ALBUM REVIEW: The Incredible Sound Of Blue by Blue Soul Ten

Blue Soul Ten is the artistic moniker and musical brainchild of a musician, composer and producer who has been part of the music industry for 20 years. He started out as a radio DJ, as well as studying composition and production at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

His music incorporates jazz, funk, soul, electronica, reggae and hip hop with his tracks often featuring guest artists. He’s released six albums previously, The Unspoken Warrior, The Fearless Warrior, The Beautiful Warrior, Blue Notes, Ten Percent and Songs About You (to which I gave stellar reviews, read here and here).

This album consists of ten tracks and, like its two predecessors, it is book-ended by two instrumentals (though the outro track is more of a spoken word instrumental) After the relatively chilled out vibes of the previous album, this album is more focused on hip hop, which has always been a strong influence on the Blue Soul Ten sound.

The smoky intro track sets the mood, a vibrant RnB instrumental with smooth-as honey, mellifluous James Jamerson-style bass over a crisp and punchy swung beat. The rich chordal voicing and jazzy progressions played on Rhodes electric piano show this highly musical side to the signature sound is still very prominent.

This is followed by Opportunity, a slick and super funky RnB/hip hop track featuring Surron the 7th, a collaborator who has featured on previous albums. The track switches between the languid but memorable title hook and the fluent rapping on the verses. The deep dub bass is contrasted perfectly high end Rhodes, taut guitar lines providing rhythmic momentum. It’s one of the most instant tracks on the album and would make a good single.

The slinky groove of Speakers comes next, featuring the smooth rhymes of IAMIV. With just a sparse but effective bass line and a simple but sensual beat as the main musical bedrock, the rapped verses are clever and cocky: “Cool as I wanna be, check the persona, fur coat in the summertime, word to your mama, she put it on layaway, got it back around the holiday, it’s not a mink coat but I wear it like it’s designer...”. The summery, laid back vibe and effortless class this track exudes marks it out as a potential late summer single release.

A.B.R. is the spiritually themed tracks on the album, this one featuring a guest performance from J Pad da Juggernaut. The acronym of the catchy title hook stands for Ask, Believe, Receive and the whole track is a testament to the importance of faith in God. Musically, it’s an uplifting RnB/hip hop fusion with another great bassline. Whereas many hip hop artists just rap over a beat and chosen samples, the classy, authentic music that backs these raps sets Blue Soul Ten in a class apart.

The mood flips once again with the hazy, female sung Can’t Stand The Rain, Kenilworth Katrina putting in both a fine lead vocal and rap performance. Whilst musically a contrast to the previous track, this song is also spiritual and soul searching, digging in deep lyrically; it’s about going through emotional struggles in general but in particular the struggles an artist goes through: “Lord, please bless my career, let it take off, hope you see I’m sincere...”. A great track.

11.30 is one of the album’s chosen singles and it’s easy to see why. It’s a dreamy RnB track featuring Surron The 7th and lush lead vocals from Syauqi Destanika. The yin and yang of the rapped verses and sung chorus brought to mind the chemistry between Jay Z and Beyoncé on tracks like Crazy In Love. The first verse is strongly romantic while verse two has some killer lines from Sarron The 7th: “We hustling backwards, influenced by the rappers who grew up watching actors, I’m feeling like they trapped us....”. A real album highlight.

Seventh track Hustle (the second track featuring IAMIV) keeps the bar set high, and reveals itself on repeated listens to be the album’s biggest grower. The main vocal hook, “Ain’t no hustle like the one I got...” is deceptively addictive and with its radio friendly sound, this seductive track could be a real contender as a potential second or third single release.

Sunshine sees the second appearance of Kenilworth Katrina, who here delivers the rapped verses with a male sung chorus hook. This is a nice twist on the usual set up and an effective contrast. Once again, the title hook is catchy as hell and the moody lead electric guitar works well, giving the track a late 80’s vibe.

Ninth track One Shot marks the third appearance on the album for Surron the 7th. The track grabs you by the throat from the outset with its hooky, sharp-toned bassline and insistent groove, creating an intense soundscape for Surron to traverse. The rhymes come thick and fast with a virtuoso display of linguistic dexterity and rhythmic flow, the result is another knockout.

The album closes with the aforementioned outro track, which is where Blue Soul Ten performs a powerful and moving spoken word monologue over a pulsating hip hop beat. He explains how the album is dedicated to his friend, Eric Houston, who has sadly passed on and he also refers to the more dominant hip hop influence on this particular album.

