route which involved another band called HDK, a project that had featured multiple guests and is led by Sander Gommans who is the former guitarist/male vocalist in Floor Jansen’s first band After Forever. “Sander said ‘I have an idea, why don’t we find a band to play HDK live?’ because it is a studio project with a couple of albums [2009’s System Overload and 2014’s Serenades Of The Netherworld] that had never been played live and the last album had [vocalist in her own right and Sander Gomanns’ wife] Amanda Somerville singing on it so I would be doing the live female vocals. We hunted down some musicians to join us but when we began rehearsing, we already had ideas of making our own music.”

Phantom Elite: Max Van Esch

To make their own music a reality, Marina once more connected with Sander Gommans. “I said to Sander ‘I want to sing in a band again, do you have an idea, do you have a band that needs a singer?’ and he said, ‘we could do something together’ and this was the beginning of Phantom Elite and our first album Wasteland.” Sander Gommans acts as Executive Producer on all of Phantom Elite’s albums to date and when asked whether Sander is a mentor as well as producer Marina answers emphatically, “Absolutely, but he was not part of the band as a performer. Sander co-wrote a lot of the material and that is why we have two songs on Wasteland that are both HDK songs, Revelations and Serenades Of The Netherworld [both from Serenades Of The Netherworld], we re-arranged them and re-interpreted them just to have a connection. Sander’s role stayed as a tutor for us, and he oversees the production, he is not actively with us in our writing sessions and obviously he’s super knowledgeable and experienced and an amazing songwriter, his help is very valuable; Sander works behind the scenes, helping with management, something he is also very experienced with.”

Released in 2018, Wasteland is the sound of a fledgling band with promise and to say that the album is rough around the edges is not a comment that offends Marina. “We consider Wasteland as completely homemade, if you will,” she says. “It was a completely different line up, the first thing that I ever co-wrote and yeah, we did it independently. It was just me, Sander and the old musicians, we got together and were like ‘ok, let’s just write some stuff and see what happens’, we weren’t on a label, we did a very independent release, and we were just testing the waters so to speak. Then everybody left one by one, and we were replacing them with musicians that are in the line up now, we decided not to stop and really go for it with Titanium. Wasteland was almost like preparing for the albums to come”.

That next album was Titanium which was released in January 2021. Phantom Elite were no longer an independent band and had signed with Frontiers Records and with a brand-new line up of musicians which now featured talented multi-instrumentalist Max Van Esch on guitar and drummer Joeri Warmerdam. The jump between Wasteland and Titanium is huge, everything from the sound to the song writing was on a different level. With brand new people, how did the writing sessions go? “It was completely organic,” says Marina. “We had no idea what we were doing, we had never worked together at all, it was a case of ‘ok, we need to write some new songs, I guess, so let’s do it’ and one of the first things we wrote for Titanium was Diamonds and Dark. We were like ‘this is working, let’s keeping doing it’ and we wrote The Race right after. We were learning to work together and learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and helping each other. I must say though that Titanium was a bit more of everyone writing their parts apart, there was a lot of going back and forth over the Internet with files. “

Phantom Elite: Joeri Warmerdam

Conversation therefore does slip into the pandemic. With a release date of January 2021, this would mean that a lot of work was done in 2020 which was the height of the global COVID-19 crisis and that this must have got in the way of Titanium, although Marina seems unfazed. “Not in the beginning and only partially,” says Marina. “That is one of the reasons why we had to do that [with files passing back and forth] but also because of our guitarist Max. We had no idea that the man is basically a genius, he had so many songs that were ‘instrument ready’ and he was showing us and said ‘hey guys, if we want to write more songs, we can start with this’ and were like ‘what? You’ve been keeping this from us?’ [laughs]. We agreed that absolutely we should use it, everything began from there and evolved into what we are doing today.”

Titanium is classy sounding album that is a modern sounding and varied suite of songs that delves into a dizzying array of musical directions while still maintaining hooks, terrific guitar work and drums and of course the vocal stylings of Marina La Torraca. It is the fact the album deftly brings in the styles such as the symphonic or even metalcore without overplaying them. Both Silver Lining and Eyes Wide Open feature guest vocals of Amanda Somerville and a choir on Eyes Wide Open. Phantom Elite was also not short of lyrical inspiration with Glass Crown delving into the day-to-day life online and social media. “Yeah, it’s quite obvious, there is not much of a metaphor going on there,” laughs Marina. “It made a lot of sense when we wrote it and especially because people nowadays are a little more aware that whatever goes on social media does not mean the truth and there was a lot of that with covid hitting and people online a lot. It’s a place where you can truly hide who you are and be something completely different.”

Phantom Elite released their new album Blue Blood on 17 March and at the time of the interview with Marina, the album had been out for 48 hours. How has the reaction been? “Oh man! It’s been crazy,” exclaims Marina. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far, some not so happy about the video for Apex that we released for the album. It’s supposed to be a joke but it’s a very violent video and we had some people commenting on it [laughs] but it is all in good fun, I guess. The video is different from what we’ve been doing and it’s immediately quite different for the label and what the label has on their roster. Different is good, we’ve had 99% positive feedback.”

