E.P. REVIEW: Good To Be Back by James Hargreaves

James Hargreaves is a British singer and songwriter as well as a multi-instrumentalist, hailing from Richmondshire, Yorkshire. Primarily, his career has been in guitar tuition in the UK, Europe and the USA. However, his passion for guitar music, particular the 90’s Britpop style, has led to him founding Hargreaves Records in April, 2021.

Having also built up a successful YouTube channel, Hargreaves set himself the goal of bringing guitar music back into the charts. His fans supported a crowdfunding campaign to get this EP, Good To Be Back, mastered at the legendary Abbey Road Studios by Frank Arkwright (Oasis, Blur, Joy Division, The Smiths and many more). The EP has already become a success and achieved Hargreaves’ aim of breaking into the charts.

The EP consists of four tracks, bursting out of the speakers with the brilliantly titled opener Kremlin Backed Twitter Posting Troll Farm. You can hear an array of Britpop influences in the sound, in particular the lead guitar style of John Squire (Stone Roses, Seahorses). James’ heartfelt vocal style has hints of Ian Brown and Liam Gallagher but also Chris Helme of The Seahorses and Danny McNamara from Embrace.

The song itself is a lively explosion of blues rock based around an infectious, revolving lead guitar riff and has the euphoric, anthemic nature that we associate with the best Britpop music. Particularly impressive is the concise guitar solo that rivals any of the Squire solos on Second Coming by The Stone Roses, for example. A highly entertaining way to start the EP.

Sometime Tomorrow is a nice contrast, an epic six-minute acoustic ballad full of tumbling toms and a strong vocal performance from Hargreaves. The lilting vocal melody on the verse works well before the song explodes into a memorable chorus that mind me think of a band like Inspiral Carpets and songs like This Is How It Feels. They were a big influence on the young Noel Gallagher and very much a precursor to the glories of the Britpop era. Produced to perfection with some soaring strings towards the end, this track showcases Hargreaves’ finely honed songwriting craft and authentic, earthy lead vocals.

Designated Driver (High As A Kite) is a return to the exuberance of the first song, a super catchy and rather amusing tale of a wild night out. After a verse that manages to sound like every Britpop band rolled into one, the music polevaults into a classic skyscraper of a chorus with an All The Young Dudes-style refrain that anyone who has ever enjoyed a drunken night can relate to: “They were all high as a kite, I stood there watching a big girly fight...”.

The down to earth, social observation lyrical style of the verses show more of a post-Britpop Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) influence rather than the inspired gobbledygook of Oasis, but there’s no doubt that Hargreaves shares Noel Gallagher‘s gift for writing killer singalong choruses. This seems the obvious choice as a lead single from the EP, a really excellent song that makes you realise what the charts are missing at the moment.

The closing track, Sitting On The Rooftop, is more reminiscent of the bittersweet, melancholy ballads that gave Oasis their emotional depth. Indeed, Hargreaves has stated on record that this song was inspired by Noel Gallagher‘s more reflective and sensitive moments. In fact, it was even written while Hargreaves was a teenager and Britpop was at its height.

The softly strummed acoustic guitar sets the backdrop for a lyric that captures the world weariness and longing for escape from a small town that characterised Oasis songs like Half A World Away and Rockin’ Chair. Featuring another mellifluous, finely crafted guitar solo, it rounds off Good To Be Back nicely.

Overall, this EP is an inspiring and much needed shot in the arm for British guitar music. Using his extensive musical experience and drawing particularly on the Britpop golden age for inspiration, James Hargreaves has proven that the public still want to hear quality guitar music or simply “indie”, as it was known back in the day. Full of belting choruses and relatable lyrics, Good To Be Back could well be the necessary catalyst that inspires kids on council estates to pick up guitars and get indie music front and centre again, where it belongs.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: The First Crusade by Draconian Remains

Draconian Remains are a modern metal band hailing from Balingen in Germany. They formed in 2012 and the fixed line up since 2017 has been Alexander Thalmaier on lead vocals, Marcel Willkommen on bass, David Wolfer and Manuel Rothmund on guitar and Benni Drumbledore Antolovic behind the kit. They draw their main inspiration from 80’s metal groups like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, which they have combined with modern rock influences like The Killers to create their own style and sound. They produced their first release, The Start Of A Journey, and this LP, The First Crusade is also an in-house production. 
 
The album consists of ten tracks and gets off to a blazing start with the incendiary Bloody Mary. After an intro in 3/4 and 6/8, the song breaks out into a formidable wall of sheet lightning guitars and driving drums, providing the perfect bedrock for Alexander Thalmaier’s impressive lead vocals. You can hear a myriad of 80’s metal influences on this track that are distilled into a sonic alchemy, centred around the ultra catchy title hook. 
 
