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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SINGLE REVIEW: Inevitable by Forest Robots

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Forest Robots is the musical brainchild of electronic artist and composer Fran Dominguez. He has previously released two full length albums, Supermoon Moonlight – Part One and Timberline And Mountain Crest (both of which I gave glowing reviews to, read here and here). These albums were essentially conceptual works, ambient instrumental soundscapes inspired by nature.

This latest release, Inevitable, is a distinct contrast to those works, moving into the area of traditional songwriting and featuring vocals performed by Dominguez himself. The genre is influenced by classic 80’s electronica/synth-pop groups such as Depeche Mode and Cocteau Twins, as well as a My Bloody Valentine influence in the use of guitars.

Set to a mid-paced, slinky Daft Punk-style electronic beat, the music is propelled by pulsing, highly melodic Depeche Mode synths and a subtle but effective bassline. This forms the bedrock for the distinctive, rich lead vocals with Dominguez singing in a low register not unlike Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan along with the understated style of New Order’s Bernard Sumner.

Lyrically, the song is essentially one about self-empowerment and not giving into the self-doubt created by a success-obsessed society: “They try to pretend that they know something that you don’t”. This builds to a momentous chorus with the mesmeric vocal hook, “When you know you know, you know…”. After this is a section of spectral guitars that gives the track an otherworldly feel akin to his previous work.

The second verse is direct in its unflinching honesty about life’s vicissitudes: “No point in pretending, heartbreak will always come…”. This is far from a ‘glass half empty’ outlook however, with the ultimate message hugely positive and empowering.

Overall, this is a bold step forward into unchartered territory for Forest Robots and already a highly successful one, creatively. Retaining some of the sonic qualities of previous material, Inevitable is a very well composed and performed synth-pop track, with Fran Dominguez’s vocal style as unique as his musical approach. Accessible, yet nothing like most of the mainstream music out there, Inevitable should gain Forest Robots a whole new legion of fans and open many doors.

 

VERDICT: 8.7 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

 

 

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ALBUM REVIEW: Timberline And Mountain Crest by Forest Robots

Screenshot_2018-11-25 Timberline And Mountain Crest, by Forest Robots.jpg

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 May this year I gave a glowing review to the album Supermoon Moonlight – Part One. This follow up album, Timberline And Mountain Crest, has been completed just eight months later and consists of ten tracks. It is somewhat of a musical progression from the previous album; whilst Supermoon Moonlight had been based around nature-inspired ambient electronically with orchestral elements, here he retains the same natural inspirations whilst branching out into a more rhythmic style, incorporating synthwave, soul and funk. It has been described as Ambient R&B, and that is a good description.

Opening track Sudden Bioluminescence is a fine representation of this more expansive style. It starts with a swathe of atmospheric synths combining with pulsating, rhythmic synths which build the tension nicely. Then we hear an intricate yet languid dance groove enter, filled with subtle syncopations and rhythmic intricacies.

This becomes the foundation for a series of lead synth melodies which complement each other perfectly and maintain an excellent sense of melodic continuity. After breaking down midway, it builds back up then cleverly combines the various themes to great effect. It’s a very complex track, yet easy to listen to and built out of only three chords.

The evocatively named Where The Wild Summer Storms Run lives up to the promise of its title. Locking quickly into a tight 2/4 groove, the ear becomes hooked to the catchy synth melodies. A second section featuring some 80’s style chiming synths is a nice touch and towards the end we hear a theremin-style synth that adds more flavour to the sonic texture. One of the strong aspects of this album is how the titles perfectly fit the music, or rather how the music paints and portrays the title in sound.

Third track Through The Trees And Into Wide Open Landscapes is a good example of this quality. Beginning with the meditative ambient style which characterized Supermoon Moonlight, it gradually evolves into epic electronica with interweaving rhythms and melodies working in perfect synchrony.

This one works as a showcase for his compositional and programming skills, and the overall effect is hypnotic. Towards the four minute mark the music seems to evaporate and morphs into an otherworldly, disconnected section that evokes the ‘wide open landscapes’ of the title.

Between The Orange and Purple Horizon starts with a beautiful harp-esque synth melody, joined by a swingbeat that wouldn’t sound out of place on a hip hop record. As the piece develops, it gradually becomes more serene and dreamlike with some truly magical electronic sounds. You can easily picture the horizon in your mind’s eye, conjuring images of being stood on a mountain top staring at the sky. A transcendent track and one of the album’s finest.

After two epic five minute pieces, the eighty second Treading Where Others Have Perished acts as a nice contrast, a sparse but potent track that maintains the elevated vibe from the previous one.

Sixth track As The Sun Rises Between Timberline And Mountain Crest is essentially the title track of the album and feels like its centrepiece. It consists of a delicate, haunting piano figure that perfectly captures the sense of quiet awe and wonder a person can feel in nature. Aside from the repeating piano melody, we hear equally subtle bass which just lets one note per bar ring, giving a ‘floating in mid air’ effect which is augmented by sparse but powerful string synths.

On A Desolate Shore Under A Full Moon stands out from the pack with its angular, highly intricate funk beat and pizzicato strings that work as the main melody. The second section contains a multiplicity of melodies and percussive elements which acts as a counterpoint to the relative sparseness of the main section. I loved the use of a glockenspiel-type sound which gave it a magical feel, again apposite considering the title.

Track eight, Farewell Sudden Summer Storm Clouds has a tranquil quality, sort of what you might describe as the calm after the storm. There’s a slightly exotic, Eastern aspect to some of the themes and once again shows his talent for handling complex melodies and textures. When the soft beat breaks down at the end it allows the music’s subtleties to breathe and it finishes on a mystical high.

When Forest Leaves Begin To Change is about summer turning into autumn, an ambitious concept to try and capture in sound. But, indeed, the plaintive melodies do have a distinct autumnal vibe and you can feel yourself drifting away in its intoxicating and mesmeric sound world. Again, the music gradually builds in a clever, organic fashion and really blossoms at the end.

It leads to the album’s final track It’s Quietest At The Edge Of The Crestline which brings us full circle in terms of the title and overall concept. It’s an unearthly, hymnal piece of ambient music that casts a potent spell with the translucent, natural beauty of its sound and mood. Again, it captures that sense of deep wonder that the greatest of nature’s vistas can evoke and makes a fitting conclusion to this musical journey.

Overall, this is a sonic odyssey that takes its artistic inspiration from a deep love of nature, like much art of the past, musical, visual and literary. However, by incorporating the genres of ambient, soul, funk and synthwave in a seamlessly integrated way, it resurrects this form of inspiration and brings it decidedly into the modern era. It will appeal not only to ambient fans, but electronica fans in general  and, in fact, music lovers right across the board. With a wealth of melodic and rhythmic detail that reveals itself on repeated listens, Timberline and Mountain Crest is a journey you will want to take again and again.

VERDICT: 9 out of 10 

Alex Faulkner

 

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E.P. REVIEW: rEVOLVED by HADDOCK

rEVOLVED_Cover_15kbhttp://www.haddockmusic.com/

HADDOCK is the alter ego of studio and live drummer JonoMagro. Formed officially in 2013, the gestation period for this music has actually been ten years. After trying to find a replacement for the monotony of a metronome, he found that juxtaposing real live drumming with the precision of electronic instrumentation and sounds created a fascinating musical dichotomy.

As a seasoned drummer, he had immense experience behind the kit but had to modify it to fit the demands of his new project. That was the genesis for this five track E.P. rEVOLVED. The five instrumentals are a perfect balance between synthetic electronica and real, expressive drumming.

You can certainly recognize elements of his various influences. Among them, he lists Daft Punk, The Prodigy and film composers like Tyler Bates and Hans Zimmer. It all combines to create a unique style and sound that has the excitement and dynamism of dance with the brooding intensity of soundtrack music.

Opening track Kilgore is an excellent example of this, starting with pulsing low-end synths combining with dark high-end melodies to set an intense tone. Then the punchy,raw sounding drums enter with the impact of a breakbeat by The Prodigy, but this beat is constantly shifting under the listener’s feet in a 14/8 time signature.

This later becomes standard 4/4 and 2/4 later in the track and the way he constantly shifts the accents and syncopates the beat is superbly inventive. The synth riffs holds the music together, aided by some Daft Punk style vocoder effects towards the end of this arresting first track.

Second track Break is lighter in mood and features a repeated vocal sample throughout, which works as a good hook. The drumming on this one alternates between a standard four-to-the-floor dance beat to the highly intricate, almost tribal sounding tom-tom patterns of the middle section. Musically, it employs two synth melodies, both short and very catchy. You could really imagine this being played in a club and going down a storm, especially as the danceable beat stays constant throughout.

Detroit Slim, the third track, is a big change in sound as it features an electronic Daft Punk style 2/4 disco beat that most would assume is a drum machine (presumably played by triggering samples through his modified drum kit). This makes it pure electronica in the house/disco genre, with some funky synth riffs and more vocoder effects thrown into the mix. It’s another track perfect for the dancefloor, but very enjoyable to simply listen to.

Cave Thing again employs mostly electronic soundings drums but also incorporates the snare sound from the ‘real’ kit in parts. This track is my personal favourite on the E.P. as it seems the perfect encapsulation of the disparate musical elements involved. It features a superb hi-hat heavy dance beat (bringing to mind 90’s stadium house duo The KLF) which grabs you as soon as it enters. It has the brooding intensity of the first track with rising synth lines and insistent EDM-style snare fills that help maintain the tension.

The final track My Salvation continues in this style, though this time uses an almost hymnal synth melody over a deceptively fast house beat, and has a futuristic, soundtrack feel (think something like Blade Runner.) Its hectic BPM rate would make it a great track to finish a DJ set with and it makes a fitting finale to this E.P.

Intriguingly, right at the end, the original drum sound that we heard at on the first couple of tracks returns, bringing things full circle. Finally, the drums fade out leaving us in a sea of synth sounds…

Overall, this is a genuinely innovative and original piece of work that also manages to be accessible and commercial. It blended and balances elements of dance and rock, as well as human and synthetic very successfully, and every single track has a strong sonic identity which isn’t easy to achieve with instrumental music. With some very intriguing ideas for performing this live also, I think Haddock will become known as a pioneer in the electronica scene and look forward to hearing a whole album.

 

 

Alex Faulkner

Verdict: 8.8 out of 10