ALBUM REVIEW: Dark Planet by Marc Lowe

https://www.marclowemusic.com

Marc Lowe is a composer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist musician (guitar/keyboards/drums) currently residing in Tokyo, Japan. He’s very much a self-made artist as he writes his own music, sings and performs all the instruments himself, as well as producing it autonomously. He also films and produces his own videos, making him very much the embodiment of the versatile, highly creative modern artist. For several years he has been extremely prolific, releasing a considerable plethora of singles, EPs and albums.

This latest album, Dark Planet, is his third of 2022 and Lowe has stated he sees it as an artistic conclusion to a trilogy consisting of the albums The Way Out Is In (read my review here), Infinity for Beginners and now this final part. Consisting of eight tracks, it is unusual for a Marc Lowe album in that it contains several cover versions. However, these songs, originally by IAMX and the late Jeff Buckley, are very much reimagined by Lowe in keeping with the album’s overall theme.

Essentially, this transpires to be a stage of emotional healing and resolution after experiencing a troubled and painful relationship. Although, as the title implies, this album is also a reflection of the world at large, the global zeitgeist, and it’s worth noting that Lowe also managed to find time for another release between these last two albums, Nobody Wins (Pray For Ukraine).

The album opens with the first of two versions of North Star (Dark Planet mix). Consisting of just acoustic guitar, Lowe’s vulnerable vocal and ambient atmospherics, Lowe very much makes this IAMX song his own. He paints a desolate sonic landscape of emotional numbness, perfectly mirroring the lyrics: “I want flesh to bring me happiness ’cause I feel nothing….I feel nothing”. Amongst the unsettling backdrop we hear Lowe intone, “Do you still love me?” and this moment becomes a touchstone for the album’s overall meaning.

For those already familiar with Lowe’s work, emotional experiences in the present are given context within the framework of Lowe’s spiritual outlook and philosophy which incorporates elements of Eastern religions such as Buddhism. And so, after the raw pain depicted by the album’s opener, Temporal States Of Being brings us from the micro to the macro, a recurring feature of Lowe’s art.

Originally written two years ago with a different arrangement it is mostly an instrumental track, starting with the sound of inhalation and exhalation, a reference to meditation. It develops into a mesmeric concoction of subtle interweaving percussive patterns and a steady synth drone, full of Eastern mystical mystery. Musically, it seems to reflect the Buddhist concept of transcending time and space, the necessary detachment from earthly expectations and desires, which in Buddhism is the root of all suffering. From this heightened perspective, a spoken word vocal from Lowe emerges: “One is what one is…”.

Third track You & I is another cover version, though a radical musical reimagining is perhaps a closer description. It is based on the version of the song from Jeff Buckley’s posthumously released Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk. This unique version mostly consists of atmospherics combined with an extraordinarily emotive and intense vocal performance from Marc, who delivers a masterclass in controlled falsetto.

As the track unfolds, there is a gradual increase in tension, reaching fever pitch by the end. Tellingly, Lowe changes some of Buckley’s original lyrics, which strongly suggests this cover is a reflection of a personal relationship important to Lowe. “Silver eyes” becomes “misty eyes” and ends on the poignant question, “What is the truth of you and I?

With the following (Please Have) Mercy, it becomes truly apparent that this album is about dealing with the aftermath of an intense love affair that has ended painfully. It is another reworking, this one of an IAMX song called Mercy. It feels the narrative natural successor to You & I, a stark depiction of heartbreak and emotional turmoil. Consisting of acoustic used both melodically and percussively (Lowe taps out recurring patterns on the body of his guitar, very effective) as well as another compelling lead vocal.

Here, Lowe again changes the original words to reflect his personal situation and so we find “submission” substituted with “suspicion”, “poetry” with “hypocrisy”. This paints a portrait of infidelity, confirmed by Lowe’s alterations to the spoken word section: “Were the lies from your lips just because you didn’t want me to realise? Was I the one you chose just to hurt me and fuck me up badly?”. The refrain, “did you fake it?” is stoked up to a torturous climax, gradually fading out to a bare whisper.

After such heartfelt and harrowing performances the spacious, mesmerising Inner States of Blind is the perfect contrast. Interestingly, it’s a track related to Inner States (of Mind), from The Sun Is Coming. Even more interestingly, that track was based on the You & I cover which Lowe decided not to release on the Sun Is Coming album. Starting out with just ambient atmospherics, Lowe’s Buddhism-inspired words float over the mix, intricate rhythms gradually emerging and then blossoming into a glorious beat.

Don’t Forget To Breathe (The Way In Is In) is another track that brings us full circle in the Lowe artistic universe. This one is a reworking of Unprecedented Times, the last track on The Sun Is Coming. This is interspersed with parts of The Way Out Is In, from the album of the same name.

These tracks seem to reflect a stage of emotional healing and recovery from emotional pain, through the soul development attained by Eastern spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism, a journey from conscious emotional pain into the still, subconscious realms attained through meditation and contemplation.

But then we resurface back to the conscious world and having to confront emotional wounds once more. With Tears Cried, this is a track that relates to Tear Garden (Praying For Me), from The Way Out Is In. Set to haunting, deeply moving piano, Lowe has stated it’s on one level a compassionate response to the situation in Ukraine. This changing focus from the personal to the suffering of others is the heart of Buddhist thought, namely compassion.

The album concludes with an acoustic version of North Star that, again, feels like the completion of an emotional transformation yet with pain still ever present. It’s also fiercely honest, with subtle lyrical changes from the original: “I’ve seen bad things” becomes, “I’ve done bad things”. This level of artistic honesty would feel too vulnerable for most artists, yet Lowe is a fearless explorer of the human soul.

Overall, Dark Planet is another fascinating sonic and spiritual journey, Marc Lowe combining his own compositions with unique reinterpretations of other artists’ music to great effect. It’s a powerful and painfully emotive work, depicting the dark states of mind following heartbreak, but also the transcendence of ephemeral emotion to attain a semblance of inner peace. Besides the personal aspects, Dark Planet is also a sensitive artist’s intuitive response to the global situation we find ourselves in and another step in Lowe’s impressive artistic progression.

VERDICT = 8.8 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

Dark Planet was released on May 15th 2022 and is now available via all major streaming services (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube & Amazon Music, and more). 

ALBUM REVIEW: The Aftermath of 2016 by Trish Discord

Trish Discord is an indie/alternative artist from Queens, New York. Having had a lifelong love of singing, she began taking professional guitar lessons at college. This coincided with gaining two degrees in psychology, which creatively inspired her to incorporate mental health issues into her artistic work. Also being influenced by the Brooklyn songwriting scene, she eventually created her debut album, Is This My Mental Breakdown? Notably, every track on the album is dedicated to a different kind of mental disorder. Her emotive, heartfelt style has been compared to Evanescence and The Cranberries and Trish has performed on Indie Star Radio and Pistacio Argentina, as well as to a weekly audience through live Instagram performances.

This album, The Aftermath Of 2016, consists of ten tracks and is a depiction of internal struggles following the combined consequences of two key geopolitical events, a Trump Presidency and the controversial, historic Brexit vote in the United Kingdom following a national referendum. Both events created a deep political turmoil and the album can be seen as a reflection on the zeitgeist at the time as well as expressing personal issues.

The album begins with the superb 23, a strident album opener pitched somewhere in between electro pop and alternative rock. Beginning with an arresting intro of pulsing synths, Trish’s strong and distinctive come to the fore, bringing to mind Amy Lee of Evanscence at first. After a brooding, captivating verse her vocals are heavily affected on the bridge to great effect, the calm before the storm, then launching into an epic chorus.

You can hear the influence of bands like Linkin Park and Paramore in terms of the vaulting vocal melody, yet Trish has developed a distinct and unique sonic signature of her own. She has stated that this song is about avoiding problems and difficult situations such as the need to end a bad relationship.

Desire immediately makes a strong impact, a complex Rnb/hip hop infused beat combined with echo-drenched guitar and an anthemic Paramore-style vocal melody. Trish powerfully depicts an intense emotional state of over idealising someone and the anxiety of letting emotions run riot, building up to a fantastic chorus.

“Are my emotions running too deep?” runs the opening chorus line following up with the great line, “you can’t handle my eccentric mind….”. Just as good is the following Strife, directly about dealing with the effects of Trump and Brexit. It’s built like a Linkin Park track, based around a revolving four chord progression over which Trish lays down a mournful yet uplifting vocal melody. Over swirling synth arpeggios the words eloquently depict the perceived harm of the Trump era and the populist mindset: “Destroying progress with every touch, using groupthink as its crutch”. The perspective switches from the political to the personal with lines like, “Isolation is all I need…” and it articulates the despair felt by those who lean politically left during that tumultuous period.

I Can’t Wait To Forget You is entirely personal and perhaps the album’s most instant track. Alternating between a sparse verse and a stomping ‘four to the floor’ chorus, it’s about a deep need to move on from a tormenting relationship: “I can’t wait till you’re just a speck of time locked away somewhere deep inside my mind….”. Featuring a fantastic lead vocal from Trish and an irresistible vocal melody, it’s a definite highlight that marries music and emotion in a truly symbiotic way.

Take Me Away is another finely crafted track, this one about the aftermath of Brexit and dealing with not being able to get a visa while staying in London. It’s a song that many who saw their lives turned upside down will be able to relate to as well as containing another strong vocal performance. The nuanced production also deserves special mention, often bringing to mind the sonic sophistication and studio wizardry of Billie Eilish and Finneas.

Split is another album highlight and a very intelligently written track, both lyrically and musically. Trish has stated how the title refers to both a relationship splitting up and an internal split, a conflict between wanting the safety and security of a relationship and seeking something or someone else outside it. This is another very relatable situation and is musically mirrored by starting out as an electro pop before switching to a more muscular alternative rock sound, Trish delivering a vocal that rivals Hayley Williams at her finest.

In Another Life maintains the high standard, this one a Sliding Doors type theme about wondering how things might be in an alternative universe. There’s a bittersweet quality to Trish’s emotive vocals, imagining a reality where a special relationship had turned out differently: “Please tell me how I can change this feeling, because it haunts me every night…”. Building to a cathartic climax, it’s another memorable album moment that connects on a deep level.

Crashing is an interesting song in the way it cleverly and skilfully balances the melodic with the dissonant, hitting some unexpected chords in the chorus but making it work. It’s a song about being afraid to tell someone you don’t wish to continue the relationship, fearing their reaction. Trish cites bands as diverse as Arcade Fire and Paramore in inspiring this great track.

Musically, Red Sun is another good example of Trish’s undeniable talent for composing strong pop melodies but the subject matter is somewhat serious; this one deals with the speight of Californian forest fires and expresses an underlying anxiety about the climate in general. This message and feeling has become only more apposite in recent years.

The album closes with the hard hitting emotion of This Is The End, a brutally honest expression of someone confronting a toxic relationship and choosing to walk away: “This is the end, cos I have self respect….you treat me worse than your enemy..”. Within its brief duration, this track brilliantly fuses modern pop with alternative rock, with a compelling and intense vocal delivery from Trish, who sounds like she means every word.

Overall, The Aftermath Of 2016 is a consistently excellent album that is perfectly pitched between the genres of pop and alternative rock. Blending influences as diverse as Linkin Park, Paramore and Alanis Morissette, Trish stamps her own artistic voice across every song here to create an album that many will relate to. In fact, all the themes based around 2016 are more relevant than ever, making Trish Discord an important artist of these times.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: Waltz by Niclas Tamas

Niclas Tamas is a composer and pianist from Scandinavia. Having begun learning piano at just four years old, this began a lifetime’s devotion to music though issues with stage fright ruled out musical performance as a career. He spent his teenage years composing and tried pursuing a career in IT, but the Millennium Bubble rendered him redundant and having to work as a taxi driver to make ends meet.

During this time he began working on a musical series called Music Landscapes, composed on the move using an IPhone. Unfortunately, he sadly suffered a stroke in 2014 but this led to working on Music Landscapes during his rehabilitation. This resulted in six hour long pieces which are available to listen to on Spotify. In 2017, he relocated to Budapest and began composing on the piano once again, inspired by Hungarian and Carpathian Basin folk melodies.

This piece, Waltz, is a composition in this style, written for piano and orchestra. In 3/4 time (naturally, for a waltz!), it immediately enchants the listener with a haunting melody that brings to mind the late Romantic composers such as Chopin, Saint Saens and Rachmaninov. Tamas’s gift for composition, in particular a gift for melody, is readily apparent and the way he takes the basic theme through some unexpected harmonic paths shows the influence of more modern composers like Bartok and Stravinsky, who were more inclined towards the unconventional and atonal at times.

With the right hand supplying the staccato melody, the left hand plays a rhythmic and harmonic role, augmented by subtle and sophisticated orchestration that again showcases his high degree of musical skill. The magical soundscape the music creates made me think of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and the modern film composer Danny Elfman.

Overall, Waltz is a beautiful piece for piano and orchestra by a truly gifted Scandinavian composer. Skilfully balancing and combining the highly melodic style of late Romantic classical composers with the adventurous, sometimes dissonant harmonies of more modern ones, Niclas Tomas has managed to forge a unique musical style all of his own. For classical lovers, I can heartily recommend that you take the time to discover and enjoy his music.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Deliver Hell by Reap The Light

Reap The Light are an American hard rock/metal band that formed in late 2020. They consist of a core duo, Reverend Kuzz (bass/guitar) and Orion Hellraiser (guitars/drums). Both members grew up on a steady diet of rock and heavy metal, though Reverend Kuzz was initially a published author. Wanting to write song lyrics, Kuzz decided he needed to work with an experienced musician, which led to working with Orion Hellraiser. Orion is a composer and produced from Mexico, his music mainly inspired by New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, thrash and heavy metal. Combining their respective gifts to write and record the songs, they collaborate with numerous lead vocalists, both male and female, giving Reap The Light a refreshing and versatile sound. Having completed their debut album, Deliver Hell, they are currently collaborating with Tim “Ripper” Owens on a song called Back To Bedlam.

This album, Deliver Hell, consists of ten tracks and clocks in at a hefty fifty minutes. Opening song Burn In Hell gets the album off to a blazing start, crunchy low end riffage duelling with a pounding, cymbal-heavy 2/4 groove. The sound is a potent fusion of late 80’s metal with more modern influences and this track features the lead vocals of Serouj Guidanian. His powerful voice fits the music perfectly, combining excellent Hetfield-style vocals with the guttural growls you find in more modern metal.

The opening lines are a possible commentary on the authoritarian behaviour of governments around the world in response to the Covid pandemic and those who willingly comply: “The stage is now set, your sheeple are all here, not knowing where they are, led by confusion and fear…”. Musically, it quickly emerges that Reap The Light are far more than good riffs, which are enough for some bands to thrive. Rather, this band know how to balance the forces of brute power with strong melodies, both vocally and instrumentally. They also have a real understanding of how to craft and arrange a song, a hurdle where many rock and metal bands fall.

With second track Fade To Black (not a Metallica cover) featuring Nathalie Estrada on lead vocals, the high bar set by Burn In Hell is maintained. Bursting out of the blocks with a Slayer-esque low-end riff over a fearsome 6/8 groove, Nathalie’s high register voice soars majestically over the brutal onslaughts of meaty riffs and exhilarating chord progressions. You can hear shades of Iron Maiden and Megadeth, the influence of Faith No More also apparent in the exotic, Angel Dust-style vocal melody.

Third track The Reckoning is a real album highlight, blistering drums and brooding bass underpinning a barrage of Iron Maiden-inspired riffage. Already sounding suitably apocalyptic considering the title, a feisty, full throated lead vocal from Jo Down completes the sonic fury. With an extraordinary range, his vocal gravitas gives a real edge to the ‘fire and brimstone’ lyrics: “The day of reckoning, fate has called your name, the day of reckoning, suffer in eternal flame….”. Featuring passages of lead guitar virtuosity and ferocious double kick work as well as an instant classic of a chorus, it captures Reap The Light at their very best.

The title track sustains the momentum with a gripping introduction, rapid fire double kick and syncopated snare augmenting razor sharp riffs that generate a fierce rhythmic intensity. This time Chris Lion takes the lead vocal helm, giving a compelling performance that lyrically could almost be the theme song for the four horsemen of the apocalypse: “Destruction falls like rain, chaos is here to dwell, never will we stop, we came to deliver hell….”. Special mention should go to the incendiary guitar solo on this one, which starts out as an angular and modal before hitting a delicious, bluesy sweet spot that shows some of their more classic/hard rock influences. The vocal harmonies delivered at an impressively high pitch are another highlight.

Maintaining a similar vibe that you might call the band’s signature sound, fifth track If I Give A Damn stands out for another fine female lead vocal, this one from Chloe Ozwell. How the band find so many talented vocal collaborators is anyone’s guess, but Chloe sings her heart out, expressing the painful end of a relationship. Hitting some incredible high notes at the end, the Ritchie Blackmore style lead guitar work is also worthy of mention.

Hollow is a distinct change of pace which shows the band’s sophisticated compositional craft and emotional depth. The band have stated that this album is about “overcoming depression, anxiety and loss” but this beautiful and poignant song captures some in a dark place. A delicate bedrock of piano and strings sets a melancholy mood, bringing to mind the cathartic epic rock balladry of Evanescence. The opening verse paints a dark terrain of the soul: “The walls are closing in again, I fight to keep my breath, the noise is so deafening trying to bring about my death….”.

However, this is music that always offers the hope of redemption, as epitomised by the words to the bridge: “Angels reach out to me, bathing me in light, I hear their songs of love and hope, my ally in this fight...”. A curious dichotomy is that while many rock and metal bands put their finger in the flame of life’s dark side, the aptly named Reap The Light have a recurrent spiritual undertone to their music and lyrics, which artistically raises them above their contemporaries.

Following the album’s most delicate music, it’s suitably pitched against the heaviest track here. Set to a moody, magnificent guitar riff that Metallica might be jealous of, it’s perfectly designed for a long haired audience to headbang to. Alex Atan continues the run of superb singers, performing a strong vocal near the top of his register. The excellent bassline deserves a mention, driving the song whilst staying highly melodic.

The Iron Maiden-esque gallop and dissonant riffage of Run Israel Run keeps the energy rush going, and is perhaps the track that purest metal fans will take to best, frantic and ferocious drums and equally visceral guitars creating a colossal wall of sound. Jesse Yrjola is the vocal hero on this track, his slightly unorthodox style fitting the Nordic metal vibes of the music.

The haunting intro to Descend to Madness is one of the album’s most affecting moments, developing into a Nothing Else Matters-style dark, epic ballad, at least to start with. The solemn strings that accompany the sky scraping lead vocal lend a quiet grandeur before the track explodes into more familiar metal territory. The switch between these disparate styles makes for very effective dynamics and it’s an understated gem that improves with every listen. Clocking in at seven and a half minutes, it’s the closest they come to progressive metal.

The essentially positive message behind this album full of emotional vicissitudes is showcased on the finale, Victory Is Near. Led by a charismatic and vibrant vocal courtesy of Elenora Dora, the track is an unrestrained and carefree metal anthem, the chorus a glorious middle finger to misery: “This pit of doom can’t hold me, my heart and mind are clear, I apologize for nothing, my victory is near….”.

Overall, this is a fantastic debut album from Reap The Light, a unique band that fuse the aggression and bite of 80’s/modern metal with consistently memorable hooks and choruses. Lyrically, again, there’s a tension created by the fusion of opposites, poetic and at times biblical language addressing particularly modern issues such as depression and anxiety. While the band fearlessly express life amongst the shadows, the ultimate message from Deliver Hell is to overcome everything life throws at you. Reap The Light are the real deal and are making music that captures the current zeitgeist whilst simultaneously rocking like a beast. They deserve to be huge.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: Still There’s Only Pain by Jessica Bell (from Unfolding Temporary)

Still There’s Only Pain is a song taken from a pop/rock musical Unfolding Temporary, which is based on a script by Elena C. Lockleis. The musical is based around a college girl called Jane who’s struggling with severe mental health issues but finds herself falling in love with a classmate, Naomi. This reverses her seemingly irreversible decline and both the book and the musical address the issues of depression and anxiety in an open and honest way to bring these important problems of modern life to the forefront. The musical was adapted from the book by Jon Worthy and this track is sung by Jessica Bell.

The song is a highly emotive epic ballad that brought to mind artists such as Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and Sia. Featuring a powerful, sensitive vocal performance from Jessica Bell, the track is mid paced with a suitably melancholy vibe, from the simple but effective beat to the echo drenched guitar. This relatively minimalist musical bedrock allows the lyrical message of the song to come to the fore.

The first verse is a moving depiction of someone battling with depression and anxiety: “Doctor says take the pill, it will clear your mind, it will make you well….the problem is I’m not fixable…”. It builds up to the stately chorus, the words capturing the emotional torment of fighting against a mental illness: “I wanna feel happy not bad, just glad to be alive …”. The lyrics on the second chorus are more desperate, expressing a deep need to simply experience the regular things that make us human: “I wanna be normal, and laugh and flirt and lust and all the things between…but I’m falling down deeper and deeper…”. The recurring refrain, “I have so much pain” becomes one of the motifs of the song, which builds to a cathartic climax.

Overall, this is a beautifully written and performed pop/rock ballad dealing with the difficult but important issue of mental health. Being part of a musical, the song has more of a moving narrative than most pop tracks and the superb lead of vocals of Jessica Bell make the emotional drama feel very real. Still There’s Only Pain will perhaps become the flagship song of what sounds like a potentially classic contemporary musical.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: No Means No by iLUMiNATiVE

iLUMiNATiVE is an independent rap artist hailing from Mullumbimby, born in Byron Bay, Australia. He spent his youth pursuing a professional sport career, taking the opportunity to rap at live events along the way. Describing himself artistically as a Woke spectrum rapper, he states he is “an advocate for freedom, freedom of speech, human rights, neurodiversity, natural medicines, Autism / Aspergers (ASD), universal law, spirituality and sexuality.” He has been recording music since 2005 and has released two projects: The Awakening and Kundalini Rising, which have both featured on radio stations around the world. In particular, the song Know Yourself from Kundalini Rising was the first song to make it onto a national mainstream radio super network in Australia. In 2021, he released his album The Spectrum, which featured the successful tracks Rejoice, Love Forever and especially Born Again, which has racked up 100k streams on Spotify alone.

This latest release, No Means No, is a hip hop/nu metal track that deals head on with the subject of bodily autonomy in the context of the Covid vaccines. From the outset the music grabs you by the throat, a cocktail of razor sharp guitars over a blistering hip hop beat. This lays the sonic platform for an incendiary rap delivery, the first verse a powerful assertion of individuality and free choice: “I am my own doctor and my own government”. As it goes into the chorus the perspective switches to the love of his children: “I would kill for them”.

The chorus itself is a mixture of fearless defiance and righteous anger at the way Covid vaccines have been used as a means of manipulation and coercion, with a terse expression of bodily autonomy: “No means no”.

The second verse expresses the encroaching totalitarianism of Big Tech which restricts our collective right to free speech: “Censorship and shadow banning….” as well as directly addressing the social pressure to be vaccinated with a barely tested new technology: “Get vaxxed? I ain’t having that….”. The third verse rams the message home in style (“Resist the mob”) and the track closes out with the infectious title hook.

Overall, No Means No is a superb hip hop/nu metal fusion track that has particular power for addressing perhaps the most contentious subject of our era, Covid and the mRNA vaccines. The result is a killer track that confronts the elephant in the room that most other artists are too scared to address. With an impact that brought to mind Eminem at his peak, this could be the track that sends iLUMiNATiVE into the stratosphere. Unless it’s censored, of course….

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Listen to No Means No HERE

SINGLE REVIEW: Gamble by Sir Magnus (feat. DJ Alex Robataillie)

Sir Magnus is an award winning Pop/EDM artist and songwriter, originally born in Syracuse but now based in Las Vegas. After over a decade being successful in the corporate world he decided something was missing from his life and that was music, his first love. He made the bold decision to relocate to Las Vegas and began his musical career. He’s since had a lot of success with releases including Lips, Grand Central Station and The Decree EP, amongst others. This led to him winning a SAMMY award and he has become a leading voice in the black artistic community. His experimental albums The Infinity Cove Sessions were praised highly by critics including myself (read here and here).

This latest release, Gamble, is a collaboration with the DJ Alex Robataillie. It’s an upbeat, highly infectious house track with a tropical vibe, making it perfect for an eve of summer release. Built around a vibrant 2/4 house groove and Ibiza-drenched synths, Sir Magnus lays down a captivating Weeknd-style lead vocal, flipping from deep and soulful to a high falsetto effortlessly. It has the drops and build ups that you’d expect from any self respecting dance track and the production is top notch.

Lyrically, the song’s metaphor may well have been inspired by the Las Vegas casinos he is surrounded by, though he also cites the Netflix anime show Kakaguirui as artistic inspiration for this track. Either way, the words capture the similarity between gambling and risking getting your heart broken through love: “One last chip ain’t got nothing to lose, tell the dealer place a bet on you….”.

However, the chorus captures the euphoria of taking the risk and the excitement of flirting: “I’m in heaven, the rush is taking over me, I’m in heaven with all these risky games we like to play….”. Combined with its seductive melody and addictive musical backdrop, the effect is decidedly uplifting to the very end.

Overall, Gamble is a superb return release from Sir Magnus in collaboration with DJ Alex Robataillie. Seemingly tailor made for dancing to in the sun, Sir Magnus delivers a charismatic lead vocal full of melodic hooks and relatable lyrics which most will connect with. Having already experienced success and critical acclaim, Gamble could see Sir Magnus’s popularity soar to new heights and become a summertime hit in the clubs. Let’s hope the track gets the exposure it deserves.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Possibilities by Mark A. Smith

Mark A. Smith is a songwriter/composer, vocalist and producer with a strong Christian faith element that forms the basis of his inspirational music. He has released many albums and a plethora of singles in the last couple of decades, releasing his debut solo album Ministry back in 2005. In 2020, he released The Collection, a compendium of songs that featured on his first three solo albums. 2021 saw the release of his 4th solo album, Mark & LaShonda, a musical tribute to his wife.

This album, Possibilities, is his fourth Gospel album and features guest appearances from Trip-C, Da Block Bishop, Joshua Williams, Byron Garner, Jay White, and MAS II. The album consists of 14 tracks and opens up with the uplifting All Things Are Possible.

As well as being the perfect showcase for Mark’s smooth and technically flawless lead vocals, it is full of rich vocal Gospel harmonies with a distinct jazzy tinge. You can hear the influence of the Jackson 5 as well as Stevie Wonder in the sophisticated RnB arrangement built around a crisp, punchy beat and highly melodic bass, reminiscent of the great James Jamerson. It’s about having faith in God when you’re facing hard times and the track notably features excerpts from sermons by Pastor Tim Sheets, Pastor Jason Anderson, and Pastor Gene James.

God Can Do Anything is just as positive and inspiring, this one a buoyant RnB/pop track with a cute children-sung chorus hook. It’s effervescent, summery vibe brought to mind the 90’s Shanice Classic I Love Your Smile and it’s another track produced to perfection. The simple hooks are juxtaposed against sophisticated, harmonically complex chord progressions and the contrast is very effective.

Third track AS Long As You’re Here shows Mark’s talent for writing ballads and this one sounds like it could be a Boys II Men track from the 90’s. Mark gives an emotive, heartfelt performance on this one, which is another faith song, but many will relate to it just as an expression of sincere love. Featuring a superb soaring string and brass arrangement, this song in particular captures Smith’s versatile talents.

Fear Not is set at a similar tempo though sung from a different perspective which gives it a strongly spiritual vibe and emotional power: “I am the one who made the heavens and the earth, yes I am the one who controls the entire universe…”. The arrangement is very well structured with a very effective modulation halfway through and sumptuous strings towards the end. Another deeply felt, exquisitely executed song that will provide great comfort to those who hear it when they need to.

Hold On is a change of style, a funky RnB track with an infectious groove and chorus. It also features a superb rap cameo from Joshua Williams, who delivers succinct and on point rhymes with charisma and conviction, a fine counterpoint to Mark’s mellifluous lead vocals and block harmonies.

Go & Tell Them is a lovely song mostly sung by Mark but also featuring some very fine vocals from his wife, LaShonda. The spiritual warmth of the song’s message shines through with lines like, “It makes no difference, the creed or colour, we are all sisters and brothers…”.

Comfort Me is another classy RnB ballad in 6/8 time with an uplifting theme about finding God’s guidance during one’s darkest moments. The sheer sophistication of the chord progressions, harmonies and dynamics brought to mind Prince at his very best. The elastic bassline and evocative Rhodes piano are other highlights of this excellent track.

No 1 Compares 2 U is interestingly spelt in a manner Prince used for some of his tracks, so it’s perhaps safe to say he’s a strong musical influence! This ebullient, soulful RnB/pop track is, for me, the album’s finest moment with its instantly infectious melody and funky, highly percussive groove. Filled with vocal and instrumental hooks, this surely deserves to be a single release.

The instantly memorable descending chord progression and finely crafted vocal melody of Treasure, augmented by tasteful stabs of brass, brought to mind Stevie Wonder once again. In particular, it has the joyous, faith-inspired vibe of Songs In The Key Of Life. It’s another track that contains a rap section, this time from MAS II. It’s another great cameo, giving the track a modern edge.

The mid-paced You Are is one of the album’s most heartfelt expressions of deep faith (“You’re my saviour, deliverer, provider, my healer”) while the irresistible finger-clicking pop of Joyful Joyful brings back that effusive energy.

As well as containing some wild musical twists and turns it features two other male vocal appearances, Jay White and Byron Garner. Jay has a classy Bruno Mars-style voice while Byron contributes a succinct but effective rap that adds a little more musically current flavour.

I’m Not Ashamed is built around an intricate, percussion-heavy rhythm which really cooks and lays the bedrock for more first rate vocal gymnastics and slickly delivered harmonies. Trip C takes the rap spotlight this time, laying down confidently delivered lines and providing the perfect contrast to the high end vocals.

The musical journey comes to its conclusion with the final two tracks which are both solo efforts, Heaven Is Not Far Away and For All You’ve Done. The first of these doesn’t flinch from portraying the state of the world as it is right now: “As I look around all I see is trouble, destruction everywhere and people don’t seem to care…”. But the promise of redemption means the message imparted is ultimately hugely positive and this is underlined by the album’s final song. It’s the album’s most mellow moment, full of rich, dense extended jazz chords which are incorporated into the musical tapestry with a Stevie Wonder level of skill. It’s a touching and humble expression of gratitude towards God that makes for a fitting finale.

Overall, this is a highly accomplished faith-inspired album from Mark A. Smith, a formidable singer, songwriter and producer. With an advanced level of musical understanding rooted in soul, jazz, RnB and Gospel, this is infused with some great cameos from rappers and fellow vocalists. While those of a Christian faith will connect to the songs the most, there’s a universal thread that runs through every track so there’s something for everyone. On this evidence, Mark A. Smith is surely the finest practitioner around in this genre.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

https://markasmithministry.com/

E.P. REVIEW: Tides and… by Blue MOON Science

Allan Vilhan is an award-winning composer/producer and musician, originally born in Slovakia and relocating to London in the early 2000’s. After joining ACM Records in 2004 he found public and critical acclaim following the release of his track Sol Naciente, which took first prize in the Electronica category of the International Songwriting Competition. An album, Alchemy, also received plaudits and prizes. In 2017, he re-emerged under the moniker Likvid which dealt with dark, atmospheric soundscapes. His most recent musical incarnation as Blue MOON Science finds Vilhan exploring the EDM genre with a group of global vocalist collaborators. 2022 has already seen the release of the hugely popular track Get Up Now.

This EP, Tides and…., consists of six tracks and opens with the exotic RnB track Step Aside. It features the lead vocal talents of Alyssa Jane, who gives an alluring and seductive performance over an intricate musical backdrop. Her distinctive voice is enriched by a harmony vocal running through much of the lead melody to great effect. Lyrically, it captures the emotional turmoil of someone breaking out of a bad relationship: “You cannot break me, you cannot tame me, you cannot wrap me up in that hazy place….”.
A fine cameo rap performance from Guyku also adds extra flavour to a killer track that could well become a global hit.

Second song Endless Game keeps the bar just as high, a moody electro pop/ trip hop track with a pumping beat and brooding, pulsing bassline. In certain aspects of its vibe and production it brought to mind trip hop artists like Portishead and Massive Attack from the 90’s era. The way the arrangement ebbs and flows is skilfully done, the build ups and breakdowns creating constant momentum and dynamic shifts. It also has a languid groove and a distinct party vibe that makes it a strong candidate for a late summer smash in the clubs.

While the first two tracks feature lyrics in English, with the third track Vidina (feat. LOTTA), the words are in Allan’s native language of Slovak. His vocal collaborator LOTTA (who wrote the lyrics) gives a captivating performance, her singing full of charisma and conviction. Musically, it also expands beyond the usual, fusing drum and bass rhythms with an exotic EDM style to create a unique piece of electronica that’s not like anything else I’ve ever heard. While still commercial sounding and catchy, this original merging of musical styles and linguistic culture is where Vilhan really shines.

When I Am Alone is different again, whilst retaining enough similar elements to ensure a sonic coherence and cohesion. This one features the ethereal, Lana Del Rey-style voice of Nico Frost, also bringing to mind Liz Frazer from the Cocteau Twins. Lyrically, it is a heartfelt expression of insecurity over a sense of self and personal identity: “Ooh whenever I think I’ve found myself I always fall back down,
all the castles I have built turn into pieces of floating dust.”
Special mention should go to the luscious vocal harmony arrangement and the superb production as a whole.

Time is Now, featuring vocals this time from Chloe Kay, is the EP’s most radical and experimental track, merging Kate Bush-style mysticism with hard hitting DnB beats. It’s a rollercoaster ride of a track with a sonic surprise round every corner. Lyrically, it’s about the struggle to stay positive when you’re chasing a dream: “Still believing, what I want’s just out of reach, blood, sweat and tears but it’s a brand new day….”.

Final track Step Aside II (Honey) is like a sequel to the EP’s opener. At a similar tempo and containing striking rapid fire hi-hats once again, it’s otherwise a very different kind of track. Set to a sensual groove, the vocals have a similarly sexy quality, the subtle low end guitar once again bringing to mind the West Coast vibe of Lana Del Rey. Providing the earthy yang to the opening track’s yin, it completes the EP in fine style.

Overall, the six tracks on Tides and… capture Allan Vilhan’s gifts as songwriter and producer in this particular genre. It also allows a variety of gifted female vocalists from around the globe to contribute (not forgetting the rap skills of Guyku) and the result is finely crafted electronica tracks that incorporate sub genres like house, trance, trip hop and even drum ‘n bass into the musical melting pot. With strong commercial appeal and a largely radio friendly sound, Blue MOON Science could become a real heavyweight and major success in the global EDM scene.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: EPisodes by Bryanna Rain

Bryanna Rain is an author and singer/songwriter from Richmond, VA. Bryanna is an artist who has developed her career through the DIY internet scene, which allows artists to grow organically without needing a vast budget. She released her debut EP, Blameless, through Kounterfeit Records to great acclaim when she was just thirteen. She also performed background vocals on Celadon Candy’s cc:EP and has developed a considerable proficiency and expertise in music production over the years. In 2021, Bryanna released the three track EP Blaming Eternia (which I reviewed very favourably, read here) and all the songs also appear on this, her debut album release for her record label Exquisite Noise.

The album consists of eight tracks, opening with the title track from last year’s EP. Blaming Eternia is a wild and instantly striking song, starting with an enigmatic intro before breaking out into a punchy pop/dance beat and a brooding bassline. Bryanna’s voice is captivating, as distinctive as any global female pop star and with as large a range. Aside from tone and technique, there’s also a quirky side to her musical persona that brought to mind someone like Charlie XCX, another female artist who does the pop thing with a certain twist. This stretches into the unpredictable lyrics, with ear catching lines such as “You wouldn’t be so naked without your golden crown....”. A great album opener.

All these qualities continue into the wonderful Phosphene, Dreaming. It’s a majestic mid paced synth pop track that brought to mind Carpenter Brit’s classic remix of Gunship’s Tech Noir, with its stately groove and tumbling synth toms. That’s where any similarity ends, however; it’s a mesmeric and compelling piece of pop, Bryanna weaving a memorable web of melody over a colourful 80’s style synth-heavy backdrop. The lyrics are oblique and almost psychedelic: “I close my eyes and try colours on…outer space is where I belong...”. At its emotional core, though, is a deep longing for love: “Cradle me and hold me, rock me like a baby...”. Whatever it’s about, it’s undoubtedly one of the album’s finest moments.

The quirky, avant garde side to her artistry is even more evident on third track, Ferretheads. Built around some “interesting” spoken word samples both human and computerised, it is underpinned by a restless swirl of blazing synths and frenetic beats. While probably disorienting to a newcomer, this kind of original, experimental approach is most welcome in a pop culture that has become so stale and predictable.

Fourth track Satellite Strings is a return to more mainstream fare, a genuinely beautiful and touching cover of Tasmin Archer’s no. 1 hit Sleeping Satellite, which also appeared on the Blaming Eternia EP. This song is a particularly good showcase for Bryanna’s vocal talents and she gives a rich and emotive performance, expressing the deep romanticism in the words with conviction.

The Dirge is another striking and impressive track, a sophisticated synth pop song full of intricate rhythms and instrumental hooks. The heartfelt chorus captures a relationship causing emotional turmoil: “How long you gonna string me along? How come I let you ring my alarm..?”. This becomes a compelling refrain toward the end of the track, making it one of the most moving and memorable songs on EPisodes.

The mood switches radically once more, GhostBaby (Vanishing) a vibrant house track with Bryanna sharing the singing with a male vocalist to good effect. Driving Italian-style house piano underpins a versatile and flamboyant lead vocal from Bryanna, also featuring some lush, layered harmonies. The yin/yang contrast of the female and male vocals give this track an exciting edge, and you can see it becoming popular in the clubs, in particular.

Phosphene, Dancing, as the title suggests, is a reworking of the earlier song Phosphene, Dreaming, with a more dance-oriented sound and production style. It takes the dreamy melancholy of the original melodic material and marries it to an array of interweaving synth lines. Whilst not as effective as the first version, in my opinion, it’s an interesting re-imagining of a very good song.

The closing track Sure Shot is another rollercoaster ride, a left of field electro pop track that lacks discernible lyrics but is nonetheless incredibly catchy. The relentless see-saw vocal melody has a hypnotic effect along with the pulsing synths and thudding, electrifying beat. There’s a real skill in how this track was put together, capturing both Bryanna’s artistic idiosyncrasies and inventiveness as well as her future creative potential.

Overall, this is an impressive and genuinely distinctive debut album from singer/songwriter Bryanna Rain. Leaning most towards electro pop with an inimitable 80’s-inspired style and sound she has developed herself over the years, she can just as easily switch to a mainstream pop song. While a more consistent approach might garner her more success at the more commercial end of the music industry, EPisodes is Bryanna Rain making her mark as a gifted creative artist and is most definitely a name to listen out for in the future.

VERDICT = 8.8 out of 10

Alex Faulkner