Blue Blood cover artwork

As much as the video for Apex is good fun, it is also quite violent. “Since it’s an 18+ video, that comes with some downsides,” explains Marina. “Needing an account to watch the video is already a threshold and you know that the attention span online is zero, people want to see something immediately and having to log in to watch the video means that those things hurt the visualisation. That doesn’t mean that it is not doing its job statistically.” There was another controversy though and at the mention of it, Marina cracks out laughing. The post promoting the video was taken down from social media for being – let us say – provocative. “It did not last very long! It was less than an hour on Instagram, but it was a whole day on Facebook, which is amazing! It is frustrating, though because this is why I did it, I know that it was a little provocative because that is what it takes. I’m not saying that people are going to click it because of that but you know what I mean. I said that it was a joke and by no means did I intend to offend my audience or call anyone a pervert. It was more calling attention to the fact that on social media, you promote a video, but it doesn’t do as well as someone showing their butt, you know? I just wanted that post to reach them because you know how it works; the algorithm doesn’t show what you post to everybody that follows you, so I just wanted to get more interaction on their feed and to see the video.”

It is fair to say that of the three videos from the new album, Apex was not the only video to have the Internet police crawling all over and following the brilliantly colourful but moody video for Inner Beast, second single and animated video for Black Sunrise also ran into some trouble. “It was red flagged,” explains Marina. “The video wasn’t being shown and we couldn’t promote it and YouTube said that it had sensitive content, but we were really shocked because we knew what was coming with the Apex video and we couldn’t understand it and why Black Sunrise had sensitive content, it doesn’t have anything. The label people got in touch with YouTube, and they eventually went back on the decision so it’s all good with Black Sunrise now.”

Phantom Elite – (L-R) Marina La Tarroca, Joeri Warmerdam, & Max Van Esch

Like its predecessor, Blue Blood is an album that reveals itself on each listen. It is very much Phantom Elite’s sound but also the sound of a band on another level; the breadth of material as well that still incorporates all those progressive or metalcore elements but is more challenging showing growth of the band as songwriters and performers and in particular Marina’s vocal stylings and her evolution as a vocalist.  “I’ve always wanted to growl but I had to grow into it because I didn’t want to hear anything screaming wise but when it came to metal, my tastes became harder over time. Essentially, I thought how can I not do it? Expressing aggression is why I do metal and it’s important to do it in a safe environment and it’s a cathartic safe experience for everyone and that is amazing because only metal can do that, maybe some Dubstep [laughs]. Aggressive expression on vocals is something that I’ve missed, I’ve never really learned how to do distortion properly, it has never been my focus and I’m not particularly gifted at it either. Two years ago, I decided that I wanted to learn to growl, and it was nothing to do with Phantom Elite, I wanted this for myself. I got in touch with Diva Satanica who was with Nervosa and is the singer with Bloodhunter, she is so fantastic. I took a few lessons with Diva, and I have so many friends that are amazing extreme vocalists, so everyone has been helping. I can’t say that I can really do it properly but it’s enough for me to play around with for now.”

Marina does downplay her talent somewhat because the way that she has incorporated this more aggressive tone into her vocals is impressive. On Skin of My Teeth, there is a very subtle climb down to those more aggressive tones, whereas on Apex, the aggression is a part of the staccato back beat of the song. To go with the video and aggressive vocals, Apex also has some lyrical attack as well and it begs the question whether the song is aimed at anything or anyone in particular? “When we wrote the song it was not aimed at anyone specifically,” says Marina. “We just thought about being over the top aggressive and I found that little catch ‘your reptile blood has kept you safe, but I am a hawk in a world of snakes’, I thought that was perfect. Max had started the song and I asked, ‘why don’t we mention reptiles because they have cold blood?’ but the song is not aimed at anyone, although you could interpret that and aim it a few people.” While Blue Blood does feature some bouts of aggression, there is also soulfulness on songs such as Laid with Vines and on the beautifully stirring, Birdcage. One standout quality of the album is the pacing of it and placing Birdcage in front of Apex and the juxtaposition of serenity and violence. The difference in the songs also shows the incredible range that Marina La Torraca displays as a vocalist and there is a smile at the mention of the pacing. “When we were doing the distribution of the songs, we thought whether it was too much, and we tried shifting things around, but you know what? It works. It is a big contrast, but the worst thing is when you are listening to something, and it does not move or go anywhere.”

Phantom Elite: Marina La Torraca

Expressing Aggression is why I do metal

Marina La Torraca

The campaign to promote Blue Blood on tour commenced just days beyond release of the album with the band travelling through Europe with Italian symphonic metal band Temperance. The reactions from an album only a few days old has the band “nervous but excited” and the positive feedback has given Phantom Elite an “extra push” for the tour. This raises the question as to post-pandemic touring, financial instability and Marina is deadpan in her response. “Things are more difficult than before; prices have gone up in general. For example, we couldn’t get vinyl printed for Blue Blood because there was such a long wait and high prices for production, we would love to but there is a budget issue. The same goes for touring, everything has gone up and it really puts us in a difficult position.”

Blue Blood is an album that radiates cohesion, chemistry, and the growing confidence of Phantom Elite. With a keen eye and ear for detail, the amalgamation of styles is seamless and – like its predecessor – heralds a further defined moment in time for a band that has no intention of staying still, demonstrating youthful exuberance and being able to adapt where even a global pandemic did not get in the way of creativity. Blue Blood is once more Executive Produced by Sander Gommans. With its crystal-clear production adding depth and gravitas to the album, with the engine room musicianship and Marina’s vocals being the fuse to the powder keg. And it is all this that then makes clear that the term “modern metal” may appear generic but as Phantom Elite shows, they are a band that defy any limiting categorisation.

Blue Blood is the next step to greatness for Phantom Elite. Just try and stop them.

Phantom Elite’s new album Blue Blood is available now and currently on tour throughout Europe