“Phantasmagoric” by Grace & Tony: Macabre Music Meets Dark Beer
Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking Tony White’s beer while listening to him talk about Grace & Tony’s upcoming album, Phantasmagoric, would’ve been worth the price of admission – if I had been required to pay admission, that is.
It was the last weekend of October 2014, and I had been sent by Bearded Gentleman Music to Loretta, Tennessee, to cover Grace & Tony’s homecoming concert. The concert was excellent, and afterwards I found myself at the home of the married bandmates. Malcolm Parsons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops was also there, and I received the several-hours gift of geeking out while listening to musicians swap tales. What interested me the most, though, were Tony’s comments and thoughts regarding Grace & Tony’s new album, Phantasmagoric. At the time, the band had yet to begin recording the album, and Tony was excited to get into the studio with the new songs. His excitement is always infectious, but his passion for those songs further stoked my interest in the band’s second LP. The previous year had afforded me the privilege of watching Grace & Tony grow as a live act, and I was curious to see how their due diligence on the road would translate in the studio. My wait is finally over.
Phantasmagoric is what people who insist on tidy labels call a “concept album.” Me? Well, bear with me: When I was a boy, I would check out the book of American Tall Tales from my elementary school library on a very regular basis. It wasn’t just the stories that intrigued me; it was the thought of the storytellers sitting around campfires in logging camps, cattle drives, or at the card tables of dusty, depraved saloons in Wild West towns while grizzled, good-humored, yet quick-tempered storytellers distracted the listeners with rollicking tales of the absurd or macabre or both. And that’s Phantasmagoric. It’s larger than life. These supremely talented storytelling musicians regale their audience with scrumptious tales of wicked absurdity. You’ll find very few albums released during 2015 that beg the pairing of good beer with the listener’s enthrallment as Grace & Tony’s musical storytelling on Phantasmagoric does. So, yeah, it’s a concept album, but without the stodgy self-importance often associated with the tag.
Ever since receiving the advance copy, I’ve planned on pairing beers from the Deep South with Phantasmagoric, mainly because the album’s roots trace deeply into Southern Gothic. But, Phantasmagoric’s themes, stories, and tone cross well outside the lines of a strict definition of Southern Gothic. Owing more to Horace Walpole, George W. M. Reynolds, and Edgar Allan Poe than to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Phantasmagoric creates a musical world of the colorfully dark and foggy macabre. It’s the scintillating and ghastly tall-tales meant to provoke a mixture of pleasure and dread. Phantasmagoric is as fun as it is macabre. And, because of that, in order to match Phantasmagoric’s tone and theme, I’ve decided to pair thick, delicious, dark beers, regardless of point of origin, with Grace & Tony’s latest album.
I’m a big fan of the band’s debut LP, November, but Phantasmagoric is a well-earned leap forward in musicality and overall artistry. With their lyrics, the song-writing team of Grace and Tony White continue to demonstrate their prowess in crafting musical tales. The addition of Peter Teselsky on percussion and Chris Wilson on cello and assorted string instruments compliments Grace & Tony’s already rich sound steeped in bluegrass, alt-country, and Tony’s punk influences that peek appropriately through. On Phantasmagoric, the Chris Wilson-arranged strings, with Kimi Samson on violin and viola, elevate the music above the band’s wonderful regional sound and into the realm of universal appeal. Phantasmagoric is an artistically complete album that should propel Grace & Tony into the music libraries of a much wider audience.
“Adam of Labour”
With a bell-jangling introduction, “Adam of Labour” signals that Phantasmagoric is an album that shouldn’t be ignored. I mean, what other album opens with a song written from the perspective of Frankenstein’s “monster with no name?” And, make no mistake; “Adam of Labour”’s perspective is no gimmick. Tapping deep into the modernist concerns of the original tale, Grace & Tony give their song’s protagonist a resonating angst combined with a touch of gothic romance. Great Divide Brewing Company has created a monster of a beer by aging a Russian Imperial Stout in whiskey barrels, but the Colorado brewery’s monster has a name – Barrel Aged Yeti. With an ABV north of 10%, the Barrel Aged Yeti will bowl you over if you’re not careful. But don’t let the size of the beer stop you from enjoying the many complex aromas and flavors from Great Divide’s monstrous masterpiece as you first hit “play” on Phantasmagoric.
“Invitation to an Autopsy”
This is the story of William Burke and William Hare, two early 19th-century serial killers, and it showcases the powerful voice of Grace White. As history, and “Invitation to an Autopsy,” explains, the two friends named William sold the bodies of their victims, sixteen of them, as cadavers to medical schools. Grace, with a mix of charm, sinister, and beauty dripping from her textured, soaring vocals while channeling the murderous pair, lays the trap:
Wouldn’t it be so nice to get out of the cold
Drinking your fill and feeding your mouth
I know, I know, I know you’d die to find a place to stay the night
And keep warm.
So come on in to Burke and Hare’s house.
Pairing beer with a song about serial killers who relied on alcohol to lure their victims into their home is its own form of macabre, possibly inappropriately so, but still fun. Yazoo Brewing Company’s Sue, a big and bold porter, besides being oily, mysterious, and dark, is a smoked beer. While drinking this beer from Grace & Tony’s home state of Tennessee, allow the ominous textures of the song to mingle with the ominous notes from the dark, smoky flavors of the Yazoo Brewing Company’s Sue.
“The 1” is thematically the most disturbing song on the entire album. And I’m going to leave it at that – no spoilers from me. I will say that the married bandmates, Grace and Tony White, excel at taking differing perspectives and funneling them into beautiful yet troubling denouements; “The 1” is possibly their best example of that to date.
For some reason, I’ve had many people confess to me that they find the idea of an oatmeal stout unappealing – disturbing, if you will. Considering that a primary ingredient of beer is barley, which is a grain, like oatmeal, for me, at least, the inclusion of oatmeal as an ingredient in beer makes perfect sense; similar to how differing perspectives of the same event contribute to interesting and tension-filled stories. With that in mind, enjoy New Holland Brewing Company’s contribution to the world of oatmeal stouts, The Poet.
“A Lot Dies Today”
Based on the Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, “A Lot Dies Today” embraces the atmospheric horror of the popular novel. From the opening strains of the song, the listener is blanketed with a chilling reticence, only to have their suspicious hesitancy confirmed by Tony White’s constrained vocal entrance. Finding the courage to sound the warning, Tony’s voice captures the mood of the song without sacrificing the contradictory layers of a scared and failing hero.
Charleston, South Carolina’s Coast Brewing Company has brewed a dark and ghostly stout that they’ve called Blackbeerd. The sweetness from the malts is very well balanced by the bitter pungency from the hops. Sit back and savor the haunted “A Lot Dies Today” while sipping the Blackbeerd from Coast Brewing Company.
“Lullaby of the Red Death”
The only way to end this article, of course, is to pair a beer with the Edgar Allan Poe influenced “Lullaby of the Red Death.” Thematically, this song is a masterpiece of mood. With each musical progression, the listener can feel the creeping approach of the Red Death. In lesser hands, “Lullaby of the Red Death” would have drifted into excess. Instead, Grace & Tony slide their musical fingernails along the chalkboard of sinister just faintly enough to prompt shivers of dread but without repelling anyone. The listener knows that the story ain’t going to end well, but having been mesmerized by the evocative yet understated siren call of Grace White, punctuated by the soul-grabbing strings and percussion of Chris Wilson, Kimi Samson, and Peter Teselsky, it’s almost useless to fight the urge to hit “repeat.”
However, hitting repeat will give you the time to finish the Lucky 7 Porter from Evolution Craft Brewing Company; and, like “Lullaby of the Red Death,” letting go of this chocolate and coffee tinged porter will not come easily.
Because of the many layered stories told on Phantasmagoric, there is no shortage of possible beer pairings with the songs from Grace & Tony’s latest album. And an album that gets better with repeat listens allows for experimentation with many different beer styles. Using this article as a starting point, discover for yourself which beers you believe go best with the music of Grace & Tony, and then come back here and pass on the recommendations in the comment section below. Like music, there is a lot of excellent beer being brewed that many people never get the pleasure of experiencing. Introduce your friends to new beer and new music via Grace & Tony’s delightfully macabre Phantasmagoric.
 Not to imply that regional sounds can’t have universal appeal.
 It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s my favorite song on Phantasmagoric; I promise.