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20YAT #39 Cornelius – Fantasma

Published on 18th September 2017

UK album chart peak: did not chart

There’s something inherently screwy about commemorating the twentieth anniversary of a record as temporally slippery as Fantasma. That’s not to say that Cornelius’ third album isn’t firmly rooted in the late 90s – its pop sampladelic approach and playful manipulation of then-emerging digital technology places it clearly alongside the likes of Beck and DJ Shadow and – but more that the album’s source material and the collages it assembles with that sonic detritus are so chronologically dislocated from one another that putting a “twenty-years-old” stamp on it feels somewhat arbitrary: giving a record both as future-facing and as retromaniacal as this a definitive birthday seems as futile as establishing the precise location of a distant star.

Indeed, it’s telling that the album has been re-released at least three times in the last twenty years: regardless of the surrounding musical environment, Cornelius’ peculiar sci-fi pop always seems to find kindred spirits, be they among the mad-cap mid-noughties mash-up crews, the maximalist electronica faction or the present day’s post-genre digital crate diggers with musical appetites as engorged as their attention spans are depleted.

That broad appeal is probably largely down to Fantasma’s presentation as a sort of musical Rorschach blot, inviting almost as many subjective interpretations of its contents as there are listeners. Accordingly, there will be those who hear in its attempt to bridge the gap between indie music and club culture an orphaned remix album, others who identify a sort of hazily cracked nostalgia excursion through its exhuming of kitsch exotica and glam pop stomp, and others still for whom Fantasma, with its hybrid of organic and processed sounds alongside super-high-fidelity production techniques and complex, internally referencing structure, is something radically futuristic.

Whichever shape one chooses to see, though, Fantasma’s unifying characteristic is one of joy, whether that’s derived through musical discovery, sonic juxtaposition or just plain listening. As such, when Chapter 8, with its bold jump cuts made from rewinding tape and press-play sound effects, drills a vertical mine shaft through Cornelius’ record collection with such glee, it takes concentration not to crack a smile; equally, when the bastard pop craze is anticipated by a good five years on Star Fruits Surf Rider, whose gentle Balearic washes and shimmering laptop chimes become assaulted from below by pummelling, glitched up breakbeats, a sort of satisfyingly deviant glow overcomes the album. Ditto the glorious madness of Count Five Or Six, a haywire army of Speak & Spells simultaneously regimented to perfection and utterly feral that abruptly dissolves into a gorgeous, soothing drone for its final 30 seconds: there’s simply something intrinsically and undeniably celebratory about Cornelius’ approach here, which seems to revel in taking once-discarded sonic jetsam and finding new uses – and attendant levels of love – for it all.

It makes for an unexpectedly influential album: quite apart from the present-day approach to pop that is almost exclusively retrospective in terms of source material, it’s also difficult to see how either Daft Punk’s Discovery or The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, both three years away when Fantasma was first released, could be the same without Cornelius’ shadow looming large during their gestation.

All that said, Fantasma’s stylistic, interpretive and temporal instability makes it nonetheless a difficult record to pin into the fabric of 1997, even if in many respects it represents much that is both exciting and forward-facing about the year. However, revisiting it on its twentieth birthday, within 2017’s musical landscape of superabundance and genre dilettantism, Fantasma slots in far more easily, providing both a balm for overwhelming sonic excess and a sort of curated answer to a culture with its finger permanently hovering over the “skip” button.

In that way, in fact, perhaps the screwiest thing about commemorating Fantasma’s 20th birthday isn’t its strange timelessness at all, but actually its exquisite shape: now that the internet has condensed past culture so densely that history seems to vanish into a pseudo-present mush of recycling and homage, reappropriation and montage, re-encountering an album this adept and dexterous at exactly those things is like stumbling upon an Enigma machine for modern pop: Fantasma is complex and baffling, for sure, but also – in the right context – capable of providing a unique source of postmodern clarity.

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