Overall, this is another very impressive album by Blue Soul Ten and signifies another step in the artistic and creative development of the project. Maintaining the high musical calibre and jazzy underpinnings of previous albums, The Incredible Sound Of Blue sees this combined with hip hop to a greater extent aided by some familiar collaborators and some new additions. There’s also an undercurrent of spirituality to several of the tracks which gives the music extra depth and the result is the most sophisticated hip hop and RnB being made right now.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10           

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: ParaNormal FrequencieZ by Zach Mac

Zach Mac is an alternative folk singer/songwriter who was born in Florida, grew up in Virginia and currently resides in Massachusetts. Although only 21 years old, he is already very experienced having started out in music production aged just 10. He then started to learn guitar at 13 and eventually released his first EP, 2016-2019. Towards the end of 2020 he joined a band called The Sircus and produced their 28 track album Join The Sircus, as well as performing on it. This year, he released his first full length acoustic album, How The Times Have Changed.

This album, ParaNormal FrequencieZ, consists of twelve tracks and is best described as psychedelic alt. folk. The album is unusual and interesting as the tracks are separate but seem to work as one cohesive whole, based around a similar tonal centre. It begins with dreamy effects-laden acoustic guitar on Everything’s Where It’s Meant To Be. This is joined by a languid, hip-hop inspired beat and Zach’s equally laid back vocal style completes the original sound.

The psychedelic nature of the music is cleverly manifested through subtle shifts in tempo where the listener feels they are standing on shifting sands as the music morphs and shimmers. The melancholy beauty of the haunting acoustic guitar motif is matched by the troubled but hopeful tone of the lyrics: “Maybe the wind will blow me further, further away, where I can finally see that everything is where it’s meant to be…”.

This track drifts seamlessly into I Feel Like A Martian, with another minor key arpeggio motif and opening lines that define his outsider status as an artist: “These days I feel like a Martian, I was living on Earth but it doesn’t seem like this is the place where I belong”. Like the first track, there are moments of mind bending spacey effects that brought to mind the acid rock of the 60’s.

Whilst Zach regards Mac Miller, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan as some of his major influences, 5avi0r and Savior brought to mind another alternative folk artist, Conor Oberst. There’s a chordal similarity between these tracks and his song First Day Of My Life, though the vocal melody is very different. 5avi0r is an instrumental and acts as a prelude to Savior, where Zach sings, “I won’t try to be your saviour ‘cause I just can barely breathe…”.

This sense of desperation continues on to If Only I Could Fly, a depiction of dark depression set at a funereal pace: “Can’t keep my head together, I’m losing control…if only I could fly….”. This is then contrasted by Hypnotising You, where Zach’s voice is sped up to sound younger, a psychedelic trick employed by The Beatles during their Revolver/Sgt. Pepper period. The mesmeric refrain, “Hypnotising you…” has its intended effect.

The trippy vibe only increases on You Might Be Right, which brings to mind an artist like Beck at his most experimental or Todd Rundgren’s acid phase in the early 70’s. “You might be right about everything you see…” made me think of the perspective portrayed by Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever.

Playing The Blues Away and Brush It Off take us even further down the rabbit hole, with all manner of time distortions and production effects that could make the most ascetic teetotaller wonder if someone put something in their tea! Where I Belong is a natural extension musically and the words mirror the music perfectly: “I was travelling like a Captain way far at sea, that’s all I ever think about is drifting out to sea…”.

The upbeat bluesy folk of Starlight feels like coming out of the other side of a weird but wonderful acid experience and finds Zach at his most poetic and Dylan-esque: “You dream of silhouettes and sparkly eyed men, I dream of cigarettes in a dirty old den….”. Naturally, the psychedelia seeps in towards the end and sets the scene for the ultra trippy final track, Far, Far Away.

Beginning with a flurry of backwards sonic weirdness we hear Zach’s voice slowed down and the tormented refrain, “Far, far, far away…I wanna go far, far away….”. It’s the fitting finale to an album about escapism along with simultaneously the loneliness of feeling isolated and not belonging anywhere.

Overall, this is a highly original psychedelic alt. folk album by a truly creative artist. He shows a proficient ability at standard songwriting, both musically and lyrically but his unique sonic style owes more to blending this with avant garde, psychedelic and hip hop influences to create a sound all of his own. ParaNormal FrequencieZ is an album like nothing you’ve ever heard, an it’s a wild trip well worth taking.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Night Drive by heyiloveyou

heyiloveyou is an experimental music project and the musical brainchild of K, who is the sole member and who contributes production, guitars, field recordings, drum programming and beats. Deciding against the traditional industry route of signing with a record label, this has freed K to push sonic and stylistic boundaries and the music of this project is a fusion of electronica, post-rock, trip-hop and ambient. In 2020, he released several singles including Everybody’s Got 2 Sides, No Wires and Okay as well as the debut album Lunatics.

This track, Night Drive, fuses experimental electronica with post-rock guitar and aspects of trip-hop. The track immediately grabs your attention with a haunting, sombre guitar line emerging through an array of musique concrete sound effects and jittery, intricate hi hats. It has an intense, brooding quality from the outset that brought to mind the dark trip-hop of mid-era Massive Attack and Tricky.

Moving into another section of low-end synth and record scratches, it creates a mesmeric yet menacing soundscape that portrays the enigmatic track title in an almost cinematic way. The music continues to morph and expand in a compelling fashion, the repeated guitar motif leading out the track to its abrupt and unsettling conclusion.

Overall, this is an impressively original and inventive electronica/trip hop instrumental that integrates rock guitar into the sonic texture in an inventive way. The enigmatic K treads his unique artistic path, pushing boundaries and blending styles in the way artists should. Aside from the musical elements, the production and mixing are first rate. If you are looking for something outside the mainstream, the music of heyiloveyou comes highly recommended from this reviewer.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Perfect Alibi by The Proper Authorities

The Proper Authorities is the solo project of Keith Adams, a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist best known for his work with Sound Mind, Giant Wow And 1000 Watt Revival. These bands got to share the stage with the likes of Alien Ant Farm and Meat Beat Manifesto, amongst many others. In 2006, The Proper Authorities released the acclaimed debut album Public Service Announcement and in 2012, the track Today featured in the film Radius. More recently, 2019 saw the release of Regain Control, a hard hitting rock song.

This track, Perfect Alibi is an upbeat, strident pop/rock track that really showcases Keith Adams’ considerable abilities as singer, songwriter and producer. It becomes immediately apparent that there’s a quality of performance and songwriting craft that you just don’t hear in the mainstream anymore, or rarely. Indeed, the assured craftsmanship as the verse moves to the vaulting chorus brought to mind the great pop of the 80’s such as Tears For Fears, INXS and Peter Gabriel.

This is combined with slick modern production and a very high calibre of musicianship, and you can see how this song will be hugely popular with fans of Maroon 5, Bruno Mars and Jason Derulo, along with anything by Mark Ronson. Built around a muscular, powerful beat and low-end synth bass, the versatility and distinctive range of Adams’ voice is what first grabs you.

The chorus, in particular, is where his voice truly shines as he depicts a relationship in deep decline due to a duplicitous partner: “Despite your smile, the sky fell down when you said we were on solid ground, there’s something off behind your eyes and your perfect alibi…”. The high note he hits on this last line is outstanding and gives the chorus its climactic moment.

The second verse is full of instrumental nuances (all played by himself), which requires repeated listens to absorb the intricacy of. The final choruses bring the track to a euphoric close, the vibrant energy of the music remaining compelling to the last second.

Overall, this is a superb pop/rock song from the hugely talented Keith Adams. It takes great skill to write a first rate pop song and then huge talent to make the creative vision a reality. Adams achieves all this with consummate ease and the result is the best single I’ve yet heard this year and I’ll be surprised if there’s a better one. The Proper Authorities deserve to be huge.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Reconciliation by Rickard Nygren

Rickard Nygren is a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist based in the deep, Darlecarlian woods of Sweden. He studied jazz music at the Music Conservatory in Falun for three years and the same subject for two years at fridhemsfolkhogskola. He plays saxophone, guitar, piano and the Ewi (Electronic Wind Instrument) and performs all the instruments on his compositions, which he also self-produces. He regards Miles Davis as a seminal influence, especially the albums Kind of Blue and We Want Miles.

Reconciliation is a mid-tempo instrumental and his first music release. The intro immediately creates an atmospheric, evocative soundscape with a cascading, echo-drenched guitar line. A punchy, strident 2/4 beat kicks in along with pulsating, obstinato bass. This circular guitar melody has a mesmeric effect and sets the mood for the entry of the Ewi (electronic wind instrument) which gives Nygren’s music its unique signature sound.

After an initial swirl of lead melody, the music then breaks down to a sophisticated, jazzy section which evokes a meditative mood. It’s given musical colour through  delicate piano and shows the influence of Miles Davis, especially Kind of Blue.

The beat then returns and the Ewi melody really develops, spanning a large melodic range and showcasing the versatility of this instrument, as well as Nygren’s natural skills as a composer. The recurring five-note motif underpins the end section and even within its three minute duration, the music has an enchanting effect on the listener.

Overall, this is an impressive debut release from Richard Nygren, a very talented musician, composer and producer. Fusing his jazz influences with electronica, this combination finds its perfect expression in Nygren’s use of the Ewi, which forms a strong part of his unique and original style. This is perhaps the hardest thing for an artist to develop, but Richard Nygren has emerged fully formed as a composer and producer.

VERDICT = 8.8 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: Dirty Clean Sexy Mean by Echo Strike

Echo Strike are an alternative rock/dance group with international members. They were formed by frontman Randy Van Gelder, guitarist Beau Newlin and producer Jonathan Broussard. This line up has expanded since their initial formation but it was this core trio that wrote and produced their debut album Honest Lies, which was released in 2019 to great acclaim.

After this strongly positive response from both critics and the public, the group expanded both their creative vision and band members, recruiting Homer, Zeta, John and Angel to round up the lineup. This led to 2020’s Not Inside Your Mind which was also a great success.

This album, Dirty Clean Sexy Mean, consists of fifteen tracks and begins with the upbeat electro-funk rock of Bad Intentions. From the opening bars the music grabs your attention, starting with the infectious refrain, “Got to get through to you”. The verse is built upon a bedrock of a taut drum groove, driving melodic basslines and Chic-style high-end funk guitar.

The vocals are immediately arresting, delivered sometimes in unison octaves and sometimes in harmony which makes for a sophisticated sound. The classic sounding synths add to the 70’s disco vibe but with a modern pop/rock sound and production. While musically it is upbeat, lyrically, it’s intriguingly dark and enigmatic: “You can’t trust me, I’m not going to lie, you’ll need to risk it if you’re going to survive…”.

1978 continues this earthy disco style combined with funk and rock, and you can hear shades of the Bee Gees, Chic and Tower of Power. Randy Van Gelder gives a fantastic vocal performance and the many instrumental touches such as Stevie Wonder-style clavinet add richness. It’s an excellent track that’s particularly suited to the dance floor but is exhilarating in any context.

Next comes a radical reworking of the Guns N Roses song Sweet Child O’ Mine. This takes the song originally performed solidly in the classic rock style and turns it into a disco/rock crossover. It retains some of the original guitar lines but it is impressive how they’ve managed to transform it into their own unique style.

Making The Jive is another upbeat disco/ rock track that fuses the 70’s Bee Gees sound with the modern dance pop of Daft Punk, especially circa Random Access Memories. The vocoder really gives the production a futuristic contemporary sound which will make it popular on radio. Again, it’s full of fine touches such as the rolling bass and staccato synth lines which interweave with the rhythm guitar.

Everything Hums is a little different, a mid-paced sophisticated pop track built around a beefy drum beat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a hip-hop record though overall it brought to mind the anthemic 80’s style pop of a band like A-Ha.

This style continues with the emotive melancholy of Work To Do which depicts a stormy relationship with a flawed romantic partner: “You’re a storm that decimates, I put up a plea but you only try to flee….”. These two songs show the more sensitive side to Echo Strike, reminiscent of the ballad style that ABBA were well known for.

Her Smile immediately captures the attention with its complex and infectious drum pattern, giving the music an ebullient energy. This is contrasted by mellow guitar lines that weave in and out, subtle synths filling out the sound. It is also romantic in tone: “That smile for me makes everything….”.

Leaving starts out as a gentle acoustic ballad that brought to mind the lilting rhythm of And I Love Her by The Beatles. The arrangement then builds up with a gentle but punchy beat, and the crystal clear acoustic guitars really add a touch of class.

Up For It is one of the album’s most inventive and unusual tracks with swirling, kaleidoscopic synths over a simple but effective beat and an instantly memorable vocal melody. The sophistication and degree of subtle nuances in the arrangement and overall production sound is where Echo Strike truly excel, and this is another fine example.

Dangerous Woman is much faster paced, bolstered by a pumping kick drum and elastic bass line. Lyrically, it is a depiction of the classic femme fatale theme and the vocal arrangement is particularly superb on this one, with clever use of layers and unison octaves.

The Stranger is an electro pop with some unexpected twists and turns, a track which really shows how Echo Strike manage to seamlessly combine eclectic genres into a synergistic whole. This song is a real grower, and has become one of my personal favourites upon repeated listens. The lyrics are also knowingly modern: “You better go before it’s out of control fast as you can, don’t post on Instagram”.

Demons is perhaps the album’s darkest song, depicting a soul in emotional turmoil and despair: “Don’t know the demons that haunt my mind, I am not alone but I feel left behind”. The unusual chord progressions in certain sections really give this particular song a unique sound and really shows how versatile the group is, both musically and lyrically.

Alone retains a troubled lyrical tone but musically is a return to the breezy, uplifting pop of the earlier part of the album. The harmonies on this are very effective, and the vocoder section once again brings to mind the electro-disco sound of Daft Punk.

Listen Hard is a strident pop track with a swinging rhythm with more of a rock influence than most of the album, showing yet another facet to their musical versatility. The bluesy, rhythmic piano made me think of Elton John and indeed the song is reminiscent of his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road era. It is full of great touches, such as the infectious handclaps and percussion.

This 70’s troubadour style continues into the similarly piano-led finale of the album, Wait And See. It recalls the mid period of solo Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and early 70’s Todd Rundgren, yet also still sounds contemporary. It features perhaps the album’s most anthemic and singalong chorus, augmented by dome fine harmonies that lift the track. It’s a very well crafted song that ends the album on a suitably fitting  high note.

Overall, this third album from Echo Strike finds them at the height of their powers with a versatile range of songs that veer from modern disco to timeless ballads. Their signature sound is a fusion of several genres and styles that gives them both a broad range of appeal and the kind of sophistication that means they get better with every listen. With charismatic vocals and fine musicianship from the whole group, plus many potential singles, Echo Strike have everything it takes to conquer the world.

 

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Kavanak by Ginzu And The Steak Knives

Better Quality

Ginzu And The Steak Knives are a three-piece rock/metal band hailing from Auckland, New Zealand. Their music is an eclectic mix of rock, punk, thrash, doom and grunge (though they personally describe their music as “loud and disgusting”!) and consists of Jonathon Gray (guitar/vocals), Hamish Henderson (bass and backing vocals) and Omar Al-Hashimi on drums. After releasing a series of singles and EPs, and becoming one of Auckland’s most popular local acts, they released their long awaited debut full-length album, Kavanak.

The album consists of eleven tracks, beginning with the brooding then blistering metal of Winter. Opening with a moody low-end guitar riff it bursts into full-on thrash, with drummer Omar Al-Hashimi providing a juggernaut performance behind the kit. Hamish Henderson’s restless, swirling basslines add fuel to the fire, completed by Jonathon Gray’s thunderbolt riffage and arresting vocals. The lyrics are as visceral as the music, satirical and scathing: “I bow down to the correct king, I pay all my relevant taxes, I pray up to the correct god, does not matter they will not save me.”

The brief but brilliant second track, This Is War, is quite the rollercoaster ride. Showing their prog. metal influences then flipping seamlessly into thrash/punk metal, it opens with a demonic guitar riff with the band playing a complex 14/8 time signature, then switches to 4/4 for the thrash metal title hook/verse. Gray’s cathartic howl rages over a fearsome wall of sound, made all the remarkable by the fact this is only a three-piece band. Here, the lyrics are intriguingly abstract and enigmatic: “Another flash of light rips inside, tell me it’s a dream, reds and greens”.

Third track Edge of the Universe is less abstract lyrically, specifically inspired by the movie Event Horizon. It captures them at their most thrash/speed metal, breakneck double-kick work and sheets of thick electric guitar conjoining with Gray’s energised vocal performance to create something truly thrilling. The lyrics are decidedly unsettling: “Boil the blood and peel off the skin, a violent disco. Open your eyes and give them away, you’re never going home….”.

The filmic inspiration continues with the powerful Valhalla which alternates between brooding grunge/metal sections designed for headbanging in moshpits and rapid fire thrash. This works to great effect and was inspired by the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s a certain poetic elegance to the edgy lyrics on this one: “The sun is death above the dirt, red and yellow in the sky, bring the monsters out to ride…”.

Mutations is another short track that makes a huge impression in its two minute duration. Starting with a wiry, flanged guitar riff it develops into a highly anthemic rock/metal song that highlights the band’s ability to nail catchy vocal hooks with brutal riffage. There’s a Teen Spirit-esque quality to the lines, “Illuminate us, irradiate us, degenerate us, forget about us…”.

The Hive is an interesting change of pace, a much slower track with relentless sledgehammer guitar riffs and piledriving drums. It recalls the stoner grunge/metal of early Nirvana and shows another side to the group. The few lyrics are enough to be disturbing: “Hey you, welcome back to the hive, we’ll be waiting for the dead inside…”.

After a seemingly ironic electronic intro, These Graves captures the band at their absolute heaviest, powered along by cyclonic drum fills from Al-Hashimi in sync with razor blade guitars and guttural bass. Again, despite its short duration it manages to sound as complete as a much longer track owing to the sharp concision of the arrangement.

Lyrically, this song covers the uplifting subject of being buried alive! Mergers and Acquisitions is only half as long but continues the fierce energy, ending in a blood curdling scream from Gray,

Battery is pure brute force, featuring fantastic musicianship from every member of the band, who could not be any musically tighter. At one point it is as if literally every second the band are functioning in perfect synchronization with an almost unnerving accuracy. Built around a haymaker riff, it balances furious momentum with consummate control and the lyrics are once more dark, but intriguing: “Before existence hits the floor and all we have become is wiped away, realize the reason we were born…”.

The glorious Destination Fucked shows the band’s punk influences, clocking in at under forty seconds but managing to be hugely entertaining for every single one. Based around an incendiary chord-based riff, the title hook is the only words needed to convey the message and it shows the band’s humorous side.

Conversely, the closing track No Rest For The Living is relatively epic at four and a half minutes long. It opens with an ominous guitar line that sets a macabre tone then thunders into life with hammer blows of heavy chords and thudding drums. This time the inspiration comes from a video game, Doom 2.

While not familiar with the game myself, I imagine it is reflected in the suitably dark lyrics: “We’re an endless wave, the arch-vile will resurrect us…as we overrun everything you’ve known you clutch your throat and fall….”. Towards the end, the music breaks down to just guitar but this proves to be the calm before the storm, culminating in a sucker punch finale where the band go out with all guns blazing.

Overall, Kavanak is a brilliant modern metal album that takes influences stretching back to 80’s thrash metal and combines it with more recent styles to potent effect. The sheer power of the sound this 3-piece produces is remarkable and the quality of the music matches their high class musicianship throughout. Ginzu and the Steak Knives deserve to be recognised as one of the best metal bands around.

 

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Helios Forsaken by Shepherds of Cassini

Helios Forsaken

Shepherds of Cassini are a progressive metal band from Auckland, New Zealand. Along with prog. metal, the band also incorporate elements of post metal as well as Middle Eastern and psychedelic influences. The four piece group consists of Brendan Zwaan on guitar and vocals, Vitesh Bava on bass, Felix Lun (from psychedelic/space rock act An Emerald City) contributing electric violin and Omar Al-Hashimi on drums. Founded in 2012, they released their eponymous debut album and then followed it up with this album, Helios Forsaken, which made the Top 20 in its first week on the New Zealand Artists chart.

Helios Forsaken consists of only six tracks but some of these are epic in length and the opening track, Raijin, clocks in at over six minutes. It’s a great introduction to the band as it encapsulates their eclectic, many-faceted musical style and superb musicianship. Their essential sound is comparable to a progressive rock/metal band like Tool but with a richer array of other influences woven into the sonic tapestry.

It begins with taut low end guitars, bass and drums in a 14/8 time signature before switching to a straight 4/4 in the second section. Here, we get delay-drenched lead guitar lines from Brendan Zwaan along with vibrant, rolling tom patterns from Omar Al-Hashimi, over which we get the first taste of Felix Lun’s fine electric violin work.

Their Middle Eastern influences become apparent in the exotic-sounding riffs and melodies that brought to mind the quirky rock/metal of Faith No More’s 90’s classic Angel Dust. As the music progresses through labyrinthine sections, Vitesh Kava’s syncopated basslines and fret-swooping virtuosity also come to the fore. A very impressive instrumental track.

Just when the listener might be wondering if this is an album of instrumentals the brief but distinctive second track, Mirrors Have Bo Memory, puts that to rest. It’s a forty-five second acapella full of rich harmonies that again shows their musical sophistication, a blend of baroque-style composition with psychedelic, Zen lyrics.

This leads seamlessly into one of the album’s sonic odysseys, The Almagest. A colossal fifteen minute tour de force, it hits the ground running with a swirling riff played in tandem on guitar and bass in a 15/8 time signature. This is then where we hear Brendon Zwaan’s strong lead vocals for the first time with the band behind him.

While there are clearly verses, it eschews traditional song structure and switches between sung sections and extended instrumental ones where every member gets to shine, whilst maintaining an unerring musical focus and synergy.

The sheer inventiveness and intricacy of these sections need to be repeatedly heard to be appreciated, as the amount of melodic and harmonic information is huge, let alone the nuanced and versatile drumming. The middle section shows how subtle they can be, breaking down to just gentle, interweaving clean guitars and vocals, then bass and electric violin entering to create a truly mesmeric and haunting soundscape.

This proves to be the calm before the storm as they bring back previous sections yet vary them in a symphonic way, building up to a visceral passage where the vocals are at their most intense and ‘metal’. This continues into a glorious finale full of wah-wah lead guitar and all round instrumental brilliance.

The following Mauerfall is another mighty beast, this one just under fourteen minutes. It opens with a powerful, brooding intro built around Omar Al-Hashimi’s mellifluous tom patterns and atmospheric, echo-drenched guitar. That sets the tone for several complex sections that showcase the band’s considerable creativity and powers of musical invention.

This is particularly striking when the first vocals of the track emerge. Firstly, they feature through a series of cathartic primal screams then we hear Zwann’s voice processed through a vocoder effect, so that it becomes almost like another instrument, another weave in the tapestry.

After so much serenity and dreamy drifting, the intense climax of gnarly guitars and tribal percussion ends the track in a sonic fireworks display. This track, in particular, shows that Shepherds of Cassini are about creating amazing music rather than displaying their virtuosic prowess which can be the downfall of other uber-talented progressive rock and metal musicians.

Pleiades’ Plea is another superb track built around a lilting guitar motif and an ascending vocal line. In the relatively simple time signature of 6/8, the band take us through myriad sections of sophisticated complexity, making fine use of syncopation and featuring excellent double kick work from Al-Hashimi. Special credit should be given for managing to get the word “cartography” into a song! The energy and the momentum carries on the very end, capturing the group at their very best both in terms of composition and musical performance.

The album closes with one final uber-epic, the fifteen minute title track. Breaking into a colossal riff from the outset after a brooding intro, Helios Forsaken unfolds into a blazing inferno of progressive metal. It’s full of both melodic and rhythmic twists and turns, alternating with sections of more standard 6/8 alternative rock. Vocally, it is equally as versatile, ranging from full on metal roaring to a more normal but highly expressive rock vocal style.

Lyrically, it’s just as imaginative and wide ranging with lines about “footprints on the sun” and the nihilistic refrain, “Nothing is real, this is just a game….”. It truly is remarkable how the band switch from passages of savage aggression to sections of beatific melody and harmony that is almost classical in style, aided by some excellent  electric violin lines. It culminates in perhaps the most complex section on the album, a fireworks display of rapid double-kicks and Avenged Sevenfold-esque harmonized lead guitars. It’s a truly mind blowing finale and the perfect album closer.

Overall, Helios Forsaken should be regarded as one of the best progressive rock/metal albums of recent years, and indeed, of all time in this genre. Shepherds of Cassini use their considerable virtuosity in a completely focused and disciplined way, resulting in compositions as complex as a classical symphony and performed with just as much skill. They manage to condense their myriad influences into a unique sonic alchemy, making this album is simply essential listening for any fans of the progressive rock and metal genres.     

 

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Amongst A Landscape Of Spiritual Reckoning by Forest Robots

Forest Robots is the musical brainchild of electronic artist and composer Fran Dominguez and this project has an interesting and unusual genesis. It began when he began pictorially documenting his travels to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. When his daughter was born, he started to attach narratives to his collections to teach his daughter about the wonders of nature.

This led to feeling inspired to compose music to go with these narratives and Forest Robots was born. In 2018, I gave glowing reviews to the albums Supermoon Moonlight – Part One and the follow up, Timberline And Mountain Crest. In 2019, he released his third full length album, Times When I Know You’ll Watch The Sky (which you can read here) and 2020 saw the release of his fourth, the critically acclaimed After Geography (read my laudatory review here).

Whereas After Geography was about exploration in nature outside the boundaries of a map, this album takes us beyond the external, physical world into the internal, metaphysical world and artistically explores the relationship between the two. In examining this philosophical relationship, it could be compared to the Transcendentalist philosophy espoused by people like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Transcendentalists saw nature as the outward sign of the inward spirit, which is similar to how Fran Dominguez “compares different aspects of nature’s cycles to our own spiritual and philosophical cycles and draws an analogous parallel between our external surroundings and our internal state of being….”

The album consists of ten tracks and opens with The Biggest Soul Searches Require The Widest Forests. It begins with plucked double bass which brings to mind one of the album’s stated influences, Pharoah Sanders’ Thembi. This represents more of a jazz influence than his previous albums and becomes part of the sonic tapestry.

It quickly develops into a vast soundscape of intermingling classical guitar, bass and atmospheric synths that perfectly captures the picture conjured by the title. Gradually other instruments emerge, haunting piano creating a cavernous feel. The crystal clear Nick Drake-style acoustic guitar has an almost harp like quality, exquisitely recorded and performed. You can also hear the influence of another ambient composer Gigi Masin.

This unique blend of ambient, Satie-esque classical and drone continues with the second track Sustenance Comes From The Roots, Not The Height. Beginning with wisps of delicate, spectral sound it is given a more earthy tone through warm organ and mesmeric use of exotic percussion that shows the influence of Jon Hassell, another pioneer who merges world ethnic styles with electronica. This slightly more grounded style again perfectly mirrors the title, musically capturing the philosophical idea.

This focus on the earth provides the metaphor for growth in the third track All Good Things Must Grow Through Dirt First. The theme brought to mind the wise saying of the great psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell”.

After the first minute, which seems to suspend time with its gentle, almost unearthly momentum we hear the distinctive sound of a distant saxophone. It brings to mind the tranquil moments of John Coltrane’s Classic A Love Supreme and the famous fade out of Van Morrison’s Slim Slow Slider (Astral Weeks), both very spiritual works like this album. The blend of ambient and jazz works to great effect, with the sax providing a rich sonic texture.

The cycle of life we see in all of nature and how this is reflected in how we’re reborn each day is captured by fourth track We Only Die Once, But Can Be Grateful Every New Day. The first thirty seconds are intriguing, seemingly sounds of nature that perhaps depict the start of a day in a natural setting.

This then leads into a hypnotic piece of ambience, with the use of wonderfully rich reverb making a single plucked guitar note sound absolutely vast. The development of gratitude is an essential part of progressing in our spiritual journey and somehow Dominguez manages to convey this musically here.

Some of his more experimental influences such as musique concrete come to the surface in the intro to the sagely titled In The Climb, Not The Summit, Lies The Wisdom. It essentially takes piano and distorts the pitch to create a mesmerising, almost psychedelic effect which then develops into a magical array of drifting textures including xylophone and glockenspiel. One of my personal favourites on the album, achieving a perfect balance between melodic ambience and avant garde experimentation.

The influence of classical comes more strongly to the fore on Even The Tallest Leaves Return To The Roots, with strident staccato strings that merge with a haze of sound behind them. Developing into another intricate tapestry of interweaving melodies and percussive nuance, this track captures another part of nature’s cycle, as all leaves eventually fall back to the ground. In the final minute the percussion dies away, leaving a surge of ambience and swelling synths that create a moment of beautiful transcendence, perhaps depicting this completion of the natural cycle.

Always The Tallest Mountain To Climb Resides Within You starts with echo-immersed piano, once again recalling the simple but highly affecting style of French composer Erik Satie, and the use of other orchestral instrumentation gives this piece a modern classical feel. It again reflects the album’s theme of how nature is somehow a perfect metaphorical outward manifestation of our inner spiritual growth, and there is definitely an organic growth in how the music progresses from start to finish.

A Church Is Religion, A Tree Is Spirituality is another important piece from the perspective of the album’s philosophy. Fran states in the album notes: “The issue of religion versus spirituality as tools to guide my daughter’s moral compass are at the forefront of my own personal journey to becoming a more competent moral guide”. The track is wonderfully tranquil with the beautiful sound of birdsong mingling amidst blissfully peaceful strands of melody, evoking once again the quiet awe one feels amongst nature.

This idea of taking spiritual inspiration and guidance from nature is continued with Mirror Your Patience From Trees, Persistence From Grass which maintains the uplifting mood, augmented by the sound of rushing water. This piece in particular seems to merge all of Fran’s eclectic influences into a congruent whole, from classical to musique concrete.

The album closes with the solemn power of A Weak Mind Will Never Defeat A Strong Soul. It’s a masterclass in how a minimalist style that mirrors the pace and expanse of nature can be so emotionally resonant, almost as if the music is the divine mediator between nature and the human soul itself (indeed, Beethoven said something similar to this). The piece has a brooding intensity so that when the strings swell towards the end it is truly affecting, and a most satisfying and apposite way to close the album’s journey.

Overall, this is another landmark album from a very unique composer and artist. Having made several albums that evoke the majesty of nature, here he explores how nature integrates with our own personal spiritual journey through life. His style has evolved further to incorporate an even wider palette of genres which he blends in a seamless way. Existing fans will be enthralled and many new ones will be gained, along with more critical acclaim.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Dirty Laundry by Bludgers

Bludgers FIVE_phixr

Bludgers are essentially an American rock band but hail from various parts of the world. They consist of singer Joe Pheloung, guitarist Paul Colussi, bass player Craig Walls and drummer Paul Fogarty. Formed in the 90’s, the band have released three albums and toured with groups like Uncle Tupelo, The Bottle Rockets, Blue Mountain and The Wonsers. As they live in different places, they get together every few years to record new material. 2021 sees the release of the E.P. BLUDGERS FIVE.

This single, Dirty Laundry, is the lead single from that E.P. It encapsulates their naturally authentic sound, a mid-paced alternative rock/Americana song that shows numerous influences such as Neil Young, Tom Petty and shades of Bruce Springsteen. Joe Pheloung’s roots, heartfelt vocals are married with crunchy electric guitars and simple but effective drums and bass, augmented by gorgeous backing harmonies.

Lyrically, the song seems to be a dry, ironic commentary on how corruption seems to eventually be exposed: “They found that big pile of dirty money, they found that long trail of dirty cash, now you can see us all looking worried in the camera flash…”. It’s a pithy piece of social satire that seems particularly apposite in this era. After the fine middle eight it breaks out into a succinct guitar solo which is always welcome and a rarity these days.

Overall, this is a superb song by Bludgers, both musically and lyrically. They sound so natural that you would never guess they only get together once in a while, an effortless synergy that is rare among bands. Bludgers keep flying the flag for classic songwriting in the Americana style and Dirty Laundry is exactly what we need right now – honest, genuine music about the times we’re living in.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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