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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT = 9.2 out of 10           

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: ParaNormal FrequencieZ by Zach Mac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Night Drive by heyiloveyou

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

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

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

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

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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SINGLE REVIEW: Perfect Alibi by The Proper Authorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: Dirty Clean Sexy Mean by Echo Strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Kavanak by Ginzu And The Steak Knives

Better Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Helios Forsaken by Shepherds of Cassini

Helios Forsaken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Listen here:

ALBUM REVIEW: American Descendant of Slavery by Terry Blade

ADofS_The Album_TerryBlade_Cover (enhanced)

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.

This album, American Descendant of Slavery, is somewhat of an epic at nineteen tracks. The album is centred around the intersectionality of Terry’s social and cultural identity as a gay African-American descendant of slavery in the United States. The project incorporates original music with audio recordings of former African-American slaves (and their descendants) obtained from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The album opens with the haunting “Opening: What He Mean By That?” which sets a fifteen-year-old African-American male depicting  experiences of racism to a backdrop of pulsing percussion and brooding reed instruments. This powerful intro sets the tone for the rest of the album and it seamlessly blends into the second track “INward.”

Musically, it’s a jazz-tinged RnB track with a Stevie Wonder influence, set to a languid groove which kicks in after the first chorus. Terry’s rich baritone voice is alternated with slick rapping on the verses, which lyrically deal with the harsh reality of being black and being aware of one’s history and ancestry: “Niggas paying twice for a seat at the table….niggas getting tired of being used like a puppet…”.

We then hear excerpts of an affecting interview from 1941 with a former slave, Harriet Smith, speaking about her experiences with slavery.

Fourth track “Black Hurts” is perhaps the centrepiece of the album both as a showcase for Terry’s inimitable vocals and the lyrical message he conveys with great emotion. Set to a sparse but beautiful musical bedrock of jazzy guitar and a gentle beat, Terry lays his heart on his sleeve about how his skin colour affects his experience in the world.

This is captured succinctly by the deeply poignant chorus: “Just being black is a burden….you’re something to attack, you’re not a person…the whole world on your back, you keep servin’, by the time you’ve snapped you’ve been hurtin’, you’re sick of hurtin’”.

The breakdown after the second chorus manages to sum up the very essence of the problem: “Isn’t it such a pity that my racial identity will always be held against me, can it be?”.

“MTF” is another hard-hitting track about the abuse and stigma transgender women face in sex work and the U.S. prison system. With a backing blending jazz, soul and RnB that brought to mind Amy Winehouse’s classic “Back To Black” album, Terry narrates a heartbreaking tale: “She was looking for the money to afford a change,  a client told her, “That could be arranged…”….got her in a room in a cheap motel, didn’t take his abuse so she went to jail…”.

It then depicts how she ends up in a male prison, an important social issue which needs to be addressed. This fine track is followed by an excerpt of an interview from 1941with former-slave, Laura Smalley. These short segue tracks give the album a deep moral and historical context which helps the listener to understand.

“Mr. Robertson” is another highly emotional and moving track, this one about his estranged father and the difficulties of family reintegration of absent African American fathers.

Consisting of just acoustic guitar and Terry’s intimate vocals, it’s a heart-rending depiction of a child needing his absent father’s love: “Why didn’t you write, Mr. Robertson?”. The way he refers to his father in such a formal way perfectly conveys the sense of estrangement and pain he feels. Understandably, this was awarded the 2020 Best Folk Song Award by Clouzine magazine.

This is followed with another spoken word track (featuring T-Man), “All They Have Is Masculinity.” The monologue discusses the intersectionality of homophobia and blackness in the African American community. Thematically, this flows perfectly into “Ms. Mizell,” which feels like the most emotionally honest and heartfelt track, which is saying something on such a bold album.

It’s impossible not to feel moved by  Terry’s vivid and sensitive portrayal of coming out to his mother as gay: “There’s something I have to tell, promise you won’t scream or yell…”. Augmented by beautiful backing harmonies, the sophisticated chord progression and arrangement adds to the song’s class, but it’s Terry’s lead vocal melody that truly shines.

After another poignant interlude featuring the words of former slave, Mitchell Washington, the acoustic ballad “I Want It Back” is about reclaiming black culture and history and his strong dislike of cultural appropriation: “You take blood from a stone….you wanna be my clone…”. It’s another very relevant song in these times of the rising social justice movement.

“Clean The Table” is another interlude, a harrowing depiction of ill treatment set to a sparse, haunting backing. “They Must Be Kin” is an ode to Terry’s ancestors, suitably based around languid African percussion. It’s a very fine track that shows his musical range.

The following “Reparations” seems the inevitable and natural next subject for Terry to explore artistically. With a tone of righteous anger, he lays down some incendiary lines: “She looks to me like I’m gonna help her racist habit, don’t need your fake ass white guilt, you can have it…”. He references the 1619 Project and the Tulsa race massacre, where white mobs attacked Black residents and burned down their businesses.

We then hear from Fountain Hughes recalling his experiences as a slave, before “Same Gender Loving” (an affirmatory term coined by activist Cleo Manago) shows Terry crooning tenderly about his love for another man: “It’s like I caught the groom’s bouquet, makes me wanna get married today…”. It’s another superb piece of songwriting, and such a refreshing perspective.