Hangman opens with an ominous ascending melody that builds the tension nicely for the onslaught of solar plexis-hitting electric guitars and piledriving drums. This is a fascinating track in the way it seems to encompass so many eras of rock and metal into an eclectic whole and the lyrics have a suitably macabre tone that fits the music perfectly: “In the corner of my eye, I can see the creeping shadows….”. 
 
In God’s Name starts out with a spectacular cyclone of tom-tom rolls before breaking into a heavy low-end riff that rivals the great riffs of their metal musical heroes. It’s also the first track where we get to hear the band’s superb lead guitar skills, with both a thrilling, visceral solo midway and then some excellent Avenged Sevenfold-style guitar and bass harmonies when the track breaks into a 6/8 rhythm. It then seamlessly flips back to straight 4/4 speed metal, ending in a blaze of guitar fireworks. One of the album’s finest tracks. 
 
Kingsfall shows the melodic strength of their music, alternating between minor key arpeggios and crunchy chords. The lyrics are full of entertaining braggadocio: “My army will rise and there’s nowhere to run”. The super catchy chorus refrain captures the band’s knack for writing killer hooks, which sets them apart from bands who rely purely on guitar riffage. There’s certainly plenty of enjoyable riffage and more impressive duel guitar harmonies. 
 
Paladin grips you from the very first seconds with a razor-sharp riff and pounding beat from Drumbledore Antolovic. It’s another fine example of the band’s mastery and control of rhythmic dynamics which continually propel the music forward. Alexander Thalmaier delivers a great Bruce Dickinson-esque lead vocal at the top of his considerable range. The excellent solo brought to mind the Deep Purple classic Highway from the Made In Japan album. 
 
Sixth track Purgatory shows their more gentle side on the melodic verses, akin to Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. It then bursts into an epic chorus which leads into a skyscraper of a guitar solo the second time around. It’s further confirmation of the band’s songwriting prowess and natural gift for melody. 
 
The Hunt is an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a track, a rapid fire riff backed by virtuoso drumming full of whirlwind fills. This is broken up by effective sections more open and sparse before switching back to the juggernaut riff. Another finely constructed guitar solo is the icing on the cake on another excellent track. 
 
Eighth track The Voice stands out for a particularly strong vocal from Thalmaier, who delivers an almost operatic David Coverdale-style performance. It captures the group at their most emotive, with some fine double-kick work adding to the musical finesse. 
 
Unbound is perhaps the heaviest track on the album with dark, dissonant chords and menacing lead vocals creating a brooding, intense soundscape. At the midway point Marcel Willkommen’s excellent, wiry bassline is joined in tandem by the guitars and it proceeds towards a thrilling finish. 
 
This leads onto another brilliant Willkommen bassline which opens the album’s closing track, When He Awakes. The 12/8 time signature full of triplet rhythms has an arresting quality, reminiscent of Megadeth at their finest. The lyrics are as suitably ominous and sinister as the music: “It will be a living hell when he awakes….he’s watching you through a hundred eyes, the end of all humanity”. It’s an apocalyptic message fitting for the times and a fantastic track to close on. 
 
Overall, this is a superb modern metal album that incorporates the classic elements of old school metal and combines it with strong songwriting and virtuoso musicianship. Every band member contributes to the synergistic whole and every track stands up on its own merits. The First Crusade deserves to be acknowledged as one of the finest metal albums of recent years. 

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

ALBUM REVIEW: Versa Vice by Sophisto

Sophisto are an alternative rock/dreampop group based in Liverpool, England. They formed back in 2016, featuring singer/songwriter Kahl McCann on vocals and guitar (also a member of the successful dreampop duo Lights That Change). Sophisto released their debut, a live band album, Pseudo Psychics, in 2016. They also released a piano version of album track Character Assassination and a separate single release, I Take The Blame, in 2018. Sophisto have now returned to create this album, Versa Vice.

The album consists of ten tracks and the opening Imagine Stars immediately evokes a powerful mood, a haunting intro of acoustic guitar and florid piano bringing to mind Radiohead’s Karma Police. Kahl McCann’s understated but very effective vocals enter and the song builds into a gentle epic that also recalls early Coldplay when they were still “indie”. The chorus has a real melodic grandeur and, combined with the classical Bridge Over Troubled Water-style piano towards the end, creates a fantastic soundscape.

We Dreamed Of Life is more sparse, strummed acoustic and a simple, mesmeric beat evoking a melancholy mood akin to Nirvana’s Something In The Way. The recurring , drifting vocal melody has the dreamy, hypnotic effect you associate with the finest shoegaze and dreampop music, the refreshing opposite to mainstream pop that tends to bombard the listener with repetitive refrains. One of the album’s epics at nearly five minutes, though it doesn’t seem that long.

