For George Shuntov, music embodies a phoenix-like quality.
New music evolves from past encounters and emotions that leave an indelible mark on the soul. In turn, those experiences ignite another musical spark and regenerate the soul into a new creative being.
“George in a sense is like the phoenix, and he’s no longer with us in the physical world, but in an artistic and spiritual one he’s still with us. It’s amazing, and The Phoenix Process is still in effect, and George really is the phoenix,” said Julian Cumpian, Shuntov’s longtime friend and collaborator.
Cumpian reflected on Shuntov’s profound musical legacy Sunday night along with his former bandmates, Brandon Salazar and Théo Caen, in The Phoenix Process. Shuntov, the prolific frontman for the Chicago electro alt-rock quartet and a highly-regarded, do-it-yourself (DIY) music champion, suddenly passed away March 20 at age 34.
“The places where he was active in and in communication with, he did leave an impact, and that’s something that will be remembered and will continue to leave an impact on more people. I’ve been sharing his music with people I know who are artists, and they are floored at the level of musicianship he had and just the way he did everything. He was all self-taught and all self-produced. He didn’t need a lot to make it sound amazing,” Cumpian said.
Cumpian met Shuntov, a Chicago native with Bulgarian and Ecuadorian roots, through a mutual friend on MySpace in 2006. Over the next decade, Cumpian and Shuntov became fast friends and musical collaborators who performed live together. By 2013, Shuntov formed The Phoenix Process with another friend, who soon departed the project, and later brought Cumpian into the fold.
Forming The Phoenix Process
Together, Cumpian and Shuntov developed multi-genre musical concepts and visual elements for The Phoenix Process and created an eclectic live sound built around electronic beats, world influences, electric guitars and hand percussion. In May 2014, they played their first live show in Rogers Park at the now-defunct Red Line Tap.
“It was a good start, and we figured out what worked and what didn’t, and we got people exposed to the sound in a live setting. Fast-forward to 2015, Brandon and Théo joined the band, which continued until 2017,” said Cumpian, who left The Phoenix Process in 2016. “The band didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough I’d say for us to develop a sound, get to know George and have people get to know George’s music. He left a big impact in such a short amount of time.”
Meanwhile, Salazar met Shuntov through a Facebook group called Chicago Musician Exchange after seeing a “want ad” post for a drummer and guitarist. While only age 16 at the time, Salazar reached out to Shuntov about a possible collaboration, and the two started working together with Caen.
“I heard his music, and I was like, ‘This guy is the real deal, this guy is a fucking professional. There’s no way he would take a little guy like me.’ I showed him some of my stuff, and I put myself out there into the world, and he saw me and Théo through that,” said Salazar, drummer and percussionist for The Phoenix Process.
“He took us in as young guys. I think he was 28 at that time, and I didn’t know anybody with music that good. Any person would just brush that off and be like, ‘Oh, this little shit kid is like 16, and I’m going to move on,’ but George gave us a chance, and he ended up being one of our best friends. He opened me and Théo up as musicians and made us better people and made us better musicians.”
Like Salazar, Caen also saw Shuntov as an incredible music mentor, collaborator and friend. He was in awe of Shuntov’s innovative sonic vision, highly underrated musicianship and community-led shows at the Windy City’s Knowhere DIY venue.
“To me, it was the start of a passion, and he kind of opened me up to that. I feel like I connected through him quite a bit just from him letting us be a part of his project,” said Caen, guitarist for The Phoenix Process. “He already has his project made up, and he had a vision. We were there to just add on to it, and it felt very special that he let us do that and saw potential in us.”
‘Reintegrating the Child’
Along with Caen and Salazar, Cumpian performed with Shuntov on The Phoenix Process’ striking electro-world fusion full-length debut, Reintegrating the Child. With 16 genre-defying tracks, the striking album fittingly parallels the Greek mythological tale of a phoenix arising from the ashes of its predecessor. It also takes inspiration from Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and other European electronic music.
The haunting opener, “Son of Gods,” beautifully blends deep vibrant electric guitars, pounding drums and delicate hammered dulcimer as Shuntov beckons in Bowie-esque vocals, “I am forever with all my instincts/I wrapped my arms up/A gift from heaven.”
Another exquisite Child track includes the Moroder-inspired “The Other Side of the Coin,” which weaves Euro-discotheque beats with worldly percussion, vivid synths and echoey electric guitar as Shuntov croons, “We will take apart everything that we build/Just to put it together and see the beauty in the process of reconstruction/The beauty in the process of deconstruction.”
“It’s a nice, well-rounded piece because it really demonstrates his mastery within the different elements of his music that he was able to portray so well. He has such rich singing and guitar work and arranging of all the electronic sounds. It’s an epic, lengthy piece, and it fully demonstrates him as the artist behind The Phoenix Process,” Cumpian said.
Shuntov also shines on “In the Sun” as bright synths, shimmery electro beats, glistening electric guitars and delicate percussion weave a phoenix-like tale. He beautifully reveals, “I’m split in two halves of a perfect circle/Two halves of a perfect soul/Two halves of the crystal phantom/Opposing forces within the fold.”
‘The Phoenix Rises’
Outside of Child, Shuntov recorded several singles with The Phoenix Process and shared a batch of electronic solo material. To honor his legacy, his former Phoenix Process bandmates released a new 14-track compilation today of raw Shuntov improvisations, covers and unreleased tracks called The Phoenix Rises.
Recorded from 2015-2018, the album’s tracks allow Shuntov’s exquisite musicianship to regenerate and take flight for current and future fans. Available via Bandcamp, proceeds from the album’s sale will go toward a GoFundMe campaign for Shuntov’s family, including his 2-year-old daughter Violet.
“George’s entire life was based around the mythological phoenix. The title is symbolic of George’s fascination with death and the regeneration of a phoenix,” Salazar said. “The Phoenix Process is the first form in which our band is the process of the phoenix, and his death transformed him back into innocence as the phoenix dies and rises from the ashes, thus reintegrating the child.”
While The Phoenix Process doesn’t plan to reunite, they do plan to celebrate Shuntov’s musical legacy at an upcoming live event. Given the current coronavirus pandemic and Illinois stay-at-home order, it may be a while before a live celebration will take place.
“We can have the honoring of George and the music we were all a part of over the years. One thing I have in my heart, and that we all do when it’s the right time, and it’s a little bit more normal for us to come together and have live events, and that would be to have some kind of event to honor George’s life and music. We would play his music, have people talk about who George was to them and have live performances by bands that knew George or were inspired by him,” Cumpian said.