“The Silent Treatment (Shivers Remix)” is something of a musical departure, a laid back RnB track with a slick groove andTerry conveying the emotional turmoil felt when one partner in a relationship decides to give the other“the silent treatment”. The production by distant.face is top notch, with evocative brass and smoky synths giving it a real flavour.

The album officially finishes with “Closing: Who Cares For Me?” It’s a poem by an unidentified 18-year-old in New York from 1970 or 1971. Set to mesmerising exotic percussion and striking melodies, the heart-rending poem is a “cri du coeur”: “Help me find someone who cares for me…the one who cares for me must care for all men like me...”. It’s the perfect way to end this musical journey which both reflects Terry’s lived experience and also the experiences of Black people across history.

Overall, this is a remarkable album by a truly unique artist. His art is particularly relevant in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the egregious murder of George Floyd at the hands of a corrupt white policeman. Terry eloquently expresses the struggles Black people face in society as well as his own difficulties with coming out.

Amongst all the pain expressed is also a sincere love for the marginalised and oppressed in society, addressing everything from intersectionality to the subject of reparations. I expect this album to make a huge cultural and commercial impact upon its release and deservedly so.

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Listen here:

CONCERT REVIEW: World Ascension Tour (A Lightworker’s Journey) – Live at Village Studios in 432 HZ by Scott Howard

Scott Howard is a singer and songwriter from Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Music played a big role in his childhood as his mother was an opera singer and he was a stagehand. His musical journey is closely bound with his spiritual journey as he decided to use his songwriting as a force for good after the tragic loss of his son, Maxx.

His inspirational songs have already reached many, with his debut album, Ascended Man, accumulating 6.4 million streams. And, a total of 10 million streams of all of his songs combined. He uses a special kind of instrument tuning, 432hz, which is regarded by some as the frequency of the universe and therefore has a spiritually uplifting effect on the listener. He followed this up in 2020 with his four track EP, The Language of Clouds To which I gave a highly favorable review (read here).

This latest release is a recorded concert performance called World Ascension Tour (A Lightworker’s Journey) – Live at Village Studios in 432 HZ. It starts out with the superb title track from his debut album, Ascended Man. The sheer quality of the musicians that back up Scott is immediately apparent, providing a note perfect rendition of one of his best-known songs.

Scott’s distinctive voice, reminiscent of the legendary Cat Stevens, are very powerful in this musical context. The visual aspect of a concert performance certainly does allow a deeper connection with the music and Scott as an artist.

All Scott’s music has a vibrant, spiritual quality and this truly shines in a live context, especially with his use of 432 HZ tuning which results in a crystalline, pure sound. Interspersed with the songs are short interview clips which add emotional resonance. After the strong opening song, Illusions of Life follows.

This is also from his debut album and starts with a powerful synth intro. The lyrics capture the poetic, philosophical style that Scott has made his own, a blend of the mystical with ‘down to earth’ life wisdom borne of real experiences. After this contemplative track on the timeless “prodigal son” theme and life’s lessons learnt, the opening song from his debut is next, Come with Me.

With its ascending chord progression and hugely anthemic chorus, it’s one of Scott’s most instantly memorable songs and is well placed here. The way it builds up and rocks out at the end is very effective, the musicians really letting loose. Next comes a track from his short album, The Language of Clouds. Dreamer is one of his finest songs, the folky Cat Stevens influences fused with a harder hitting rock element, featuring some great bursts of electric guitar.

Through My Eyes returns to his first album and starts out in 6/8. It’s a particularly moving song as it’s about his son Maxx, who was sadly taken at a young age. But the strong belief that we are spiritual beings pervades Scott’s music and could be considered his essential message. It flips into a harder hitting section halfway through which nails the “seize the day”, life affirming vibe.

Written in the Clouds follows next, from his most recent album The Language of Clouds. It’s perhaps his most anthemic song, with an almost Springsteen-type grandeur and one which must be a fan favorite. It’s about finding your own way in life and facing up to your fate. This is then contrasted by the tender balladry of Life’s Not Easy, a finely crafted song augmented by heart tugging strings then propelled into action towards the end with thunderous toms.

Next is the magical Awaken, enriched by the enchanting sound of twelve string guitar. The finger picked style shows his folk roots and it’s another song of spiritual hidden depths from the Ascended Man album. We then return to his latest album with the truly romantic ballad The Queen of Hearts. This one is a poignant song about destiny and one day being brought together with your soulmate. This live rendition captures all the deep feeling of the album version, leaving the listener on an emotional high by the end.

The culmination of this concert, the grand finale, is the last track from Ascended Man, the superb Source (Shine A Light). With its rich, overdriven organ and fantastic guitar work, it’s reminiscent of great 70’s rock and lyrically captures Scott at his most utopian in his vision. The anthemic refrain “We are source…we are love” is his essential message to spiritually awaken us all and it’s the perfect end to this live performance.

Overall, World Ascension Tour (A Lightworker’s Journey) – Live at Village Studios in 432 HZ is a fantastic concert performance from Scott Howard and his talented bunch of musical cohorts. Scott’s genuinely uplifting music truly soars in a live setting, breathing fresh life into the music and acting as the perfect introduction to his highly spiritual and altruistic work. Blending some of the finest moments from his first two albums, it will undoubtedly delight his existing fans and win him a whole lot more.

VERDICT = 9.3 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

Buy/rent the concert on Amazon here

Visit his website here

Watch the trailer here: