E.P. REVIEW: MANU by ATLS PLAZA N.D.

ATLS PLAZA N.D. is a self-taught electronica composer and producer based in Los Angeles. Specifically most interested in the Vaporwave genre, he experienced a “Eureka!” moment when he heard the album Floral Shoppe by Vektroid. This led to a thorough exploration of Vaporwave music and this eventually also led to him finding his own voice as a musical artist.

This became combined with his strong interest in spirituality and philosophy, particularly Indian spirituality and its associated devotional music. The result is his uniquely mystical style which he unleashed in 2021 with his mammoth debut album SAINTELLE, which clocks in at an astonishing 61 tracks. He also managed to release the six track E.P. 5th Dimension and in late 2021, he released the two track EP ME/NOT ME (read my glowing review here).

This latest release, MANU, is also a two track EP and sees a slight change in direction whilst still essentially in the Vaporwave/electronica genre. The first track on the EP is 108, an expansive eight minute instrumental which is meditative in nature – my review for his previous EP ME/NOT ME explained how this artist is inspired by spiritual concepts and philosophies, so the word meditative is apposite.

This EP sees a more beat-centric focus to the compositions, with 108 built around a languid trip hop-style groove which forms the bedrock for synth strings. A haunting piano motif emerges which sets a tranquil if somewhat melancholy vibe which is soon intercepted by an array of studio effects, the music suddenly stuttering and repeating. This is an influence of the electronica subgenre glitch hop and 108 could be aptly described as essentially a glitch hop track.

This section briefly returns to the status quo before developing into a harder hitting beat, the piano melody morphing into several exotic sounding Eastern instruments. As I noted in my last review, the devotional music of Indian religions is another strong influence on this composer and the strength of the main melody shines through as it metamorphosises through several sounds before coming full circle and returning to the echo-drenched classical-style piano pattern. It is another fine example of how this artist juxtaposes the ancient with the modern, both in terms of musical style and the philosophical approach and concepts that inspire the music.

The second track on the EP, 虹香瑠 Part 49, explores a similar sonic terrain but with a character and vibe all of its own. Clocking in at six minutes, from its opening bars the rhythms explode from the speakers, rapid fire kicks and triplet snare rolls underpin a brooding three chord synth progression. This breaks out into a strident trip hop beat that morphs and develops continually, the intricacy of the hi hats in particular showing the level of skill involved.

The ancient and the modern combine once again as we hear an array of sounds you associate with mainstream EDM merging with the magical, sitar-like exotic instrumentation. The second half of the track develops these themes and ideas, every sound constantly evolving through a series of sound effects and production touches, from use of flange and phaser to glitchy distortion and filter sweeps. This brings a certain psychedelic aspect to the music which fits perfectly with the mystical influences that inspired it. Another great track that takes the listener on a sonic journey that somehow feels more expansive than the track’s duration.

Overall, this is another excellent EP from a composer who has combined Vaporwave with Eastern influences to create a distinctive musical fusion all of his own. MANU is a different beast to his last two track EP ME/NOT ME, with rhythm and beats more of a focal point and innovative, highly creative production techniques turned up to the max. ATLS PLAZA N.D. is the living embodiment of the modern artist, taking from the past and present to forge a musical inspired spiritual future.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: Thugga Slime by NHL Big Bandicoot ft. NHL Prince

NHL Big Bandicoot is an independent rap artist hailing from Arizona who also forms one third of rap group the NHL gang (featuring NHL Prince and NHL Audeay). As a solo artist, he released a plethora of singles in 2020 and an equally prolific 2021. His entertaining, irreverent style and wild lyrical content has proven hugely popular with tracks like Big Kappa and Super Wap clocking up hundreds of thousands of streams, amongst many other popular tracks with high streaming numbers including Baby Makin’ Music and On My Mama.

This track, Thugga Slime, is a mid paced hip hop track that captures the NHL Big Bandicoot signature style. The track features performances from both Big Bandicoot and his fellow NHL member, Prince. With a free flowing, rapid fire delivery from both rappers over an infectious low-end piano riff and slinky, hi-hat heavy groove, Thugga Slime is an exhilarating depiction of a “weed’n’women” lifestyle that comes across as authentic and compelling. Big Bandicoot’s vocal refrains of the title provide a nice contrast to Prince’s triplet-heavy rhymes, the sort of yin yang you got with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav.

Also, in an era where people, including artists, find their free speech increasingly censored, it’s refreshing to hear a fearless artist express themselves, one who finds a sense of freedom in hedonism: “I’m a big dog, I’m a heavyweight, sing it to yo b**** like I’m Kevin Gates, roll up the cookies then levitate….”. Special mention should also go to the skilful, super slick production which rivals any cut you will hear on the biggest radio stations.

Overall, this is a vibrant and refreshingly entertaining hip hop track from a gifted rapper and vocalist , NHL Big Bandicoot, and his talented guest artist, fellow NHL Gang member, Prince. With blistering performances from both, combined with a wild and uncensored lyrical style, Thugga Slime packs a real punch and could be a potential breakthrough track. Here’s hoping.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Neo Queer by Terry Blade

Terry Blade is an award-winning singer/songwriter currently based in Chicago. His music is essentially a fusion of soul, RnB, jazz and blues, along with indie and folk influences. He has already drawn comparisons with such artists as Tracy Chapman, Keb’ Mo’, Meshell Ndegeocello and Amos Lee. His songs deal with many highly contemporary issues such as blackness, queerness, mental health and intersectionality.

His debut EP, Misery, was released in May to instant acclaim, receiving over a million combined downloads and reaching “gold” status on DistributeKings. I gave it a glowing review (which you can read here). His single The Last MacBeth won the June 2020 Award for Best Original Song from both the New York Movie Awards and the Oniros Film Awards. His song The Widow received the June 2020 Honourable Mention Award for Best Music Video from the Florence Film Awards. In 2021, he released his nineteen track full length debut album, American Descendent of Slavery, which dealt with intersectionality and current social issues like LGBTQ+ rights and racism prevalent in society. One track from the album, Black Hurts, has amassed nearly 150k streams on Spotify alone. In late 2021, he released the five track EP Unmastered: The Demo Sessions.

This second album, Neo Queer, consists of ten tracks and once again focuses on contemporary issues of sexual and racial identity. This becomes immediately apparent from the opening lines of superb opener Elephant: “LGBT ever since I was 3, and I never really cared, call me he, call me she...”. Set to a languid groove with a laid back two-chord Rhodes progression, the lyrics aren’t so mellow and the powerful chorus makes a strong statement about his outsider status in society: “Public enemy cos I’m black and intelligent, no matter where I be I do me for the hell of it, you see me in the room don’t address me I’m the elephant….”. As with his previous album, Terry’s mellifluous and versatile vocal style, mixing singing with rapping/spoken word, is a standout feature of his striking musical oeuvre.

Let It Go is another fine track with a similarly chilled and soulful vibe, Terry’s lead vocals layered in octaves. The syncopated RnB groove gets the toe tapping and the understated but mesmeric vocal performance as he depicts trying to move on from a romantic relationship. Eaten Alive, which has already proven hugely popular on streaming sites, is a remarkable track musically, consisting of just clean jazzy guitar that sets a melancholy tone. This is the bedrock for a tour de force vocal performance from Terry and a female vocalist, delivering rapid fire lines in a tongue tripping triplet rhythm. Clocking in at under two minutes, it makes a strong impression and makes a nice contrast to the other tracks.

The excellent, earthy Neo Soul/RnB song Same O Love is a real highlight, the intricate beat and smoky electric piano the perfect counterpoint to Terry’s more traditional vocals delivered in a low register. The title hook instantly lands in the memory, bringing to mind the best work of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.

Next comes an intermission track, You Don’t Know, which only lasts a minute and leaves us hanging for more. Based around a 6/8 groove, again the title hook connects fast and it’s an interesting artistic decision to keep this one as brief as it is. Sixth track All Ways stands out for its driving, funky bassline and a compelling, expressive lead performance from Terry. After some of the earlier romantic troubles depicted, this one expresses unconditional love and desire with a clever double meaning; loving someone in every way and also “always”, a timeless love.

Moment takes us into sensual territory with a haunting piano progression set to an unearthly slow beat. Terry gives a wonderfully intimate performance, capturing a scene of both emotional vulnerability and powerful eroticism between two lovers: “Right here, right now, just be present, right here, right now in this moment…”.

Eighth track Elixir almost feels like a continuation or sequel to Moment, with distinctly more sexual overtones to the words (“The scent of pheromones, and sure to taste as sweet, cinnamon honeycombs”) and the music the most sultry on the album. The hypnotic chorus with its layered, high register vocals is the perfect yang to the yin of the crooned verses sung at the low end of his range.

Blue is an unexpected but welcome surprise, a return to the more troubled and melancholy vibe of earlier tracks but featuring a fine rap cameo from Charlie J, a gifted young rapper hailing from South Wales in the UK. Terry sets a desolate but emotionally resigned tone against a sparse beat, a moving world weariness to his words (“I’m blue again….blue at my request”). Charlie’s succinct performance captures the song’s essence and elaborates the metaphor :”Sitting in rooms feeling so cold, looking above at the Mercury’s low, know that I wish I could change it, I wish that the healing ain’t dangerous…”.

The album’s closing track, Silent Treatment (Elem version) is one that first appeared on American Descendant of Slavery, and this fine song reappears here with a more Neo Soul vibe in keeping with the rest of the album. The perfect blend of soul, jazz and RnB, it also fits thematically here with its theme of troubled love and communication struggles.

Overall, Neo Queer is a brilliant follow up album to Terry Blade’s debut album. Taking the Neo Soul sound and combining it with lived experience of life as a black queer in this era, Terry deals with the contemporary dilemmas and difficulties he has faced personally whilst also managing to connect on a universal level with his experiences of love and pain. He’s forged an artistic style of his own and with several real gems here, his star will only continue to ascend in the stratosphere. Terry Blade may well become recognised as the most culturally relevant and important artist of this era.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Vocal Works by Brian Field

Brian Field is an award winning composer and lyricist who first sat down to a piano at eight and was composing his first serious work by sixteen. He went on to gain a Master of Music from New York City’s prestigious Juilliard School and a Doctorate from Columbia University. As he ventured into his composing career he was fortunate enough to study with such great composers as Noel Zahler, Milton Babbitt, George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. Field has described learning and acquiring different skills and ways of artistic thinking from each composer.

This album consists of thirteen of Field’s vocal works which show the considerable eclectic breadth and range of his ability to compose in different styles and genres under the classical umbrella. The album opens with the a cappella By and By, performed by the Budapest chorus and conducted by Marton Toth. Having familiarised myself with some of Brian’s other works, this piece is an accessible introduction to his work as his other work tends to push the boundaries of traditional tonality, like most modern composers. This beautifully arranged piece shows his natural gift for melody and harmony, bringing to mind a gospel Spiritual but enriched by subtle yet effective jazz-style harmonies.

The strong gospel influence appears more apposite when one learns the text was written by Charles Albert Tindley, regarded as the “father of gospel music”. Tindley wrote “I’ll Overcome Someday” which became the basis for the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome”. By and By has a similarly inspiring message, captured by the lines, “We’ll tell the story, how we’ve overcome, for we’ll understand it better by and by….”. It’s possible that Field’s inspiration to arrange this piece was the racial conflicts and troubles that persist to this day and the major key ebullience and joy of the music reflects the wisdom and hopefulness of Tindley’s words.

The next three tracks are a distinct contrast; they are written for tenor and orchestra, in this case Yanis Benabdallah and the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Illenyi. The music is set to texts by the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and this short cycle, 3 Canciones de Amor, is infused with Latin American romanticism and spirit. The first piece in the cycle grabs you instantly, the strident staccato rhythms in the cellos and basses, combined with exotic harmonies, brought to mind Bernstein’s West Side Story. Like Bernstein, Field is able to bridge the gap between traditional classical/opera and the more tonally adventurous modern style of composition very successfully. Again, the music reflects the poet’s character, Neruda’s passion and sensuality captured in the expressive tenor melody that brought to mind the great Italian opera composers like Verdi and Puccini.

The second piece in the cycle is even more passionate and intense, the music building and surging in places akin to Wagner’s Tristan, including the way the tenor voice tends to float above a sea of strings and rich brass. The final part of the cycle is a wonderful piece of post-Romantic composition, showing Field’s gift for free flowing melody and nuanced skill in harmony and orchestration. Even without knowing Neruda’s words in English, the universal language of music translates them on an intuitive level and Field can claim to be a fluent expert in this particular language.

Whilst the introduction of Let’s Build A Wall! (An American Satire) has a similar romantic melancholy feel, this work is a different beast altogether. With a text written by Field, it’s a clever, witty and rather biting satire about the circus of American politics and the supporters of one ex-President in particular along with their political opposite at the supposedly liberal end of the spectrum. It’s a lively and energetic piece that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Broadway musical, the acerbic sarcasm and irony of the words bringing to mind satirical musicals like Chicago. The vocal performance of Eurovision finalist Zoli Mujahid really gives the piece character and zest.

This is beautifully contrasted once again by an arrangement of a Sephardic lullaby called Durme, durme, kerido ijico (Sleep, sleep, beloved son). Featuring a stunning vocal performance from Orsi Sapszon and superb string writing in particular, the lush orchestration brings out the spiritual beauty of this touching lullaby and acts as another showcase for Field’s harmonically rich and fluid composing style which shines through even just with arrangements. Astute listeners will notice the musical reference to Brahms’ Lullaby, a neat touch.

This is followed by the equally wonderful Let The Light Shine On Me, again performed by the Budapest chorus and conducted by Marton Toth. Another a cappella gospel hymn, this one was entirely written by Firld and truly displays his gifts in a tour de force of superbly harmonised vocal composition. Featuring rich, bold harmonies owing as much to jazz as to classical, it has a lovely yin yang quality achieved by the perfect balance of male and female vocals.

We are suddenly thrown into more modern territory with the six part work Chimneys, sonnets-realities, the text based on the avant garde poet E.E. Cummings first collection of published poetry, Tulips and Chimneys. This explores the more tonally challenging style I mentioned earlier, which is fitting for musically reflecting a text written in 1923, the era of Modernist poetry and in music, both the era of a harmonic revolutionary like Stravinsky and a jazz aficionado like George Gershwin. This mixture of dissonance and melody makes it,once again, a perfect musical mirror of the text, capturing its dark surrealism. It features the vocal talents of Edward Whalen and Veronica Tomaneck, who also delivers a magnificent performance on piano, and their fine voices are employed to great effect.

I particularly enjoyed the wild, jazzy fourth piece, when you rang at Dick Mid’s Place. This is then contrasted by the unsettling intensity of kitty”. sixteen,5’ 1”,white,prostitute. The solemn sparseness of the final piece when thou hast taken thy last applause,and when, makes for a fitting denouement.

Overall, this is a superb collection of vocal works from a composer of remarkable musical versatility. Spanning three decades, the various pieces capture Field’s considerable creativity at differing points of his career with the last piece being the oldest. This feels apposite, as Brian Field’s compositional career is not a steady linear journey, but rather the fruits of a restless, exploratory creative spirit that we associate with every great artist.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Dark Americana: Stories And Songs by Stuart Pearson

Stuart Pearson is a singer and songwriter originally from Long Island, NY, who took to the craft of songwriting from a very early age. As a child his summers were spent on his uncle’s Wisconsin farm where he was fed a diet of 60’s Midwest country music; Johnny Cash, Bobby Gentry and Charlie Rich. This earthy style of songwriting seeped into his bones, which became combined with influences such as the popular surf music of the era (The Beach Boys, etc.) owing to the influence of his older, surfer brother.

This eventually led Stuart to be involved with a number of bands, notably Through The Woods who were voted Band of the Year by the National Academy of Songwriters. A five-piece band performing with an impressive nineteen instruments on stage (including tuba, hurdy gurdy, banjo and all manner of exotic percussion), they dug deep into the past for inspiration and honed the sound that would now be referred to as “Dark Americana”.

After various other musical reincarnations, he came full circle eventually and began working with lyricist Hunter Lowry. The eleven tracks that feature on Dark Americana: Stories and Songs draw from the well of classic country songwriters like Johnny Cash, the authentic rootsy musical style of The Band (who some say invented the Americana genre) as well as the deep “sin and redemption” style of artists like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. Throw in the raw, guttural, gritty vocal style of Tom Waits (and his use of unusual percussion circa Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones) and you get a good picture of the Stuart Pearson sound.

Rise and Fall, which opens the album, is a perfect summation of his nuanced and poetic style. He has also referenced Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, artists of the 20th century realist movement. These artists depicted scenes that captured the melancholy and isolation at the heart of modern life and this song certainly captures that spirit. Set to a lilting tempo full of minor key melancholy and a haunting vocal melody performed with panache by Pearson, it depicts people’s tormented plight in starkly poetic terms: “People pray in the church of pain, they raise their hands and rebuke the sins they’ve made…”.

As well as capturing Pearson’s compelling voice and vocal style, pitched halfway between Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, this song also captures the essence of Dark Americana; these are tales of troubled souls struggling with the dark side of life.

On the unsettling but thrilling I Spoke To The Devil About You, Pearson gives us what seems like a Nick Cave-esque murder ballad portrayed in the first person: “I tried to protest, I tried to run, I tried to throw away the gun but he just wanted some fun....”. Delivered with solemn grandeur at the very bottom of his range, the sumptuous semitone shifts and haunting slide guitar all make for a superb song that captures a tale of someone faced with the darkest of temptations and failing.

Then She’s Gone is like a cross between a late night Tom Waits piano ballad and a Leonard Cohen “femme fatale” tale. Set to a backdrop of bluesy but deliciously dissonant piano, upright bass and hushed brushes on the snare, Pearson paints a picture of irresistible attraction that turns to obsession: “If you’re lost she’s found, she will drag you down, can’t resist her seduction, that faint whiff of sin let the darkness in, that delicious destruction...”. The brooding sax solo completes the portrait to the point where you can imagine yourself in a bar with a bourbon glass and a lit cigarette in each hand.

Fourth song Is It Still The Same combines his classic Americana sound with a poignant, sensitive portrait of an older man struggling with the onset of dementia. Featuring fiddles, glockenspiel and haunting guitar, the opening lines depict a harrowing , disoriented mindset: “Help me to my dressing gown, help me to my feet, take me to the kitchen, there may be something to eat, I haven’t been outside for seven weeks…tell me, is it still the same?”. For anyone who felt their worked turned upside down by the lockdowns, this song will resonate.

The Perfect Storm is a nice change of pace, an upbeat country track full of mandolin, fiddles and banjo. Lyrically, it depicts a dream of someone’s disappearance with a wonderfully Waits-style vocal from Pearson. It begins in suitably apocalyptic style: “I had a dream about you as the sky burst into flame, we boarded all the doors and all the windows…”. The second verse gives us lines of real macabre power: “The scarecrows all bore witness to a future birthed in stone, the ground belched colder with each shovel’s bite….”.

The Last Cab Out Of Vegas is a song originally written for an improv musical Pearson wrote in the past called Life=Choices. It’s a troubled ballad in 6/8 time full of moody low-end tremolo guitar and Spector-style quarter note piano. As a soundscape, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Amy Winehouse’s Motown inspired Back To Black, another album which swam in human darkness. The song depicts a troubled, indeed frazzled state of mind: “The heat makes everything wavy that kicks up dust from the road…and as the sky turns from orange to brown to black, it feels a long way from home...”.

I Gave Her Coal is another move through the gears, this one a Johnny Cash-tinged gothic country song alternating with electrifying sections of fuzz guitar that brought to mind bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys. The song is sung in the first person, Pearson depicting a low down character with entertaining relish: “She wanted rubies, it took its toll, she wanted diamonds, I gave her coal…”. The way those lines are sung brought to mind the greats blues vocals of Captain Beefheart, who was such a seminal influence on Tom Waits, and Pearson has a similar gravitas to his voice.

Demon Road comes as a slight surprise, with him singing in a higher register, but again adds to the album’s sonic variety. It’s perhaps the most traditional country folk song on the album, though not without the now customary tinges of darkness (“where the pavement ends begins that demon road…”. With its plucked mandolin and rich tremolo guitar, it’s a song that displays Pearson’s most melodic side.

Pass The Bottle is the album’s most light hearted moment delivered in a more familiar low register. It’s essentially a glorious drinking song full of banjo, dulcimer and mandolin, depicting a jailed man awaiting his fate from the judge. A hugely enjoyable song, amongst many.

Penultimate song The Rain’s Not Traveling Alone stretches back to Stuart’s time in Through The Woods and you can understand why he’s revisited it. A beautifully crafted ballad with a moving melody, it features banjo, flutes and nyckelharpa (a new instrument to me!). The result is a glorious piece of melancholy country folk with exquisite instrumentation.

Dark Americana closes out with Down In The Hole, a remarkable song featuring an infectious stomp n clap groove that conjures up the spirit of the old West. The first four lines let us know that after all the sins we are faced with justice, without which there can be no true redemption: “Enter the hangman, the law is just, my bones are gravel, my soul is dust...”. It’s a powerful and perfectly fitting ending to the album and evokes the title perhaps more than any other track.

Overall, this is a magnificent Americana album from Stuart Pearson. Fearlessly excavating the darkest recesses of the soul and exploring all the dark temptations of the human condition, Stuart Pearson combines first rate songwriting with a richly authentic, rootsy sound that takes inspiration from pure country of the past, blends it with folk, blues and rock then infuses it with the dark wit and spirit of Waits, Cohen and Cave. With Dark Americana: Stories and Songs, Stuart Pearson has made an album that can proudly stand alongside that of his musical heroes.

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

E.P. REVIEW: ME/NOT ME by ATLS PLAZA N.D.

ATLS PLAZA N.D. is a self-taught electronica composer and producer based in Los Angeles. Specifically most interested in the Vaporwave genre, he experienced a “Eureka!” moment when he heard the album Floral Shoppe by Vektroid. This led to a thorough exploration of Vaporwave music and this eventually also led to him finding his own voice as a musical artist. This became combined with his strong interest in spirituality and philosophy, particularly Indian spirituality and its associated devotional music. The result is his uniquely mystical style which he unleashed in 2021 with his mammoth debut album SAINTELLE, which clocks in at an astonishing 61 tracks. He also managed to release the six track E.P. 5th Dimension.

This E.P., ME/NOT ME, was released in late 2021. It consists of two tracks, Multi-paradoxical Consciousness and Advaita Vedanta. From these titles, we can quickly deduce a strong philosophical and mystical component to the inspiration behind these two tracks. The titles appear to express the dichotomy of monism, or non duality which is the philosophy behind the Advaita Vedānta, a key Hindu spiritual text. It expresses the idea that our personal self is to an extent an illusion which hides our true interconnectedness with all existence and yet we come to realise this through the gradual spiritual development of the self.

This paradox and trying to embrace a non dualistic way of thinking lies at the heart of the six minute Multi-paradoxical Consciousness. It immediately captivates the listener from the opening bars with crystalline, echo-drenched female vocals drifting over an enchanting and meditative electronic soundscape. The haunting vocal melody casts a mesmeric spell, but it’s the nuance and detail in the music that truly entranced me, with the unearthly, descending synth and ghostly, otherworldly piano.

After establishing this hypnotic marriage of rhythm and melody, the track progresses with a pulsing, unpredictable and fluid bassline and a myriad of synths interspersed with a gradually progressing series of vocal refrains. Eventually, the tracks comes full circle, returning to the memorable main melodic hook. Special mention should go to the skill with which he uses intricate hi hat patterns to great effect, keeping the music fluent and ever evolving.

The resulting is a genuinely mind blowing and mind expanding (the true meaning of the word “psychedelic”) piece of Vaporwave ekectronica, where the musical inspiration and elevated production level matches the gravity and beauty of deep spiritual concepts behind the genesis of these compositions. Though it clocks in at around six minutes, by the end you feel like you have transcended time and space, which was perhaps the intention.

Second track Advaita Vedānta is just as good and equally mesmeric, but in a different way. Whilst it may be in the Vaporwave genre, this infectious eight minute track brought to mind the great Acid House tracks from the late 1980’s, specifically A Guy Called Gerald’s club classic Voodoo Ray. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was a period known as the Summer of Love, where certain mind altering substances ushered in an era of merging music with spiritual ideas of communal joy and interconnecting through the rave scene.

Advaita Vedānta again grabs you from the start with its brooding, seductive bassline and its vibrant, intricate groove. The warm, Rhodes-like synths that fill out the picture give it a sexy, jazzy vibe and the clever use of female vocal samples in a rhythmic way adds to the energy. From here, we get luscious bursts of wah wah guitar and a euphoric synth line reminiscent of Primal Scream’s experimental foray into electronica, Screamadelica. In its many intricate patterns and rhythmical nuances, you can hear the influence of Indian devotional music and the exotic range of percussion they employ. Things get a little more mind bending at trippy as the track progresses, through the clever use of reverse sounds and reverbs, as well as cavernous echo on the beat at times.

To make an eight minute electronica track that keeps the listener captivated to the end is no mean feat and Advaita Vedānta succeeds on this front with flying colours. It also has a broad musical appeal that will win this artist fans way outside of just the Vaporwave crowd. Lovers of old school Acid House will find much to enjoy with this track in particular and I could imagine it becoming a popular track in the clubs.

Overall, this is a superb E.P. that manages to achieve the difficult feat of making electronica music that is both memorable and meaningful. Combining his love of Vaporwave with a spiritual and philosophical approach informed by Indian schools of spiritual and mystical thought, this intriguing fusion works gloriously well across both tracks, creating music that fans of many electronica genres will find something to love and enjoy. Though the E.P. only lasts fifteen minutes, it also manages to feel like an epic musical journey but then, as its creator might say, time is just an illusion.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: Mars (Eclipse) by Tony Newton TNT XTREME

“Antonio (Tony) Newton, super genius, will go down in history as one of the most vital path forgers of our era” …Music critic Randali of Mean Street Magazine.

Tony Newton, 2021 “Rising Star Award” & 2020 “Music Akademia Artist of the Year Award” winner.

TNT Xtreme’s music visionary, legendary composer-bassist-keyboardist-vocalist- producer, Tony Newton, is a musician’s hall of fame member who has performed on over 100 gold and platinum hit recordings. He can lay claim to playing on hits by Michael Jackson, Diana Ross & The Supremes and Stevie Wonder, amongst many others. Two of Tony’s Gold records were for his first renowned group, The Eighth Day, for She’s Not Just Another Woman and Crawl Before You Walk.

Tony played on several Number One hits: Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love and Stop in the Name of Love by The Supremes, as well as Nowhere To Run by Martha and the Vandellas. He studied piano with teachers of Debussy and Donanyi and had the same composition & theory teacher of Frank Zappa, Dr. Matt Doran.

Whilst Tony largely concentrates on his own compositions, his last release being an astoundingly virtuosic bass solo piece, Hands Free, Mars Eclipse is a radical reinterpretation of the Holst piece Mars from the famous Planets suite. Here, Tony again plays bass and is also responsible for the arrangement and orchestration. This time, he is joined by guitar virtuoso Joss Ramos, who contributes a guitar solo and keyboardist Kim Hansen, who contributes orchestral samples to the track.

Being a huge aficionado of Holst’s orchestral masterpiece, I was intrigued to hear how a fellow musical genius like Tony Newton would interpret this powerful piece in his own artistic vision. I have not been disappointed, for Tony has concocted a superb arrangement that takes the fundamental themes of the original and reinvents them in a progressive jazz style that also allows him and his musical cohorts to extemporize and improvise.

Opening with an evocative, atmospheric orchestral sample soundscape, we then hear Tony enter in a psychedelic swirl of bass, joined by drums and crunchy low end electric guitar. Alongside Tony’s pulsing bass we then hear the well known Mars theme, sounding suitably powerful and grandiose via orchestral samples. The dissonant and gripping development sections of the orchestral original and faithfully reinterpreted in Tony’s skilful arrangement, with lead electric guitar usually mirroring the Holst violin lines.

One reason this version works so well is Holst’s highly unique approach to melody and harmony, which makes sense in this progressive jazz/metal style. After a relative close adherence to the original music, the track then opens up into an expansive improvisation section where we get to hear astounding virtuosity on synth, guitar and bass, backed by relatively understated but superbly versatile work behind the kit.

There follows a mind blowing synth solo from Kim Hansen, counterpointed by incredible and equally virtuosic work from Tony on bass, full of rapid runs and fantastic slap bass. The latter gives the track a punchy aggression, augmented by the metal-inspired low end guitar crunch. The genres of classical and metal have an interesting musical relationship despite being seemingly disparate, and this shared brooding quality is made manifest by how powerful Holst’s main themes sound on guitar and bass. The sense of dramatic grandeur is completed by the rich, octave-spanning orchestral samples and the latter half of the track captures the apocalyptic majesty of the orchestral blueprint in a unique, modern framing.

Overall, this is another remarkable release from Tony Newton. With his deep musical understanding, Tony will have realised how the exotic melodic and harmonic style of Holst’s Mars lends itself to a progressive jazz interpretation. Tony and his talented musical team have created a version that retains the menacing intensity of the original with sections of superb instrumental range and virtuosity. Mars Eclipse stands as another masterpiece in Tony Newton’s canon.

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

SINGLE REVIEW: OPUS#97-SWITCHBLADE POET/MIDNITE GUITAR/HOPE,YOU HOPE IT’S ME/SCREAM IN 45 DEGREES by The Gangsta Rabbi

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 followed up with another unpredictable but riotously enjoyable medley, Opus #84-Post-Militia Pogo-Battalion-1st & 2nd Aria’s-(Hunting Girl/Bat Out Of Hell #1), which juxtaposed 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.

This hour long epic breaks out of the blocks hard with Switchblade Poet, a relentless and formidable snare pattern underpinning a Jackson Pollock style musical montage, with a riotous display and electric and classical instruments colliding in a chaotic synergy. Part of the fun in the Gangsta Rabbi’s recent series of cover medleys is working out what song he is covering, like a musical sudoku or Rubik’s cune. I confess I was lost in the sonic jungle of this track till I caught Steve’s feisty voice intoning, “Down in Jungleland” and then I realised this was a unique interpretation and version of the Springsteen song from his classic album Born To Run. The derivative title for this version, Switchblade Poet, is cleverly culled from the following lines, which capture the essence of the song: “And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be and in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment and try to make an honest stand….”.

The music seamlessly morphs into an equally inventive and energetic reimagining of Echo and The Bunnymen’s Crystal Days from their 1984 album, Ocean Rain. It manages to retain the melodic core of the original whilst reinventing it according to the Steve Lieberman signature sound; a furious fusion of rock/metal instruments with a plethora of classical instruments to create a perfectly balanced chaos.

Even better is the Rabbi’s radical rendition of the well known Aussie band Midnight Oil’s Beds Are Burning. Whereas the original was a U2 style understated epic, this version surges with a brilliant energy and momentum that revivifies the chorus in glorious fashion. Sometimes cover versions work and sometimes they don’t, but this one exceeds the original, in my opinion.

The inspiration continues with an unlikely choice of song, Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse Of The Heart. No doubt with his tongue firmly in his cheek, the Rabbi works his magic on this 80’s pop classic and it cannot fail to put a smile on your face. Once again, it keeps the melody intact which keeps the order amongst the seething musical explosions underneath.

This then metamorphosises into an incendiary version of I Ran by Flock of Seagulls which bleeds into an epic raucous rendition of the classic Rock n Roll Heaven by the Righteous Brothers, replete with wailing sax and woodwind. From there, we hear Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is like you’ve never heard it before and equally unique and spirited versions of It’s A Heartache by Bonnie Tyler (the Rabbi is clearly a big Bonnie fan!), Love Is Like Oxygen by 70’s glam rockers The Sweet and closes out with Forever Now by The Psychedelic Furs.

Overall, this is the most epic and enjoyable cover medley to date from the legendary Gangsta Rabbi. Taking songs from different genres and different eras and reimagining them in his own totally original style is something only he could pull off, and he succeeds with flying colours. Keeping up the incendiary energy right to the end, the Rabbi’s music continues to be like nothing else out there. And there’s more to come in 2022.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: At the Heart of the Empire by Equals Conquest

Equals Conquest are an alternative rock/indie group who have been recording together for some years, encompassing two decades, and hail from the East Coast of the United States. The band consist of Imix Shish (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Mike Mollura (drums, synths, percussion). They released their debut album Manifest Destiny back in 2005, followed by second album Rummager in 2011. A decade on, the band release their third, At the Heart of the Empire.

The album evolved gradually over five years and consists of ten tracks largely in the alternative rock genre, with one interesting foray into full on metal. It opens with the widescreen epic melancholia of Less Affected, managing the neat trick of sounding languid at a fast tempo. The sound is meaty, with rich electric guitars combining in root chords and octaves to great effect.

In their distinctive style you can hear ancestral echoes of bands like Big Star, Husker Du , Sonic Youth and R.E.M. with a plethora of more modern alt. rock influences like Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Mercury Rev and Bright Eyes, amongst many others. Lyrically, the melancholy, literate and poetic style brought to mind English bands like Radiohead, The Smiths and The Cure.

Opening track Less Affected gets the album off to a very strong start and establishes what is essentially their signature sound; highly melodic and well crafted guitar-laden songs shot through with melancholy, as evidenced by the opening lines: “It’s about the time of year when the leaves are falling and the sky is clear, the wind’s prevalence keeps growing all the while...”. Imix Shish’s distinctive, idiosyncratic vocal style conveys a lot of emotion, particularly on the darker middle section before the sun comes out for the unexpectedly funky reggae-style section. These constant musical twists and turns as well as mood shifts are deployed with deft skill so that the songs retain their sonic identity and natural flow.

The anthemic Pacific Stars is another album standout. In a rollicking 6/8 tempo replete with Sonic Youth-style echo-drenched guitars, it starts out sparsely with just a subtle layer of synth and the troubling but powerful first lines: “For that one brief moment the water liked tempting and this bright red bridge can’t hold me back from doing what’s right….”. Mike Mollura’s tumbling tom toms and intricate patterns add to the song’s brooding grandeur and help it build to the colossal, cathartic chorus. It’s the most instant track on the album and one of the most affecting; if you need a good example of beauty coming out of emotional pain this would be it.

Just as sophisticated but more upbeat is Primavera en Vedado, it comes across as a celebration of holiday and being able to let go of all inhibitions: “Just for one night, there will be dancing…”. Special mention should also go to the superb, richly textured backing harmonies which are consistently strong and well arranged throughout the album.

Demerit is a real album highlight, starting out with tension-building chord chugs as once again the narrator depicts his permanent turmoil: “I can’t remember when I was strong enough to fight myself and be the victor….”. Breaking out in a brilliant chorus, it turns self-doubt into a memorable, majestic anthem: “Honestly, I’m terrified by the plans that we make….could it be a mistake we repeat over and over?”

Falling V feels like a natural continuation into the troubled, melancholy waters where these songs swim. Set at a deliciously languid tempo, it’s a depiction of a listless, isolated state of mind with only the alternative of anger: “Wait for a while, I’ll lose myself in fury…”. Like with Radiohead’s darkest moments, it’s an intense and powerful place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Lleuve is another fine song, standing out for more nuanced and inventive drum work from Mollura and a particularly affecting vocal from Imix Shish, capturing misery with typical poetic finesse (Lleuve is Spanish for “It rains”). You could imagine Thom Yorke feeling a little jealous of lines like, “In these blinding lights I see my fate, the ripples lure me to my tomb….”.

The following 10usd is a real curveball, a full on metal track with a feisty James Hetfield style lead vocal from Imix Shish. Despite its short duration, it packs a real punch with its Def Con 1 walls of guttural electric guitar turned up to eleven. It’s a clever twist to the album, though the only track that sounds like a completely different band.

The dreamy but gently disturbing Flies is a distinct change of pace, based around picked acoustic guitar and Mike Mollura swapping sticks for brushes, which he uses to good effect. Lyrically, it’s a tour through a troubled emotional landscape which culminates in an almost cinematic central section, augmented by Nick Drake-esque strings (circa Five Leaves Left). The final lines are akin to Morrissey at his bleak but powerfully poignant best: “I’ll awake in a pool of my own mess, I’m drowning in my own sea, drowning in the deep….”.

A Song For Leaving is a return to the full blooded high end guitar octave sound of Less Affected but travels its own unique path after that. It is in fact a cover version of a song by a band called Choose Your Own Adventure, a group they are personally friends with. Having now heard the original, this version is certainly radically different. It’s successfully reimagined in this band’s unique artistic style and works well in the context of the other songs.

The album closes with Credit, a pithy portrait of a dysfunctional relationship where passive acceptance of any blame is preferable to constant confrontation: “And just say I’ve done wrong, now I see my error…and I’ll do better…”. The verses are offset with a simple but beautiful violin line, melding seamlessly with the strummed acoustics. It’s perhaps the most emotionally direct song on the album, with a world weary dry humour underneath, not far from the surface.

Overall, At the Heart of the Empire is a brilliant third album from Equals Conquest. Though only a duo, these two gifted musicians have created a magnum opus of musical range and emotional depth. Depicting the dark sides of life head on, the songs are heartfelt, poignant, cathartic and gut wrenching in equal measure. Imix Shish wears his heart on his sleeve throughout as a lyricist and you can tell the album has been a labour of love, full of intricate details which reward repeated listening. The result is a piece of work which deserves to be known as amongst the best alternative rock albums out there.

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Gh. C

SINGLE REVIEW: Mothership by The Lou Baxter Project

The Lou Baxter Project is a band with a fascinating and unusual backstory. In the nineties, Lou Baxter lived the rock n roll lifestyle to the max, embarking on a musical odyssey through the United States before ending up in Germany where his ancestors are from. There he met songwriter and guitarist Torsten Drever, singer Oliver Wengeler and keyboardist Peter Albert. After the musicians started jamming, first songs began to develop – all based on episodes of Lou’s colourful life. In March, 2021 they released their single Bloody Knuckles, following up with songs like Magnolia Motel, Gasoline Frenzy or Fly Away. I recently favourably reviewed the band’s popular seventh single, All-In On Love (read here).

This track, Mothership, is a colourful blast of pop fused with funk and dis o that maintains the band’s established sound while also being full of inventive touches. Similar to the way Daft Punk revived the 70’s funk sound with their more modern synth based approach, the band here cook up a potent groove fronted by taut, funky high end guitar courtesy of Torsten Drever and suitably spacey sounding synth swirls from Peter Albert. Oliver Wengeler gives another earthy and compelling vocal performance, adding a nice edge to their otherwise super slick style.

With stabs of brass completing the sonic picture on the intro and first verse, the huge chorus takes us off into outer space with soaring strings. The chorus lyrically captures the essence of the song, about the power of music itself: “Music is a spaceship, taking us to otherworldly places…”. After some fantastic synth vamps from Peter Albert, the track continues to build to a wild rollercoaster ride towards the end.

Overall, this is another highly entertaining and uplifting modern pop track from The Lou Baxter Project. Effortlessly combining sounds from several styles and genres then giving it a unique spin of their own, Mothership manages the neat trick of sounding like a big radio hit whilst sounding nothing like most of what you hear. Their momentum is snowballing with every release so let’s hope Mothership send this fine group into the pop stratosphere.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner