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.
Deckard Croix is a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboard, bass) hailing from Columbus, Ohio. His musical style is somewhat multi-faceted, though psychedelia, ambient and musique concrete all feature in his work predominantly. Krautrock, atonality and dissonance as well as indeterminism are also part of his artistic lexicon and influence his compositional approach. He has been prolific in recent years, releasing several albums including Bocca Di Lione, Splendour + Misery and this year’s Marquis Verdigris.
This release, A Tenderness of Wolves, is a psychedelic blues track that preceded Deckard’s 2021 psych rock album Cosmospine. Beginning with a surrealist swirl of reversed audio, this sets the transcendent tone and dreamy ambience for the rest of the song. The opening lines are as evocative as the music, recalling the Beat poet mystical vibes of Bowie’s Hunky Dory era: “”You’re just the shadow of my irrepressive sign. Bungee jumping into the bardo, marvel woven up with esparto.”
Deckard’s vocal delivery has a serene melancholy akin to The Eels’ Mark E. Everett, a laconic yet focused style which suits the world-weary poeticism of the lyrics: “You’re tending flowers who are just about to die.” This is mirrored by the music, full of wiry electric guitar lines that brought to mind the raw, authentic sound of Link Wray and the earthy yet quirky alt. rock/blues of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs .
After two compelling verses the track dispenses with any notions of traditional song structure with a wonderfully weird left turn sculptured by veering low-end guitar. It leads us down the rabbit hole to a superb second half that dances through different keys with an eccentric genius that recalls something like Todd Rundgren’s acid period or Brian Wilson circa Smile.
Overall, this is a gem of a song from a genuinely original artist. Deckard Croix’s music and lyrics have an inimitable quirky charm and unpredictability, effortlessly combining the mundane with the arcane, the conventional with the crazy. In this case, the result is a potent piece of psychedelic blues that deserves your undivided attention. Any fans of the more alternative side to rock and blues, from Beefheart to The Black Keys, will find that Deckard Croix is a unique talent and that A Tenderness of Wolves belongs in their collection.
Gary Louca is a singer, songwriter and producer hailing from Portsmouth in England. Having been involved in many musical outfits, preceding this project he was part of a musical collective called Deltiimo, whose genre was pop/dance. Since then, Louca has embarked on an ambitious project called The Spirit of Toronto. It is an animated project with musical accompaniment, which Gary has created by collaborating with other writers and producers. The first release from this project, Memories, was reviewed very favourably by me (read here).
This latest single, Welcome To The Real World Every Little Thing (Ricky Louca Aged 9 Tech House Radio Mix), is a Gary Louca & Bradon Grobler remix of a song originally released in 1992, Welcome To The Real World. The song has been covered several times since and this version combines the original lead vocals of Lisa Love Barron with Gary’s nine year old son, Ricky Louca! After the orchestral and operatic grandeur of Memories, this track couldn’t be more of a contrast, capturing a completely different side to Gary Louca’s songwriting and production talents.
From the opening bars it is an instantly infectious pop/dance track, the initial hugely catchy refrain, “Every little thing you do” initially sung by Ricky Louca, morphing into the stellar soul voice of Lisa Love Barron. The surging energy of the track, driven by a pounding four to the floor kick, is immediately apparent. Lisa’s earthy vocals take the first verse before switching to Ricky on the “sunshine, good times” bridge refrain. This juxtaposition of vocal styles is very effective, along with the break downs and build ups that you’ll find in any good dance track. Essentially, though, it’s the incredibly catchy “every little thing” vocal hook that the listener walks away whistling.
Overall, this is an ingenious remix of a superb dance track by Gary Louca. While the original contained fabulous lead vocals from Lisa Love Cannon, the guest appearance of Gary’s son Ricky gives the track a very catchy and commercial sound that has the potential to go massively viral. With an effervescent energy and fresh sounding production that will go down a storm in the clubs, I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is to say this is potentially a worldwide hit in the making. Let’s hope it gets the exposure it deserves, check out the Tiktok sound code below.
VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10
Let’s get this trending on Tiktok with this Sound Code! Click HERE
Triad is a trilogy of albums that has its genesis in what eventually became the first part of this trilogy, originally titled 022623. This title reflected the date of Marc Lowe turning 50, a major milestone in anyone’s life.
This album title was originally named after his birthdate and the improvised A Memento Mori track contains snatches of old songs which Lowe has returned to and reworked. These reworkings and alternative versions of songs from when he was in a band called Glass Gecko and the following solo era comprise the material for Triad 1 & 2.
As with Marc Lowe’s other work, there is a mixture of what you would call traditional songs in terms of form and structure, and his more avant garde/experimental side.
Triad 1 starts with the former, a dark ballad called Phantom which captures an authentic emotional state of desolation : “There’s nothing left of me but a sickly phantom….a shell of what I was” he sings, his voice full of vulnerability. While the song is deeply personal there’s a real universal humanity to a line like, “Take away my hope and I’ll turn into dust”.
Thereisalightinadarkroom is an example of his more avant garde work, showing his talent for creating intense and unsettling soundscapes that bring to mind the early films of David Lynch in the way they explore the “dark side of the moon”. This track achieves a distorted beauty, full of backwards sounds.
More is another dark ballad, Lowe singing in a low register at first, bringing to mind the Johnny Cash version of the classic Nine Inch Nails song Hurt. It’s one of Lowe’s most heartfelt songs, played and sung with consummate passion.
What follows is the first of two versions of a track from his electronic era, Black Nail. This version, BlackNailHrt, is highly effective; ghostly piano playing a haunting motif which underpins a brilliant vocal, showing the strength of the song in its bare bones.
My Friend is a touching song with a beautiful, crystalline acoustic guitar sound built around a simple but very effective semitone progression, accompanying a poignant vocal melody and a compelling Bowie-like performance from Lowe.
Control Yourself is one of his fascinating experimental pieces, this was featuring a close collaborator of Marc’s, the guitarist Sunny Yasuda. It’s a mesmerising epic full of drones and musique concrete, a skittish beat emerging and building to an intense climax of controlled chaos.
As the title implies, BlackNailKa0s, is an anarchic, radical electronic remix, the second version of Black Nail. The frenetic beats and yes, chaotic collage of sounds is rather exhilarating, akin to being on an unpredictable rollercoaster ride. There’s a gothic Depeche Mode vibe here, another important influence of Lowe’s work.
These reworkings and remixes of older material are also juxtaposed against very recent material, such as On The Eve of February 24. This is one of his improvisational tracks about the one year anniversary of the Ukraine war. It begins as a spoken word monologue over ad libbed, echo-drenched acoustic guitar, gradually becoming a vocal led song.
Part 1 of Triad closes out with the ten minute instrumental title track of the Without Beginning or End album. The music accrues an almost unearthly intensity across its duration, a steady drone achieving a captivating and hypnotic effect. To me, the title seems to somehow encapsulate the meaning of the whole trilogy, an idea I will return to at the end of this review.
Triad 2 features several tracks from 022623 and opens with what starts out as an a capella version of This Love, a warm and intimate acoustic guitar joining Lowe’s vulnerable and passionate vocal. It’s contemplative mood and the emotional power of just vocal and guitar brought to mind Bowie’s Bewlay Brothers.
The second track is an interesting improvisation, originally from Abstrackt Distractions with Lowe giving free rein to experimentation, using his guitar percussively and juxtaposing sung and spoken word monologue sections. Towards the end it morphs into an intriguing modern take on Eleanor Rigby: “All the lonely people…of Tokyo”.
In Search of God/En Sof is one of Lowe’s avant garde mystical tracks which conjures a magical and mysterious soundscape. It blends vocals drenched in cavernous reverb with swirls of musique concrete and psychedelic effects to create something compelling and unsettling, yet utterly unique.
The following Tsunami Okoru Ze/No Game feels like the perfect companion piece even though it’s taken from a different period. It has a beautiful, hopeful acoustic chord progression that made me think of Love’s folk rock 60’s classic Forever Changes.
BlackNailSkin is a brutally radical version of Black Nail, an onslaught of backwards noise that feels like being sucked into a black hole (in a good way!). This sense of disorientation is extended into I’ll Plague You Hope, originally on the Without Beginning or End album. It’s an exhilarating sonic kaleidoscope, a bombardment of sound colours, with a genuine otherworldliness.
Gone/Forget Her is a distinct contrast, a haunting song full of desolation, a real 3am nocturnal ballad that is a medley of sorts between Lowe’s original Gone and Jeff Buckley’s Forget Her. It’s the kind of melancholy, truly emotionally authentic song that Lowe does particularly well, akin to a songwriter like Thom Yorke.
The mournful way he sings, “As I try to find the will to forget her somehow…think I’ve forgotten her now…maybe I have, maybe I haven’t”, captures a moment of pain which is both deeply moving and cathartic.
Triad 2 closes out with Happiness is not a Verb (What Was The Question?), another improvised foray into dark psychedelia with an impressive array of vocal effects and production techniques. It ends with delay-drenched vocals extending into infinity, which seems fitting and has a cinematic feel.
Triad 3 is where the genesis of this album trilogy emerged, opening with the 19 minute improvisational track A Momento Mori. This starts out as a reflective spoken monologue in both English and Japanese, before developing into a sort of sonic patchwork quilt, excerpts and snatches of songs from Lowe’s musical past now forming the seeds of a new work.
It’s fascinating to see how this restless artist experiments with so many different approaches, drawing inspiration from allowing his subconscious, creative mind to roam free.
Next comes one of Marc Lowe’s most remarkable and unique tracks, Death Does Not Become You, from his Without Beginning or End album. It’s a stunning piece of sound which opens with what I can best describe as a psychedelic medieval monk chant!
He creates a genuinely otherworldly soundscape with just his voice and various sound effects, reminiscent of something from Scott Walker’s mysterious and avant garde Tilt album. It certainly takes the listener on a wild journey.
This leads into an absolutely dreamy and blissed out version of Phantom Current that also manages to inhabit an orbit of its own. Like Bowie in the late 70’s Berlin trilogy period, Lowe is equally adept at writing conventional, structured songs as at producing genuinely avant garde experimental works like this.
Triad 3 finishes with what seems the perfect continuation of the transcendent mood created by the previous tracks, In Search of Control. Beginning instrumentally with a steady undercurrent of pulsing rhythm, a haunting and cathartic vocal gradually weaves in and out of the track, finishing with Lowe near the top of his considerable range. There is a sense of infinity built up by the ever morphing swirl of sounds and so, as the trilogy is completed, it almost feels like a musical ouroboros, a circular journey without beginning or end.
Jacob Brand is a singer, songwriter, producer and theatre actor, hailing from Vancouver, Canada. Jacob was highly musical and creative from an early age, but it wasn’t until the pandemic of 2020 where he found the time and space he needed to develop his musical creativity into completed songs. This eventually resulted in writing, performing and producing Beyond, his debut full length album. His particular musical style is something he defines himself as Progressive Pop, and his influences are numerous. These include classic artists and bands such as David Bowie, Queen and The Beatles with more modern artists like Radiohead and Seal. Jacob has released three singles in 2023 from the album so far, Love In Disguise, Game Changer and Beauty to Recognise, all of which have received critical acclaim and plaudits from his fast growing fanbase.
The album consists of thirteen songs and starts with the vibrant, upbeat pop of Game Changer. It establishes the unique and sophisticated style that Brand has developed, highly melodic and catchy yet full of musical nuance and detail. The verse instantly grips the listener with a compelling vocal melody, Jacob’s radio friendly and highly versatile voice coming to the fore. You can certainly hear the influence of Freddie Mercury with the acrobatic vocal leaps, which also brought to mind more contemporary artists such as Mika and Panic! At The Disco. Aside from the first rate vocals, Game Changer shows Brand’s gift for songwriting craftsmanship, full of memorable hooks without ever being too repetitive.
Flip starts out with a distinctive fuzz bass sound playing a Motown-style lick, concocting the moody, emotive vibe which perfectly mirrors the song’s emotional content. The lyrics depict a troubled relationship, which Jacob portrays with a sensitive lead vocal: “Shame to see how you handled me, you took a final shot so get out now…”. The way the song breaks down to just vocals and piano on the bridge shows Jacob’s natural understanding of dynamics, building up to an effective high note, one of his signature songwriting characteristics. He employs his superb falsetto throughout the track, bringing a constant melodic variety. The brooding, modal guitar solo also works well.
Third track Tell Me clocks in at nearly five minutes and encapsulates the particularly sophisticated style that Brand has developed, which he accurately describes as “progressive pop”. It grabs you from the outset, starting with just warm Rhodes electric piano and an intimate lead vocal. The chord progressions are fascinating, full of rich, jazzy extended chordal voicings and unexpected left turns, which keep things interesting. Brand also makes clever use of syncopation and accents, often landing on the offbeat, which creates dramatic tension. I particularly loved the modulation three and a half minutes in, lifting the song to an even higher level of emotional drama, sung to perfection with a vaulting vocal melody.
Beauty to Recognise is one of the album’s more traditional romantic love songs, bringing to mind the style of 70’s singer/songwriters. It’s a particular standout vocally, Brand delivering a vibrant falsetto, decorated with rich vocal harmonies. Lyrically, it’s about wanting a budding relationship based on friendship to develop to the next level and its high quality combined with its universal relatability made it an apposite choice for a single.
Fifth track All Up To You is another piece of upbeat progressive pop augmented by a punchy brass arrangement, a common instrumental flavour on the album. The verse establishes a firm sense of melody while the bridge features some of the quirky and unexpected harmonic left turns which makes Brand’s music so rich and interesting. The middle eight, with its complex harmonies and build up, is another standout aspect of this irresistibly catchy song.
Closer To The Sun begins with an immediately captivating guitar riff and pulsing hi hats, breaking out into a minimalist verse based around just a solid funk groove and staccato bassline. From a lyrical perspective, it’s one of his deep, philosophical, soul searching songs that honestly expresses going through some dark personal times: “Almost a dead man walking…I’m crazy, mad, trapped down here in the darkness”. But the overall message is life affirming and hugely positive, as encapsulated by the uplifting title hook.
Forever Fighting also juxtaposes somewhat emotionally troubled lyrics with musical ebullience, this one is a fast paced pop track in 2/4. The urgent beat and the propulsive, circling bassline gives the song real energy, contrasted by some dark lines: “I can’t handle all this misery”. This negatively is overcome and the last part of the song is a highly inspirational message: “If you want it all, the weight on your shoulders must fall, coming in fast, forever fighting….”. A real album highlight.
Eighth track Love In Disguise is one of the album’s most personal songs about a “femme fatale”, a relationship with someone that turns sour when he finds out he’s being used. The song has a noticeably edgier sound, with gritty electric guitar chords heard for the first time on Beyond. Jacob has stated in an interview: “They wanted relationships with me because they just didn’t want to be lonely and they wanted to feel worthy for themselves, which was selfish and uncalled for looking back”. Fortunately, Jacob emerged a stronger person and got this excellent song out of it.
Only Me is a fine contrast, a tender piano ballad that expresses Jacob’s sensitivity and depth of feeling. When a song is just piano and vocal, there’s nowhere for the singer to hide, and here Brand delivers a truly magnificent performance that displays his considerable range with total control. Jacob’s love of musical theatre also shows particularly strongly on this one, as epic a ballad as you would find in the great musicals.
The Pain Remains is a melancholy mid-paced track, well crafted and arranged like all the material here. It’s a song about coming to terms with the end of a relationship and dealing with the difficult emotions that follows. I enjoyed the “call and response” vocal sections as well as the subtle but effective harmonies.
Next comes the title track, Beyond, another very fine piano ballad that you can imagine being part of a musical. This one is very moving, about coming through the other side of a dark period: “I was a lonely man but a spell was cast on me…I am a grateful man, a different way to see, to be….beyond the darkness the light will spread”. With a superb melody soaring over a sophisticated chord progression, Beyond might be the album’s finest moment. The crescendo and the high notes at the end are the perfect close out.
You’re A Mystery is another poignant ballad, this one in 6/8 time with a nice swing. The arrangement is very clever, starting out sparsely and gradually building up to a glorious wall of sound, including a very 1970’s guitar solo, the kind of nice instrumental touch you don’t hear anymore in modern pop.
The album concludes with In A Place I Own, the album’s real epic at five and a half minutes. It’s another touching and emotional ballad that Brand does so well. It brings back the classic confessional songwriting style of the 70’s and the strength of the melody, the beautifully delicate piano playing and soaring lead vocals carries the length of the song. It’s an emotional way to end and a suitable finale.
Overall, this is a fantastic debut album from Jacob Brand. He has emerged as an artist and songwriter with a fully developed style of his own, which incorporates myriad influences. He skillfully distills these numerous inspirations into a unique sound, which takes the best aspects of classic 70’s and 80’s pop music and combines them with more modern artistic styles, creating something truly vibrant and fresh. Credit should also go to the inventive arrangements and pristine production, all courtesy of Jacob himself. In my humble opinion, there’s absolutely no doubt that Jacob Brand will accrue a huge fanbase worldwide as long as his music can gain sufficient exposure. Fortunately, the consistently excellent Beyond album has several songs that could potentially kick down the door to the big time. Here’s hoping.
Gary Louca is a singer, songwriter and producer hailing from Portsmouth in England. Having been involved in many musical outfits, preceding this project he was part of a musical collective called Deltiimo, whose genre was pop/dance. Since then, Louca has embarked on an ambitious project called The Spirit of Toronto. It is an animated project with musical accompaniment, which Gary has created by collaborating with other writers and producers. The inspiration for the project is a true story about a magical book called Wan Sam and Gary spent two years refining the concept of The Spirit of Toronto with a talented illustrator also from the U.K., Thayen Rich.
This track, Memories, is an epic pop/classical crossover featuring the talents of operatic duo Trovatori. After a spoken word intro that sets an emotive tone the music enters with a quiet grandeur, piano and orchestral percussion forming the musical bedrock. This builds to the haunting title hook sung sensitively by Louca: “Memories of times gone by, oh my memories of a star that shines so bright”. In the background, interspersed with Louca’s lead vocals, are the exquisite harmonies of operatic duo Trovatori (Darren and Caroline Clarke).
The lyrics, which will need to be fully understood in the context of the animated project, clearly reflect a deep romantic love, evidenced by lines such as “Memories will stay until my dying day”. The way the vocal melodies of Trovatori gradually unfold across the duration of the song is very skilfully done and the final minute is quite spectacular as the duo soar together into the musical ether.
Overall, this is a superb pop/classical crossover that works very well as a standalone track outside the context of the overall Spirit of Toronto project. Gary Louca shows, once again, his creative gifts as songwriter and singer, while the operatic talents of Trovatori help to raise the musical bar to a high level with their inspired and beautiful contributions. I hope this song, Memories, and the entire Spirit of Toronto animated project receives the attention and wide audience it deserves.
Steven Blane is a singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele) hailing from New York City, as well as being a Universalist Rabbi and Cantor. His music ranges in style and genre, encompassing Americana, folk, rock and blues and jazz, amongst hints of other genres.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, Blane began writing a journal about his experiences and one of his lyrics was quoted in a Vanity Fair article. Since 2015, he has released nine albums and has been particularly prolific in the last six years, releasing an album a year, including this one. He has developed a sizeable fanbase, with some songs racking up big numbers on the major league streaming sites like Spotify.
This latest album, Songs For New York Lovers, consists of thirteen songs in the jazz/pop genre. The title is perhaps a playful nod to the classic Frank Sinatra album, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, and has a similar high bar of composition and consistency.
The album’s opening track Autumn Song could almost be a track on that Sinatra album, a beautifully written and performed jazz ballad. Blane gives a skilful vocal performance in his rich baritone, aided and abetted by a group of superb musicians. It becomes immediately apparent that Blaine’s sophisticated songwriting style, which he brought to mastery on previous albums, is maintained here with aplomb. Aside from the exquisite arrangement and memorable melody, special mention should go to the effortlessly mellifluous tenor sax courtesy of Michael Johnson.
This Love Affair is the kind of moody, melancholy jazz/blues balladry that Blane does so well, the type of song you’d love to hear playing at a jazz bar at 2am. The intimate lead vocal conveys the confessional but pithy lyrics about desiring an affair with someone when already attached: “This love affair was never meant to be for I belong to someone else, it’s true…it’s my reality, a goddamn felony, I stand convicted of loving you”. A touching and deeply poignant song which will be highly relatable for so many.
Third song The Rabbi’s Tzitzit is a nice contrast, given an instant effusion of momentum by Frank Levatino’s insistent hi-hat shuffle. As Steven is a Rabbi cantor himself, songs reflecting his faith are an interesting aspect of his work. This one in particular showcases Blane’s Cole Porter-esque gift for wordplay and lyrical dexterity: “He’s dancing to the wisdom of the ages in the pages of his holy books, when passion often rages through the ages, this is where his spirit looks….”.
I Hurt Myself Today is another slightly unexpected but delightful twist, an upbeat polka in 2/4 full of exotic charm. At a succinct two and a half minutes, it’s a pocket gem of a song with a concise arrangement, pithy lyrics and a perfectly executed lead vocal from Blane. Whereas you can hear a lot of 40s/50s music influences in his work, this one brought to mind the 1920’s with a real Great Gatsby vibe.
Thanksgiving is a return to more familiar jazz/pop, another masterclass in this style of songwriting. Here, we find Blane and his band at the top of their game, all delivering stellar performances. Aside from the instantly hummable vocal melody, delivered with consummate ease, Kevin Hailey’s superb rolling bassline caught my ear, particularly. But everyone involved deserves great credit for creating a track most suitably described as “smokin’”.
The Muze is perhaps the most desolate and melancholy song on the album, embellished throughout by a richly melodic, wonderfully played piano part full of subtle nuance from Jack Glottman. Indeed, the whole band get to display their more soulful side, the double bass aching with feeling along with Michael Johnson’s moody sax. Lyrically, it captures the moment of heartbreak at the end of a troubled relationship that also served as artistic inspiration: “What will I do now my muse has gone? No one to hang my heartache on…no cross for me to bleed upon…”.
This is nicely juxtaposed by the jaunty jazz/pop of Champagne, which transports us back to the 20’s. The whole band cook up some real energy on this one, guaranteed to get the toe tapping. The vocal melody, especially the simple but instantly memorable title hook, is irresistibly catchy and hummable. Lyrically, it finds Blane at his most lighthearted and playful: “Let’s you and I go on the town tonight, dress up to the nines in black and white, rent a limousine, drive downtown to a scene where maître d’ is cordial and polite….”. Listen out for the fabulous, bluesy piano vamp at the end.
Shma is another song inspired by Steven’s Jewish faith, the title referring to what is considered the most essential declaration of the Jewish faith, “Hear, O’ Israel: the Lord is your God; the Lord is one”. This one features Steven on tightly strummed acoustic guitar, prominent in the mix, which gives it a different sonic texture to the rest of the album to this point. It also stands out for its passionate, vaulting vocal leaps and haunting, lilting melody. Another fine contrast to what precedes it.
Coffee And A Rose is a charming little song with a toe tapping swing, bringing us back to the more Sinatra/Cole Porter style that Blane has established as his signature sound. As ever, it is impeccably arranged throughout, from the descending double bass that provides the intro to the extended sax solo halfway through. After the earlier romantic turmoil on songs like The Muze, the romance on this one is delightfully bright and breezy: “Coffee and a rose this morning, crescent moon and stars last night…”.
Steven has romance on his mind once again on the lovely, skilfully crafted Juanita. One of the album’s longer tracks at over four minutes, it has a decidedly exotic Spanish vibe, as the title suggests! Here, you can pick up the influence of Leonard Cohen, one of Blane’s favourite songwriters. The earthy dry humour of the first verse certainly brought Cohen to mind: “I got messed up in a fight, red lights flashing bright…”. It builds to a beautiful chorus, Blane’s soaring croon matching the passion and poeticism of the words: “And even the roses blush when my senorita, my sweet Juanita walks by…”.
This Deja Vu is one of the album’s more low-key tracks. It has a real sophistication in the way the music conjures an air of mystery that perfectly mirrors the subject matter of the lyrics. It’s a song about meeting someone and feeling like you’ve met them before, a common experience amongst those who find themselves instantly in love with someone. The swung rhythm and exotic chord changes lend a hypnotic quality to the song, an understated gem.
Penultimate song The Ramble could almost be the title track, a sparkling piece of New York-infused jazz that finds the musicians in glorious form. Blane gives a characteristically charismatic performance with lyrics full of Cole Porter wordplay and wit: “Let’s take an amble through the ramble of Central Park, we can take a gamble and find our way out by dark…”.
The closing Wintertime has a similar warmth and charm, akin to standing by a fire in the depths of a snowy December. This one is in 6/8 and really swings with some very fine jazz drumming from Levantino, versatile piano full of harmonic subtleties and a blazing sax cameo. Blane saves the best till last in terms of vocal performance, the sustained high note at the end at an apposite way to close out proceedings.
Overall, Songs For New York Lovers is another superb album from the prolific Steven Blane. It maintains the very high bar set by his last one, The Met, and is arguably even better. There is not one dud moment amongst the thirteen tracks and Blane consolidates his position as a master of his chosen style. Backed by a cohort of gifted musicians who match his skills, the result is a joy from start to finish. Music connoisseurs worldwide should discover the songs of Steven Blane.
Thy Veils are an ambient/electronica artistic collective founded by composer and Romanian ambient pioneer Daniel Dorobantu in 1995. Over twenty years Thy Veils have released seven studio albums and three live albums, garnering critical and public acclaim along the way. Their music is a fusion of ambient, electronic and neoclassical music and they combine this with visual art to create immersive audio-visual performances with cutting edge techniques employed both musically and visually. You can read my review of their last single, Influx, here.
This latest single, Upstream, is taken from their forthcoming album immediately captivates with a hypnotic intro, set at a blissed out, dreamy tempo. A sparse yet compelling groove kicks in, locked in tight with Mircea Ardeleanu Jr.’s bassline while what sounds like an echo-drenched trumpet (though possibly a very realistic sounding synth) floats across the sonic terrain. This creates the perfect ambience for the entry of Alira Mun’s haunting, otherworldly vocals.
With her crystalline voice and such a beatific vocal melody soaring over the electronic soundscape courtesy of Daniel Dorobantu, Upstream brings to mind the subtle majesty of Massive Attack’s classic track Teardrop (featuring Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins). Ardeleanu Jr’s bassline starts out as succinct and rhythmic, then gradually develops and expands melodically whilst maintaining the core key notes. This provides a counterpoint to the vocals along with pulsing momentum.
As with previous releases, the lyrics are deeply reflect a mystical and spiritual mindset which perfectly reflect the mood of the music, “Fire, fire…fighter, turn the light, we’ll go upstream, along the strong eternal wind….”. The words are a fascinating rumination on the nature of inspiration and how it forms part of our spiritual path. This is encapsulated by the transcendental lines that could have come from the Bhagavad Gita: “And we find the place of our dreams through the voidless when we go upstream…”.
Overall, Upstream is another ambient/electronica masterpiece from the consistently superb Thy Veils. Through Daniel Dorobantu’s gifts as a composer and producer, his musical vision is brought to life by Alira Mun’s unique vocals and the masterly bass playing of Mircea Ardeleanu Jr. The result is what will surely be one of the best tracks of 2023, which deserves to be heard far and wide.
Elena C. Lockleis (They/Them) is a singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles. As an artist, Elena uses music to bring awareness to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and bring them to the forefront. Before becoming a solo artist Elena contributed the script to a musical called Feelings, which inspired the musical’s songs written by Jon Worthy. This was recorded as a concept album and received critical acclaim, including from me (read my review here).
This single, Human Connection, is a mid tempo, melancholy pop ballad with an intimate lead vocal performance. With an immediately emotive impact, the musical style is somewhere between Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, with lyrics that express vulnerability and emotional pain in a very moving way. Beginning with simple, strummed acoustic chords, Elena paints a poignant picture with just the opening lines: “I smile with trouble, feeling numbly anti-social”.
The lilting vocal melody, beautifully sung, mirrors the words perfectly and builds to an instantly captivating chorus. While the song is an expression of tormenting feelings, the memorable melody of the chorus, augmented by subtle vocal harmonies, sticks in the memory upon the very first listen. Lyrically, it captures a mood of isolation and craving companionship: “Human connection, I crave affection, I’m lying when I say I’m ok…”. The after chorus line, “Can I just be loved?” is especially touching.
After the second verse and chorus we hear the depths of despair and social alienation expressed by such lines as “Feels like I’m clashing with my skin, will I ever win? Loneliness is my best friend.…”. The song concludes with a final chorus, completing a fine arrangement.
Overall, this is a touching and powerful first single from songwriter Elena C. Lockleis. Both a highly gifted melodist and lyricist, it is the degree to which Elena is able to honestly convey innermost feelings and emotions in an articulate way that makes this song stand out. With an excellent chorus and pristine, radio friendly production I would expect this song to open many doors for Elena and indicates a very successful career ahead.
Project Rod Williams is an electro-dance pop studio ensemble which is the musical brainchild of songwriter/musician Rod Williams. Musically, it is a fusion of classic 70’s disco music like Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, 80’s synth pop such as Depeche Mode and Erasure and more modern pop artists like Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. He has released three full length albums so far, Fire in 2019, Spin Me in 2020 and last year’s excellent Run Away. Along the way, Project Rod Williams has garnered many fans and much critical acclaim (myself included).
This latest release, Fantasy, is a maxi single, something we don’t see that much of these days but akin to a release like Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus in terms of format. The title track is the kind of irresistibly upbeat and funky pop track that Rod has excelled at in the past as a songwriter. Rod collaborates with some gifted singers and Fantasy has lead and background vocals performed by Tim Condor, who does a superb job. Rod himself also contributes additional vocals, along with synthesisers and vocoder. The full version that opens the maxi single is the most epic track from Project Rod Williams yet, clocking in at eight minutes.
Built around a bouncy, melodic bassline that propels the music’s momentum throughout, synths fill out the soundscape before Tim Condor’s assured vocal performance takes centre stage. Lyrically, it’s a timeless tale of unrequited love: “How I wish I could turn back time, reverse the spin of the earth and make you mine…”. This builds to the instantly memorable, radio friendly chorus, layered with rich vocal harmonies which showcases Williams’ talent as an arranger.
There is an intriguing astrological and astronomical lyrical theme that recurs throughout, such as the second verse line, “I hope one day when the planets align you’ll return my love and wanna be mine…”. This continues with the brilliantly written bridge that follows the second chorus: “Divert a fireball if the sky should fall, travel near and far from Jupiter to Mars”. Then we hear a great 80’s style guitar solo performed by Tim Condor, the kind of slick solo we just don’t hear in modern pop much these days. A repeat verse and chorus closes out a fantastic song.
Next we get a very cool remix by Rod and Nivanoise, which gives the track an EDM vibe with four to the floor kicks and riser build ups. After this we get a radio edit version, and as I’ve already said, Fantasy is a perfect song for mainstream radio. We also get a radio edit of the remix version, and both will be popular on the dance floor.
What follows next is another remix from Nivanoise, this one a song which appeared in its original guise on the Run Away album as a tender piano ballad. Here, it is reimagined as a synth pop track which retains a great lead vocal performance from Matt Williamson, another talented collaborator. With a vaulting vocal melody that is both haunting and beautiful, it brought to mind the 80’s pop group Erasure (Vince Clarke was also in Depeche Mode, another influence).
Lyrically, it is deeply romantic and the chorus brings back the recurring theme: “And we’ll soar up high to the clouds and fly into space to the moon…”. Whilst the original version was excellent, this remix really brings the song’s melody to life in a very effective way, and acts as a fine counterpoint to Fantasy. After this, we get instrumentals of the various Fantasy versions and it’s great to hear the intricacies of the music, a look under the hood.
Overall, this is another fantastic release from Project Rod Williams. The new track Fantasy is one of Williams’ finest pop songs, bringing back the exuberant 80’s synth pop style with a modern edge. The eight minute version is a joy from start to finish while the remix will be a hit in the clubs. The alternative remix of Fly With Me is inspired and I applaud the idea of bringing back the maxi single concept! Tim Condor and Matt Williamson also deserve credit for their vocal contributions and I can’t wait to hear more from this musical collective.
The World Was Not the Same is the latest album from the highly prolific alternative artist (singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer) Marc Lowe. The album has a fascinating genesis and history that stretches back several years. The second half of this epic double album was originally intended to be as an album called 1123, which was to also include a piano version of a ballad called One Touch. This material was recorded back in 2018 with the exception of a David Bowie cover, which is a reimagined version of Heat from The Next Day album with verses from 2002’s Heathen. The 2018 material has now all been remixed and rearranged which reflects Lowe’s artistic development both in terms of sonics and production techniques. The first half of the album largely constitutes what was originally intended as a six track album called Heart Mind, which was mostly original material and another Bowie cover, a different version of Lazarus (originally from Lowe’s 2019 album I’m A Blackstar).
Lowe then added a largely spoken word Intro track, which starts the album. His opening monologue sets the apocalyptic tone for the album, full of existential dread: “So this is how it stands…as far as I can see…one has to ask oneself how much longer we have here on this planet that we’re fucking up completely…”. After a brief burst of chaotic guitars and drums (a melange of old recordings melded together and deliberately distorted) a more reflective and resigned attitude emerges with the lines: “You just need to find something to hold on to, and hold on to it as long as you can…and then let it go. Nothing lasts forever”.
This philosophical stance, becoming detached from desire and all material and emotional attachments, is the influence of Buddhist ideas which form an important part of Lowe’s artistic persona. This juxtaposition of an impending apocalypse with Eastern religion emerges on the title track, a five minute instrumental. It features an excerpt from Robert Oppenheimer’s famous speech about the atomic bomb he developed as part of the Manhattan Project and which was deployed in 1945. Upon witnessing the death and destruction caused by the bomb, Oppenheimer remarked, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent”.
He then goes on to quote the famous translated lines from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. This obviously has huge contemporary relevance as we stand of the brink of World War 3 due to the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Lowe creates a brooding, unsettling soundscape which reflects the world’s deeply troubled state. This soundscape continues into Lowe’s version of Bowie’s Lazarus, consisting of just haunting lead vocals and acoustic guitar. Its world weary tone is very apposite and Lowe adds some pithy lyrics of his own: “By the time I got to Tokyo I was living like Donald Trump….”.
This segues into Inner States Improvisation in which we hear some of Lowe’s rather unique tapping techniques which are both melodic and percussive. This is a version of Inner States of Mind which has appeared in different guises on several of Lowe’s releases. With his vocals set back in the mix, the track slowly builds in intensity with Lowe’s rallying cry, “We must never forget our humanity”, never sounding more relevant.
This is followed by LFLZ Improvisation, a powerful sonic concoction of tumbling Tom fills and sinister sounding synths. It maintains the saturnine yet cathartic vibe established by the previous tracks, evolving into a wall of noise that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now.
What follows is the album’s epic, the twenty two minute Heart Mind. It’s a fascinating piece of work, a spoken word monologue which starts out on a personal level then soon delves into politics, religious and philosophical ideas, allopathic and natural medicine, Freudian and Jungian psychology and psychiatry. As an artist, Lowe consistently explores and traverses the borderline between opposites, the Western and Eastern approach, the spiritual and the material, the heart and the mind. Whether intentional or not, this track feels like the centrepiece of the album and as a whole the album appears to constitute a descensus ad inferos (descent into hell). This is also known in mythological terms as the “dark night of the soul” and Carl Jung experienced this himself in middle life.
As the track evolves, the backdrop music builds in momentum and intensity, Lowe’s voice becoming more fragmented and distorted, multiple voices emerging as if descending into the complexities and tensions within his own heart/mind. Eventually, a solid industrial beat provides order amongst the sonic chaos and the effect is undeniably powerful.
This is contrasted by the sparse but beautiful acoustic ballad The Ties That Bind Us. This song appears in a different guise on another album released this year, Past Life. This version is stripped back to just acoustic guitar and Lowe’s lead vocal, allowing the poignant, melancholy melody to shine.
Ashes (of the Past) is one of the more avant garde tracks consisting of just Lowe’s vocals amidst a chaotic and unsettling soundscape, featuring some beautifully poignant and poetic lines: “The times you slept in the crook of my arm, well the coldness pierced our bones”. This particular track obviously carries emotional weight for Lowe, the line about “vivid scars” being the original title for the album (albeit with a different running order and different cover art).
Happenings is a superb track, one of the more instant and anthemic tracks on the album that could be regarded as a call to arms for outsiders everywhere, for those who feel on the edge of society. Both the gripping vocal melody and seductive, brooding bassline captivate you upon first listening, the lyrics so relatable for many: “How many times has the hammer come down, how many times have they run you out of town?”. Lowe’s production is particularly good here, a veritable plethora of masterfully sculpted reverb effects and sonic segues.
Bones is another track that proves less is more, a skeletal musical backdrop consisting of a cavernous echo-drenched 2/4 beat and Lowe’s vocals. The Bowie influence shows through once more, though it feels more like the abstract and avant garde Bowie of the Low era, with enigmatic and intriguing lyrics: “The master’s bones are dancing, the master’s bones are swaying….”. The simple piano motif in the second verse is a genius touch, the vocal harmonies and overlapping voices very effective. It then breaks down to a haunting cello passage before the final minutes of the track interweave previous elements with what sounds indeed like bones “dancing”.
I Loved That Boy is a song with a poignant backstory. The track is about a friend of Marc’s who was sadly born with no hands, yet refused to let his disability hold him back or even acknowledge it as a disability at all. He managed to become a musician despite his impediment and the song is a touching tribute. It’s a synth based alternative pop/track with an immediately distinctive and memorable vocal melody from Lowe, his delivery pitched somewhere between David Bowie and David Byrne. The track is surprisingly funky once the loose groove kicks in, then breaks down to just piano and vocal. This expresses a moment of loss and grief before returning to the complex, ever shifting beat. This is a good showcase for Lowe’s inimitable talents and I could imagine this proving popular if played in clubs.
Goonsquad is an intense, rather claustrophobic track that skilfully depicts an Orwellian and dystopian world where everyone is looking over their shoulder in fear. After the unsettling intro, the eerie yet compelling synth melody conjures a saturnine vibe that perfectly reflects the equally troubled words: “You’d better run, you’d better hide, do not go out, best stay inside….the goonsquad’s at your back, they will keep on hounding you…”. As many countries have become increasingly totalitarian since the pandemic, this track feels particularly timely and apposite, a mirror held up to the world.
The Lone Cricket is perhaps the most mystical track on the album, a blissed out ambient instrumental for the most part, with spoken word and subtle falsetto vocals deployed with great effect. The music and perhaps the philosophical concept behind this track seems very influenced by Eastern religion and mysticism once again, though tinged with the darkness that pervades the rest of the album: “The lone cricket chirps all day, he doesn’t realise that the summer has gone away….”.
Peeved Pear is a stately and mid tempo electro pop track with a languid, mellow musical feel but juxtaposed with lyrics dripping in vitriol. They depict a person with very few redeeming qualities, a portrait of a nihilistic hedonist who has no concern for the feelings of others, seemingly: “It drinks and it frowns, lounges out all day, in its liquor it drowns, it doesn’t look at your face…”. The impersonal use of “it” captures this person’s basic inhumanity, and Lowe foretells a dark demise: “This pear is gonna fall, this pear is gonna cry and if it doesn’t shape up it’s gonna die….”.
Inside is a clever little gem of a song, consisting of piano and lead vocal. The stacked fourths give the music an Oriental feel, an influence of Lowe’s life in Japan rubbing off on his music. Lyrically, it explores similar territory to Goonsquad, and whether he intended or not, he absolutely captures the authoritarian mood of the last couple of years (a disembodied, ghostly voice whispers “Don’t go out your door…stay inside”) along with the enforced introspection that resulted from it.
The final track is a radical interpretation of two David Bowie songs (Heat from The Next Day and Heathen from the album of that name). As with any cover version by Marc Lowe he makes it very much his own and here seamlessly fuses two very different songs from two very different periods in Bowie’s career.
The last moments of this epic musical journey are truly moving, a quote from Lama Chime Rinpoche spoken over the unsettling sonic landscape that underpins the whole album till it fades and leaves only his words: “I’ll meet him again in the next life, somewhere much better, more happy and pleasant than now….”. These wise words somehow bring the journey full circle, showing how it is mortal life itself that is the descensus ad inferos we must all endure as best we can, a better fate awaiting us on the other side.
Overall, this is a remarkable new album from the hugely creative Marc Lowe. Taking material originally written a few years ago, he has reworked and remixed these tracks into a cohesive whole that manages to capture the current zeitgeist in a compelling way. While these songs are often full of pain and darkness, they are also shot through with hope and hard earned wisdom drawn from all corners of life. It’s inspiring to know that while mainstream culture is at an all time nadir, artists like Marc Lowe are making uncompromising art and music that really matters.