Freelance music journalist Alex Faulkner reviewing the latest new unsigned or up and coming music. Feel free to follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Get the latest reviews via email by signing up to the blog, the 'follow' button is on the right hand side. Down a bit.
Category Archives: Album Reviews
Reviews of albums. The clue is very much in the title in this instance.
Land is an electronica outfit from Rimini, Italy. Their music is a unique fusion of early 1980’s groups such as Joy Division and Depeche Mode with more modern electronica like Massive Attack, Underworld and the more experimental, later works of Radiohead. David Bowie’s Berlin album trilogy has also been a seminal influence on Land’s sound and artistic style. They have been releasing material since 2006 and have produced numerous albums over the years, amassing a large fan base along the way. In 2021, they have released the No Time EP.
This EP, The Maze We’re In, consists of seven tracks. It begins with the excellent title track, based around cutting edge low end synth, an insistent and infectious guitar line that brought to mind U2’s The Fly and bolstered by beefy electronic drums that recall Bowie’s Low album. You can hear the influence of Bowie’s croon on the lead vocals along with Dave Gahan’s rich barotone. Land are more than the sum of their influences though and are skilful songwriters in their own right, delivering a killer title hook and reaching a crescendo of grandeur towards the end.
What Remains is another fine example of their sophisticated electro-pop, this one a mid-paced yet vibrant meld of modern electronica synths with carefully crafted songwriting. Lyrically, it deals with a romantic relationship that has turned to acrimony: “Here we go again, losing ourselves in foolish words…”. The vocals doubled in octaves on the excellent chorus are particularly effective and it’s a track that Depeche Mode would be proud to have in their canon, comparable to their pop noir classic Enjoy The Silence.
Their distinctive signature sound is further consolidated with the moody, saturnine groove of Rules (21 Mix). Built around a circling, mesmeric beat and brooding bassline, the track has a dark yet almost psychedelic vibe, with the poetic surrealism of the lyrics putting it in the category of dreampop: “Cosmic rose inside dreamlike spaces”. The hypnotic vocal refrains work perfectly with the music and it completes a terrific trifecta.
Essentially, this is a 3 track EP and the remaining four tracks are remixes or reworkings, with two of the title track including an epic six minute version. The other remixes are imaginative and interesting as well.
Overall, this is a very strong EP release by an experienced electronica group at the height of their powers. Marrying the style of 80’s post punk with modern electronica and synth pop, Land produce music of a consistently high quality and I expect their fanbase to grow exponentially.
Matthew Schultz is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer and performer who started out playing guitar in Chris Daughtry’s first band. He has already made a strong impact on the music industry with his previous releases. His first single, Money or Me, was produced by Armando Guarnera and earned him a nomination at the 2013 EOTM Awards, as well as one for best new male artist. He followed this up with Crazy Heart (ft. Alessia Guarnera) in 2014, then in 2015 he released We Own The Night (feat. Jim Jones).
2018 saw a plethora of successful releases for Matthew Schultz. In January, he released the single Promise For Keeps, following up with a version featuring Jamaican reggae singer Gyptian and an Electric Bodega remix in the following months.
That remix has accumulated a million plays on Spotify and the track became part of a viral craze on Instagram (#promiseforkeeps), featuring some of the biggest stars from NBC hit show World of Dance. Also hugely popular was another single, All Night Long, featuring Gyptian and Rico Tayla and Somewhere Far, which has racked up an enormous 8 million streams.
It was featured on Spotify’s Editorials Chill Hits, Brand New Chill, Wachenende, Pop Relax, Slo Down, No Stress and went Viral 50 in 8 countries as well as charting on Music Week and Itunes Electronic Charts. His last release, Turn Me Up (ft. Gyptian) has accumulated over one million streams and featured on Matchbox Indie Club Hits Volume 1 – Essential Commercial Pop Club. His most recent release, One Wok (ft. Zolo) is already racking up big numbers on Spotify and is destined for similar success.
This latest track, Can’t Stop, is entirely a solo effort after several successful collaborations with featured artists. While these collaborations have been great, it’s also good to hear a track where Schultz handles all the vocal duties as he does here. From its evocative intro, the languid tempo and slow moving chord progression immediately creates a summery vibe that makes you feeling you’re on a beach on a tropical island, sipping a cocktail. Matthew’s vocals enter in a low register, reminiscent of Calvin Harris tracks where he’s taken the lead vocal himself (such as the hit track Summer).
The verse is built around a bouncy and infectious synth melody and handclaps, with the opening lines setting the mood: “Baby, let me take you higher, I just want to show you a good time tonight….“. The arrangement builds nicely with a punchy kick entering the mix, leading to the mesmeric title hook: “Can’t stop it, why stop it now?”.
After the chorus, rather than another verse, there’s another memorable refrain section which is highly effective: “Never wanna let you go, I just wanna feel your love…”. It then returns seamlessly to the chorus hook until the end, completing a succinct and concise arrangement that clocks in at only two and a half minutes but feels just the right length.
Overall, this is a strong fully solo effort from the prolific Matthew Schultz. With several successful collaborations under his belt, Can’t Stop sees him taking centre stage which allows him to shine. Full of great hooks which belies the short duration, this sexy and seductive track could well take him to even greater heights of success late in the summer.
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).
This album, the sixth released by Forest Robots, consists of ten tracks and is the second album released in a prolific year after Amongst A Landscape Of Spiritual Reckoning, also rated highly by me (read here). As with previous works, there is a spiritual and artistic philosophy behind the album. Fran has explained the unusual yet intriguing title in a recent interview: “In geology, Horst and Graben refer to regions that lie between normal faults and are either higher or lower than the area beyond the faults. These are the areas across a landscape that are rifts or river valleys (Graben) and ridges (Horst).”
Fran saw a metaphor here in the way it reflects upon the vicissitudes of our lives, which are particularly up and down in the light of recent events such as the worldwide pandemic and the numerous issues we face globally regarding climate change. Another inspirational and artistic keystone behind the album’s concept is a book by David George Haskell, The Book Of Trees. Through reading this book, Fran saw both parallels between the author’s narrative and his own spiritual journey, which is closely connected with his relationship to nature. Fran has said that he found the book’s narrative “easy to visualise” and this concept of visualisation is a very important aspect of Fran’s music.
As I’ve suggested before, the compositions that Fran creates and produces are perhaps best described as paintings in sound or, indeed, sonic visualisations. This is exemplified by the album’s opening track, As Every Crevice In The Woods Waits Patiently For Sunrise. From the poetic image conjured by the title, the mind’s eye is instantly able to visualise this natural scene and the music is then experienced in a visual, aural and emotional way.
Through gentle, shimmering strings and a delicate, sparse melody with a harp-like tone it is so easy to vividly picture the first chinks and shafts of sunlight emerging through the gaps between trees trunks, branches and leaves. Everyone will envisage their own personal picture as the spellbinding sounds weave their subtle magic.
This World Is Held Together By The Beauty Of Hidden Places is another strongly resonant title that encapsulates the essence of Fran’s art; finding a deeper spiritual connection with the world through experiencing the beauty and wonder of nature. The music to this achieves a floating, displaced sense of time through the use of synth sounds reversed, giving it almost a psychedelic feel. By psychedelic, I’m referring to its original meaning of “mind expanding” rather than drug induced or inspired.
To Return To The Valley One Must Have Reached The Peak is another thought provoking title, referring both to the life’s vicissitudes and the essential dichotomy of our existence; that everything is relative and connected, that you cannot truly know hot unless you also know cold, etc. On this composition, the synth strings gradually begin to unfurl and predominate, creating an almost spectral soundscape. Fran has stated that he “wanted to have a warm, nostalgic-like, electronic sound throughout the album”, something that would recall the warm sounding ambient music of the 1970’s.
This is certainly apparent here, the strings having a real depth and rich sonic texture. To get this sound, Fran specifically purchased an Elektron Digitone and an Analog Heat. These two renowned synths make a strong impact across the album and bring to mind the sound of the great David Bowie and Brian Eno collaborations of the late 70’s, such as the emotive and haunting soundscapes of Bowie’s Low album.
A Challenging Path Is Best Approached With Great Prudence raises another fascinating technical aspect behind the making of the album. While it sounds like several different stringed musical instruments were involved across the making of the album, Fran has said that aside from the two analog synths mentioned, the rest of the sounds were achieved via the technique of processes piano. So what will sound to the listener like a beautiful low end melody on some obscure stringed folk instrument is achieved by this means.
No Mountain Can Stand Without A Valley To Surround It returns to the dualistic idea that it is the combination and interrelation of opposites that provide the true wholeness of existence. Here, Fran conjures up a deeply mystical soundscape that somehow musically mirrors the contemplative nature of the title.
The following Every Particle Of Water Understands Change Is Essential feels like the natural successor to that philosophical concept, this one focusing on the recurring cycles of life and brings to mind the famous axiom of the philosopher Heraclitus: “All things are moving”. Musically, it is a masterpiece of restraint, with surging, swelling strings creating a highly emotional, dramatic effect, counterpointed by equally turbulent low end piano.
This idea of nature’s cycle of continuous change and rebirth is reflected by A Latitude Often Changes Character But Not Position. There is an Eastern exoticism to this composition in its melodic flavour, whilst making further use of backwards (or at least backwards sounding) synth which further adds to the esoteric vibe.
Even Unaligned, Topographies Are Often Connected assimilates the spiritual concept of the underlying unity and interconnectedness of all creation, the realisation of which is something great artists have tried to inspire through their art for centuries. The mood of blissful contemplation is maintained, with the various strands of melody intertwining as if to infinity.
Peaks And Valleys Come And Go, Only The Search Is Constant suggests a spiritual epiphany where a sense of transcendent perspective is achieved, separating one’s self from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare phrases it in Hamlet. This piece is richly melodic and sonically enchanting with its pure, crystalline sound.
The closing track, In The Aftermath Of Rain No Grain Of Sand Remains Unstirred, is a suitably poignant and powerful denouement to the album, gradually building in grandeur as the synth strings reach cinematic heights and one feels the sense of drifting through space observing the infinite cycles of life.
Overall, this is yet another fabulous foray into nature-inspired ambient music from Fran Dominguez. Having successfully explored other genres like EDM and a more rhythmic style of music, here he takes us on another epic spiritual and musical journey that reaches the heights of his ambient heroes from the seventies. With his artistic style honed to a very fine pitch, Horst and Graben is arguably the finest Forest Robots album to date.
Custom are a five-piece hard rock band hailing from Seattle. They have played a major part in the Seattle rock scene, having been together for over a decade with hundreds of live performances under their belt. They consist of David Lyon on lead vocals, Corey Petro and Scott Bickham on guitar, Paul Yarnold on bass and Brian Cochran behind the kit. Bickham and Yarnold also contribute vocals. They have released several albums over the years including Flat Out Fast (2014) and Brace For Impact (2018). They have received considerable acclaim from various rock music publications and amassed a huge fanbase along the way.
This album, V, consists of ten tracks and was mastered by the great Jack Endino of Nirvana fame. Proceedings gets off to an incendiary start with the storming opening track, King Alice. It showcases the Custom sound and style; a mixture of classic rock, grunge and metal that takes the best aspects of each. Every great rock band needs a great lead vocalist and with David Lyon, they have one. His full throated, impassioned vocals give King Alice its cathartic edge, twinned with the serrated edge electric guitar sound and the thunderous drumming of Brian Cochran.
The song captures the band’s rare ability to perfectly blend the melodic with the visceral, a richly melodic verse then switching to heavy riffage that shows both the influence of classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin and classic metal groups like Iron Maiden and Slayer. You can also detect 90’s grunge influences like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.
Equally good is Snake In The Grass, a rolling rhythm driving a colossal riff and building to a killer chorus that is instantly memorable and anthemic. It’s a classic tale of the lure of a femme fatale: “Your eyes upon me,
I feel the heat of your gaze, you’re coiled and ready, baby but I will not be your prey…”. It features another superb vocal performance from David Lyon and the wah-drenched lead guitar is the icing on the cake.
Open Road is an absolute juggernaut of a track, hurtling along like Deep Purple’s classic Highway Star. It’s a thrilling song about escaping your situation and hitting the road, referencing the poetry of Robert Frost along the way! The musical synergy of the band is very apparent here, generating a fierce momentum that serves as the bedrock for another high register lead vocal.
The momentum and brilliance is maintained by the fiesty and fiery Game On, an ebullient laying down of the gauntlet to their rivals and enemies. Paul Yarnold gets to shine on this track, delivering a killer bassline, gripping the listener from the outset. It develops into a perfect marriage of soaring melody and hard hitting riffs, with an exotic, mellifluous modal guitar solo.
Finis Omnium is the album’s epic at five minutes long, and finds them st their most poetic and, dare I say, prophetic. It’s a timely track about the strong possibility of an impending apocalypse captured in the soaring, poignant chorus: “We’re primed to fall, our starship slowly dying…the signs abound, our wounds are self-inflicted…”. They do still offer hope with the line: “There’s still time to save our starship…”
Ten Years Gone takes a sad subject, a relationship that has died but is not yet over, and married it to another rollicking rollercoaster of a musical ride. Emphatic use of dynamics and syncopation give this one a wild energy.
I Sit Alone is the album’s darkest and most vulnerable track, expressing the hell of deep depression and despair with typical eloquence in the chorus: “I hide in the darkness and bathe in my madness, I sit alone and hide from the light...”. A superb song showing the band’s emotional range and depth.
Do It Again provides the perfect contrast, starting out like an AC/DC track then building into a fist pumping anthem full of great hooks and riffs. The way the band have carefully balanced the ups and downs of the songs’ emotional content is skilfully done.
They let their hair down and have some fun with the light hearted, tongue in cheek dark humour of penultimate track He Should Be Dead. Set at a hectic pace, it features the Custom signature sound of roaming bass, powerhouse drums, razor sharp guitars and another entertaining, almost theatrical lead vocal. Lyrically, it’s wry gallows humour: “One said he heard our friend had died in the CIA but then the others said they’d heard the KGB, no-one seemed to know the facts, but he was dead, they all agreed…”. Special mention should go to perhaps the best guitar solo on the album, featuring some phenomenal Richie Blackmore-style runs up and down the neck. I can imagine this track going down an absolute storm when they play it to a packed audience.
After the riotous, party-vibe elation of that song we are brought back down to earth with a beautiful and haunting reprise of Finis Omnium. Consisting of simply flowing minor key piano, it shows the classical influence to their music, yet another layer of sophistication which is beyond the reach of most rock bands. The final seconds are the poignant, portentous sound of falling rain and rumbling thunder.
Overall, this is a truly fantastic hard rock album from this clearly highly experienced and accomplished five-piece band. All members contribute to the Custom sound, but what stands out is the consistency of the music’s quality whilst managing to encapsulate a number of musical influences and styles cohesively. Perhaps most importantly of all, Custom rock like hell and if there’s a better rock album released this year I’ll be amazed.
Zita Barbara Sanders is a singer and songwriter from San Antonio, Texas. Her musical style stands as heir to a lineage of great female singer songwriters, with hints of 70’s artists like Carole King and Joni Mitchell and the stylistic influence of more modern artists like Tori Amos and Taylor Swift. Her vocal style and emotive music also bring to great ballad singers like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. She has been releasing music for around three years, building up a sizeable fan base, with her videos racking up thousands of views.
This song, Too Little, Too Late, is a perfect showcase for her accomplished and sophisticated balladry and her rich, versatile voice. Beginning with drifting piano arpeggios and a melancholy guitar melody it switches to just piano and her intimate lead vocals, the poignant vocal melody and the emotional tone of the lyrics immediately captivating. The song depicts a not uncommon situation where a love affair has ended yet one partner has returned, hoping to rekindle the flame.
After a fine verse and stately bridge, it builds to the moving chorus which encapsulates the theme of the song succinctly: “It’s a little too late, it’s a little too long now…”.
The second verse shows her compositional sophistication, syncopated low end strings aiding the emotional momentum. This subtle crescendo leads to the dramatic second chorus where Zita switches to the upper register of her considerable range. This results in the cathartic climax of the song, it’s powerful emotion sustained to the end.
Overall, this is a superb ballad by a very gifted singer/songwriter that truly deserves the epithet of “epic”. Combining traditional songwriting with carefully controlled vocal gymnastics in the modern style, Zita Barbara captures the conflict of reawakened feelings and produces a song of strong emotional impact that will win her many more fans to come.
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.
Recently, Sir Magnus released the first part of this album cycle, The Infinity Cove Sessions: Overture (which I reviewed very favourably, read here). This album, The Infinity Cove Sessions: Intermission constitutes the second part and consists of six tracks. The album gets off to a blazing start via the effervescent and vibrant EDM pop of Anime Girl. Starting with just piano then pulsating synths and Sir Magnus’s echo-drenched lead vocal, the music develops subtly on the verse then breaks into layered vocal harmonies on the bridge.
This builds to the instantly anthemic chorus bolstered by a pumping kick then a glorious full beat that will appeal on the dance floor. Sir Magnus’s vocals particularly shine on this track, particularly effective on the high register chorus. It’s actually the lyrics that give the song an interesting depth; what at first sounds like a typical boy/girl attraction song reveals itself to be something more interesting and unusual: “After school I’ll meet you there underneath the cherry tree, tell me stories, tell me how you feel, we don’t have to do anything….”.
It’s a fascinating depiction of an infatuation with a fictional character that a schoolboy draws the anime girl and brings her to life: “You have stories in your eyes, your face a mystery, as you come alive jumping from still to motion….”. This unusual subject matter is balanced perfectly by the simple but very infectious title hook, which makes it a great choice as a single along with its radio friendly sound.
Second track EMR (feat. J.R. Lottary) is another serious contender for a single with a relatable and honest depiction of hedonistic excess. Built around a slick RnB groove, Sir Magnus gives another killer vocal performance, his smooth Jason Derulo-style voice nicely contrasted by an effective rap cameo from J.R. Lottary.
Lyrically, it really captures the awareness of knowing that a lifestyle of burning the candle at both ends is not wise in the long run. This is best encapsulated by the chorus, perhaps the most instant one on the album: “Early morning redbull, so my boss will leave it alone, I should have went to bed, I should have came home, instead I drank too much and partied all night long...”. So many will connect with this great track, and could become what Can’t Feel My Face did for The Weeknd.
Next comes the sequel to Imagination Brilliance Sequence from the first album. It’s a superb EDM instrumental like its predecessor, this one starting out like a Todd Terje track before morphing into a Big Room house track emblazoned with Skrillex-style dubstep synths that combine to create a fantastic sound. This is one example of Sir Magnus’s considerable musical versatility and works as a fine contrast as well.
Grand Central Station is another sophisticated track that works as a commercial pop/EDM track but once again has hidden depths in the words. It could be taken as a love letter to New York, returning home to it like a prodigal son after much travel.
Or, alternatively, it could be more specifically about the statue in Grand Central Station: “Stand underneath the statue’s eye, our love spands just like the ocean, watch the miles start to bend no matter where the journey ends…”. With first class vocals, catchy refrains and a fine melody overall, this maintains the very high standard of songwriting and composition set by the previous tracks.
Forever Memories is the most romantic song on the album, something that could have easily been produced as an emotive piano ballad. Instead, it blends a ballad style on the verses with a powerful chorus, retaining a clever balance between traditional pop and modern EDM throughout. The hip hop style beat in the middle eight section adds further variety before closing out with the very strong title refrain. The lyrical metaphor of a relationship being remembered like scenes of a film is also strongly poetic and effective.
The album closes out with a track designed for the dance floor, the more earthy and sensual finale, Lips. It grabs you from the opening bars, the lilting rhythms of the tropical sounding synths providing the bedrock for another commanding vocal performance. After a seductive verse, it explodes into the euphoric chorus with its irresistible vocal hook: “I think I wanna be on your lips tonight…”. The fizzy synth riff that counterpoints the vocals gives the track a sonic edge and musical tension. Breaking down for the middle section, it builds back up like a great dance track should and ends with refrains of the incredibly catchy chorus hook.
Overall, this is a fabulous sequel to The Infinity Cove Sessions first installment. As well as being a singer of the finest calibre, he’s able to write songs that have the pop nous of The Weeknd along with the breadth and sophistication of an artist like Frank Ocean. In short, Sir Magnus has proven his prolific and consistent qualities once again and has huge global potential.
The Gangsta Rabbi, a.k.a. The King Of Jewish Punk, is the moniker of the multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, composer and producer Steve Lieberman. He was born in Brooklyn, New York to a working class Jewish family and now resides in Freeport. Perhaps more than most artists, his work needs to be understood in the full context of his life.
He has been considered an ‘outsider artist’, partly attributed to his lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder which began for him at the age of just eleven. He has been releasing studio albums since 2002 and has now released over thirty, along with live albums and countless cassettes. He has shared the stage with Weezer, Andrew WK, Glassjaw, Ryan Dunn and The Misfits, but had to retire from performing in 2011 owing to having to battle an advanced form of leukaemia, returning briefly to the stage in 2016.
In 2018, he was admitted into a hospice and remarkably has carried on creating, producing his most challenging works including completely covering Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick (a major influence) and thrash metal versions of the British Opera, The H.M.S. Pinafore and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. In 2019, he released his 3 hour magnum opus, Symphonie-Thrash Du Professeur Juif Rebelle.
More recently, the Rabbi has now entered the Guinness Book Of Records for the world’s longest composition, his 33 hour magnum opus Noise Militia #38/76! You can read my review of this here and also a review of the overture to this piece which he released in 2020 (read here).
Lately, The Gangsta Rabbi has begun releasing medleys of classic songs reimagined in the Rabbi’s completely unique and original musical style. After having created a fascinating sonic montage by combining Hey Jane Mansfield Superstar! by Sigue Sigue Sputnik and For You by Bruce Springsteen with this last release Opus #75 Post-Militia-1st & 2nd Aria, he follows up with another unpredictable but riotously enjoyable medley.
This release, Opus #84-Post-Militia Pogo-Battalion-1st & 2nd Aria’s-(Hunting Girl/Bat Out Of Hell #1), juxtaposes the Rabbi’s take on prog folk rockers Jethro Tull and their song Hunting Girl with his equally inimitable version of the operatic rock classic Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf.
As ever with the Gangsta Rabbi, his innate punk rock spirit shines through on whatever of the numerous instruments he plays or whatever the material is, either his own or the music of others. Here, the delicate, finger-picking intricacy of Jethro Tull’s version of Hunting Girl is reborn anew as a surging blaze of guitars, brass and woodwind played with unrelenting gusto.
After a tumultuous introduction, the Rabbi’s inimitable vocals become part of the sonic tapestry and the original song is transformed from 60’s prog folk into the completely original fusion of punk, metal, classical and rock that the Rabbi has honed to perfection over the years.
This style is then applied to the second cover of the medley, a truly incendiary and epic version of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell. Trying to outdo such an already epic original song takes some doing but the Rabbi creates a swirling cyclone of sound here, its relentless energy almost bewildering at times. This version is such a wild musical reimagining that it’s only when you hear the famous title hook that you’re reminded it’s a cover version. Here, the Rabbi completely lets rip both instrumentally and vocally, with an unrelenting intensity that would make Jim Steinman blush.
Overall, this is another hugely entertaining and unpredictable medley from the Gangsta Rabbi. Taking two songs from completely different genres and eras, completely reinventing them in your own style then making them seamlessly flow together is no mean feat. But for the Rabbi there is no limits to his art, or to his tireless and inspiring energy. Long may he keep rocking.
The genesis of the husband and wife musical duo Arienne hearts Charlie is a fascinating and moving story. Arienne grew up in Louisiana where she found musical inspiration in the songs she heard that expressed the pain of the Deep South. Meanwhile, only a block away, her future beloved Charlie was playing gospel churches as a child. They eventually met at graduate school and it was love at first sight. Both have juggled their musical career together with their mutual work in psychotherapy and mental health. Their music fuses their influences together; Charlie’s influences include Motown and Funkadelic along with jazz musicians like Wes Montgomery and George Benson. Arienne adores Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse and Patsy Cline, which fits hand in glove with Charlie’s natural jazzy style.
This album, The Greatest Show, consists of ten songs (plus differing versions of three of the album tracks). It opens with the languid and sensual Voyeur, Charlie’s superb jazz guitar skills becoming immediately apparent with a sophisticated chord progression. He also takes lead vocals on the verse, his voice smooth with a wide range and a fine falsetto. Arienne then enters for the second verse, and her voice is the perfect compliment to Charlie’s; a crystal clear and distinctive tone mixed with vocal power that she expresses as the song progresses.
Loving Day is also a jazzy song in 6/8 time that features both vocalists giving wonderful performances. Charlie here gives counterpoint vocals and harmonies to Arienne’s sweetly sung lead vocal. This track sounds hugely romantic but has a political underpinning; it references the famous Loving vs Virginia case of 1967, which ruled that laws banning interracial marriage violated the Constitution. This is referred to by the song’s title, as the lyrics depict their love for each other in a world where interracial marriage is not yet fully accepted: “Disapproving looks still come our way though it’s been so long since Loving Day…”. With an absolutely beautiful melody and a theme very relevant to our present day situation, this song strikes me as an instant classic.
All Of Me is another finely crafted song, this one more light hearted with a toe tapping rhythm driven by brushes on the snare. You can hear how Arienne and Charlie’s influences meld perfectly here, Arienne giving a performance that brought to mind Patsy Cline, with Charlie delivering a fine Wes Montgomery-style jazz progression.
Next comes the fabulous Bare, which was released as a single. It’s a dreamy jazz ballad that positively exudes sensuality, Arienne giving a smoky and sultry performance as sexy sax wails in the background. Once again, it shows Charlie’s and Arienne’s gift for writing consistently superb songs that recall a golden age of music from when the music really mattered. Their deep love and desire for each other gives this track an erotic power that will have couples round the world feeling amorous.
Dysania is another delightfully languid and sensuous ballad that perfectly reflects the meaning of the title (dysania is a chronic feeling of not wanting to get out of bed!). With an excellent arrangement based around subtle, lush strings and exquisite guitar work from Charlie, it provides the musical bedrock for a delicate vocal performance from Arienne. The stacked backing harmonies provide the ideal contrast to Arienne’s performance which exudes seductive, “come hither” charm.
Solitude is quite the contrast, a deeply melancholy ballad as the title suggests. Arienne sings with a voice full of feeling as she depicts herself at a low ebb: “I sit in my chair filled with despair, there’s no one could be so sad with gloom everywhere….”. After several songs of blissful romantic joy, this sad song is all the more powerful and shows the darker side of life that we all encounter at some point.
Autumn Leaves opens with a fabulous descending guitar run, the music maintaining the bittersweet melancholy of Solitude. “Since you went away, the days grow long…but I miss you most of all, darling, when leaves start to fall…” sings Arienne wearily. The music then switches to a fast paced Django Reinhardt style section featuring a magnificent flute solo from their high school son Ciaran, who impressively improvised the solo (and has his own EP coming out soon). It then returns to its bluesy, moody vibe until the end which lands on an unexpected major chord, giving a glimpse of hope.
Next comes a most unexpected but refreshing cover version of No One Knows, originally by heavy rock band Queens Of The Stone Age. Charlie must have noticed the jazz influence on the song’s chord progression and realised it would work in their particular style. This version really brings out the musicality of the song and works well within the context of the album.
Beauty (for Arienne) follows, a gorgeous instrumental that allows Charlie’s gifts as a guitarist to take the spotlight. It’s another wonderful composition that evokes his deep feelings for his beloved Arienne, every note played on his acoustic guitar conveying deep emotion.
The album concludes (aside from bonus tracks) with Montero (Call Me By Your Name). This is a very up to date cover of a track originally by Lil Nas X. It shows they certainly have their finger on the musical pulse as this track was only released in 2021. Again, although the original is a hip hop track, this version works well with an arrangement full of evocative, warm brass and strings and a distinct Mariachi vibe.
Overall, this is a real gem of an album by a rather special musical duo. The Greatest Show is a superb collection of sophisticated songs that range from the romantic and sensual to the political. Their natural musical chemistry is self-evident and they cover the whole range of the human condition across the course of the album. Bringing back the great music styles of the past with lyrics relatable to our world as it is today, Arienne hearts Charlie have truly struck artistic gold and deserve to become hugely successful.
jac0b is the artistic moniker of Jacob Hallsten, an EDM writer/producer hailing from Sweden. His music is specifically in the Big Room/Progressive House genres and he has already enjoyed success with his previous releases. In 2018, he released his debut singles Vibe and I Don’t Mind, the latter generating close to a million streams on Spotify, with Vibe also a great streaming success story.
He now returns in 2021 with his latest track, Falling, which has already generated nearly 200k streams. It’s a big sounding Calvin Harris-style house track featuring a fine female vocalist. It follows the standard template for an EDM track, but it becomes immediately apparent that jac0b does this style with great panache and a style of his own.
Opening with a pumping four to the floor kick, it builds up nicely then drops down for the verse, just piano and vocal. The lead vocals are produced to perfection and every section has its own catchy melodic hook. This time the build leads to an anthemic section with a huge sounding synth riff. This verse/build/riff section repeats then it returns to the simple kick pattern with which it began whilst a Giorgio Moroder-style synth arpeggio lays low in the mix, giving the track energy and momentum to the very end.
Overall, this is a classy EDM track from a writer/producer who has already experienced success. With flawless production, a first rate female lead vocal and an instantly memorable synth hook, Falling has all the makings of a massive dance hit both in the clubs and on the streaming sites where tracks like this break first. The future is looking bright for jac0b.
Project Rod Williams is an electro-dance studio pop ensemble which is the musical brainchild of songwriter/musician Rod Williams. Musically, it is a fusion of classic 70’s pop and disco , 80’s synth pop and more modern pop bands like One Republic and Imagine Dragons. In 2019, he released his album Fire which I reviewed very favourably (you can read that review here) as well the follow up album, Spin Me (review here).
This album, Run Away, consists of eleven tracks and is a concept album of sorts dealing with various situations which people would seek to run away from or avoid. A lot of the songs (though not all) deal with highly contemporary social issues such as the LGBTQ+ movement and domestic violence, among other issues. These issues are specifically centred around runaways, particularly teenage runaways, though Rod dedicates the album to “anyone who is experiencing problems, which is pretty much everyone…”.
The album opens with Ways Out, an upbeat electro pop song written by Rod and Donald J. Kinghorn. As with his previous albums, Rod collaborates with talented vocalists and this one features the fine vocals of Tim Condor, who also contributes an excellent guitar solo. Lyrically, it depicts people in desperate situations looking for escape, a theme which reoccurs throughout the album. This is best captured on the catchy chorus, which offers hope for the future: “Escape, get out, keep looking for ways out, escape, get out, lift yourself off the ground”.
This segues naturally into the theme of the title track which comes next. Upbeat in terms of tempo, the melancholy nature of the song is reflected by the poignant piano and strings. It’s specifically about teenage runaways who feel they have to leave home when they’ve experienced prejudice for being gay or lesbian: “Never should a childhood fairytale become a living hell”. It builds to an emotive and memorable chorus, with lead vocals courtesy of a familiar collaborator, Matt Williamson, who does a great job. Great track.
Third track Sarah Jane depicts another socially tragic situation, this one dealing with a victim of domestic violence and abuse. As with Run Away, it was written entirely by Rod, with a sensitive Tim Condor lead vocal. As is so common with domestic violence, the abused constantly forgives their abuser even though deep down they might know they don’t change. Naturally, the lyrics plead with her to leave him: “Sarah Jane, you’re young, look at what he’s done, you can start again, you don’t need him”.
The next song Stronger might be thematically unconnected, but it sounds like it could be written from the perspective of Sarah Jane from the previous track. It’s about a tempestuous relationship that has resulted in the protagonist fighting back and finding strength: “I have found my freedom from the bondage of your brutal love”. It’s an inspiring and uplifting track, once again sung by Tim Condor.
This is contrasted by the haunting synth pop of Find Yourself. It depicts a soul in torment, struggling to find a sense of identity and place in the world: “Life can be a misery when you don’t know who you want to be…”. This sophisticated song also stands out for its fine lead vocals and backing harmonies, once again from Tim Condor.
You’re Lyin’ To Me is more in keeping with the songs that have featured on previous Project Rod Williams. It’s a vibrant pop track that contains some fantastic funky guitar and a superb section of dense vocal harmonies repeating the refrain: “You’re a liar”. The vocal arrangement as a whole is excellent, the sound bolstered further by punctuated stabs of brass.
Relationship issues are also the theme behind So Over You, a moodier and more melancholy track that delivers another strong chorus, something at which Rod Williams excels. It captures the disillusionment of someone who has realised their lover is not the person they thought they were: “You’re a cheat with freaky behaviour, you never loved me; it was all just a lie”. This song shows Rod is equally adept at writing ballads as upbeat pop anthems.
Next comes one of the album highlights for me, Move. It’s a modern sounding dance pop track with cutting edge production and a slinky groove. As you’d expect, the vocal melody is infectious and addictive and the sheen of synths works well with the guitars. This must be a contender for a single release as it’s perfect for radio.
Love And Confusion maintains the same high energy level though is lyrically more ambiguous and conflicted, depicting the bewilderment of intense love and infatuation. Musically, it’s once again a fine fusion of EDM and rock guitar, which has some rich harmonies in parts that work well.
The final track (apart from a remix of Stronger) is a moving ballad sung by Matt Williamson. With a lush piano arrangement and soaring strings, Matt gives a highly emotive romantic lead vocal performance. It’s a fitting end to an album full of troubled situations, and shows the redeeming power of love and devotion is always the solution: “When the storms come, I promise you I will not run, I’ll stay through the wind and the rain”.
Overall, this is the third consistently strong album from Rod Williams, completing a fine trifecta. This time he mixes up the personal and the universal to great effect, his focus more noticeably on the socially disadvantaged and marginalised members of the community. It’s another stride forward artistically and credit should also go to his gifted musical collaborators and vocalists. Hopefully, there’s more great music to come from Project Rod Williams.