Basement of the Coliseum is the third album from an Indianapolis-based band that has one of the most unique styles in music today. Phoenix on the Fault Line sounds like a mix of Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers if they were backed up by James Brown’s horn section and performing songs based on classic science fiction literature. While most of the music leans toward alternative rock, at times the band weaves in some 70’s era jazz or funk to set the mood.
Highlights include “FM Radio,” the album’s first track, which starts slowly and builds to a crescendo at the chorus. Then the full nine-piece band kicks in and the jam session begins. Having eight instruments play together creates a wall of sound with singer Tony Ferreira’s vocals soaring over the top. Near the end of the song using a voice similar to a DJ you hear the words, “Sometimes the only comfort you get is the music from an FM radio.” That serves as the introduction for the musical feast that is about to begin.
“A Thousand Year Sleep” starts with a bluesy saxophone and acoustic guitar. The lyrics softly describe someone drifting in space while the band plays a slinky, soothing melody. Then the pace changes in a heartbeat and the full band kicks into a driving headbanger riff. It’s like shifting gears between 1st and 5th. The song jumps back and forth hyper-actively between tempos until the band arrives at the break before the last chorus. Instead of providing a typical 30-second guitar solo, the band uses their instrumentation to create the sound of a spaceship falling out of orbit. It’s as if they are making a soundtrack for a film playing in the listener’s imagination.
“Steam Pig” is a layered song about a fleet of airships. With a frantic pace the band mixes alt rock with a little funk to musically describe a world where an army of Steam Pigs patrol the skies. The picture on the album cover shows one in detail. Singer Ferreira tells this story from the narrative of the captain of the fleet of Steam Pigs who ominously announces, “Now we own the sky, in our perfectly crafted machines, guided by ancient tongues, powered by steam.”
Steam punk is a whole art and literature genre unto itself, describing a world powered by steam instead of electricity. Musically the song provides a soundtrack for battles in the sky with the bass and drums providing the sound effects for cannons firing. The song amusingly ends with an announcer’s voice issuing a warning to listeners that if they see a Steam Pig they should put their head between their legs and kiss their ass goodbye.
“Basement of the Coliseum” and “The Bloody Games” are two songs that are back to back and run together in theme, gladiator fighting for entertainment, human versus alien. The aggressive guitar riff appropriately models the fighting described in what are the most colorfully descriptive lyrics on the album, “Corporations came, and the ones who were not tame, were thrown into pits and forced to battle in the games. Now the coliseum is full of reptile kings and pastors, alien captors, and zombie dungeon masters.”
Then the singer asks, “Is this what you came to see?“ while the band provides a soundtrack for the games using a tempo that builds to a peak as the singer announces that today is a good day to die. “The Bloody Games” is the second half of the tale. The song moves with a breakneck speed of notes and lyrics that emulate the violence going on in the arena. The singer announces defiantly, “We fight evermore!”
“Quarter Mile of Nasty” is the epic ballad on this album. Musically, it changes between 70s funk and slow-driving rock with the horn section providing the backdrop for a post-apocalypse scenario where survivors are uniting after the reptiles have fallen and the aliens fled. The title refers to a spaceship attempting to navigate safely through an asteroid field. The band provides the soundtrack for that imagery in the strongest song on Basement of the Coliseum. This tune features the best guitar solo, and the longest instrument only session, as there are no lyrics after the half-way point. Once again the band provides the sound effects for a story that would make a great science fiction movie.
The album closes with “AM Radio”, the alternate bookend for “FM Radio”, though in this version it’s a soft acoustic guitar playing with a trumpet solo. It’s a surprisingly subtle ending for an album filled with frantic tempos.
Phoenix on the Fault Line has crafted an impressive album filled with lyrics that paint a vivid picture of the struggle of humanity in a distant future after an apocalypse. The band’s bio describes them as a time-traveling band spinning tales from their travels. Basement of the Coliseum is filled with great stories of pain, struggle, and perseverance of the human race. It’s like a musical anthology of science fiction stories, and the horn section provides the high octane fuel that runs this “Steam Pig” through space.