Heads on Sticks started as a side project. Raleigh's David Mueller, the bassist in Birds of Avalon's hugely hooky psych-rock, established the moniker six years ago as a catch-all for his self-recorded tinkerings. With 2010's Mocking Bird, he established a clear direction, contorting kinetic dance jams and shading them with all sorts of experimental grime.
Since then, Birds have issued one LP. Heads, on the other hand, has produced a pair of EPs and the recently released Phantasm in Tutu. These days, his side project has all the trappings of a full-time gig. Phantasm supports this notion. Its palate, while stunningly diverse, is consistently smooth.
Restless funk gyrations dissolve into waves of shimmering guitar. Songs slink through passages of horror-rock creepiness only to erupt with pop exuberance. This is a record that blurs genres, not to revel in winking contrast, but to create a fulfilling sound all its own.
These are rock songs, but they're fashioned with the crisp creativity of a DJ. "Can't Stop" opens with far-off sounds of clattering glass before drums, bass and guitar drop in one by one, escalating momentum in the way of Justice's - fitting as the song occupies the same electrofried-Thriller territory. But Phantasm is also surprisingly subtle.
"White Wolf" builds from a narcotic techno pulse, but its synth lines are soon met by riffs that bend like Built to Spill. It's both driving and ambient, like the tangible haze of a still vivid dream.
With Phantasm, Mueller synthesizes varied impulses into a distinctive vision that equals anything the Birds have produced. Side project or main gig, Heads on Sticks is ready for the spotlight.