Out The Light Again is more upbeat whilst maintaining the album’s vibe, built around a strong guitar progression that brought to mind Sonic Youth circa Daydream Nation. McCann delivers a moody, low end vocal with lyrics that swerve effortlessly between the yin and the yang, captured by the title hook: “To keep the darkness out the light again….”.

So Calm is perhaps the most dreamy track on the album, McCann delivering a blissed out, almost horizontal lead vocal over lilting acoustic guitar and a waltz-like 6/8 beat. The title hook instantly latches in your mind and makes you feel like you should be listening to it lying under the stars to be fully transported. One of the album’s real highlights for me.

Dreaming Is Real (Part 2) brings back the duel acoustic guitar and piano style of the opening track and is another gorgeous piece of melancholy, full of beautiful melodies both vocally and instrumentally. Fifth track Incessant Karma is another five minute gentle epic with an almost ethereal vocal and a suitably enigmatic chorus: “Across the ocean baby, incessant karma, across the ocean maybe, incessant karma…”

Sentences is another track in 6/8 time, a brooding acoustic strummer reminiscent of the dark balladry of the late, great Elliott Smith. The superb Good Things Will Rest starts out sounding like Under The Bridge by the Chili Peppers before developing into an angular, haunting song that blends the sweet melodies of dreampop with a darker musical undercurrent to great effect. There’s a resigned despair to lines like, “He was searching for something on the other side of the world, he was searching, searching….” which seems to capture the mood of the whole album.

Ninth track Cloud Thinking is a return to the lush acoustic and piano style, which perfectly mirrors the bittersweet melancholy of the lyrics. The main hook, “thinking is so cruel”, has the ring of a sad truth whilst still managing to be somehow consoling and uplifting, a neat trick.

The album concludes with the excellent title track. It’s a beautifully written and performed piece of minor key desolation with strummed acoustic and piano conjuring a soundscape like waves lapping on the seashore. Kahl McCann’s almost ghostly vocal exudes deep feeling and emotional longing, having a moving effect on the sensitive listener. It’s a befitting finale with some fine lead acoustic guitar towards the end adding another layer of sophistication.

Overall, this is a very accomplished and impressive dreampop album that encapsulates how effective a traditional songwriting approach can be when combined with alternative and avant grade elements. Kahl McCann is a natural born songwriter and has created a very enjoyable musical journey which proves Liverpool continues to produce an endless stream of artistic talent. Let’s hope Versa Vice gets the wide audience it deserves and doesn’t become merely a hidden treasure.

VERDICT = 9 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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E.P. REVIEW: Elevate by Era’ Nay

Era’ Nay is an R&B/soul singer and songwriter hailing from Louisville, KY. Her parents were both preachers and so she was exposed to music at an early age, starting to sing at age 4. She went on to play several musical instruments in her school marching band, but her life really changed when she decided to put her preaching career on hold and began working with the Carter Music Group, aged 21. With producer Darrin Lee Jr she has now written, produced and released several singles, two of which appear on this EP, Elevate.

The EP consists of six tracks, opening with the sultry, sensual and soulful R&B song Waiting For. Over a simple but effective groove and warm electric piano, the quality and power of Era’ Nay’s voice becomes immediately apparent and the focal point of the track. She regards her vocal style similar to powerhouse singers of the past such as Toni Braxton and Patti LaBelle and I would certainly say she belongs in that category of talent.
The song itself is seductive and sexy, Era singing from the perspective of an impatient lover waiting to be satisfied: “All this time you’re wasting, all this procrastination, got my mind blazing, send my heart racing….”. With its mesmeric title hook and killer lead vocal, it’s a very fine start to the EP.

In My Feelings (feat. T Real and Darrin Lee Jr.) is another classy piece of R&B, this one with a jazzy chord progression played on a smoky sounding Rhodes. Lyrically, it is more barbed and even x-rated in places, Era’ Nay expressing her ire towards a cheating lover: “I bet you’re with that bitch, I know she’s talking shit…”. Aside from another fine vocal performance, she delivers a succinct rap towards the end which adds a little extra flavour.

Third track Lesson is a catchy, upbeat R&B track with a toe-tapping beat and a funky bassline. The song is about learning life’s lessons around love and romance (“Why does every one night stand have to become your man?”). The “hurts so bad” refrain sticks in the mind and becomes almost the main hook, and the infectious sound of the whole track makes it a potential single.

Stay slows down the pace again and here Era’ Nay gives perhaps her most expressive and passionate vocal performance, showing her power and range. The song is about feeling emotional turmoil over a relationship where love isn’t enough and finds Era’ Nay wondering whether it’s better for them to go their separate ways. As with the other tracks, she sings about what many have experienced and can relate to, the most important strength of any songwriter.

Fifth track Chances has already been released as a single and it’s easy to see why. An understated but very classy R&B track, Era’ Nay gives a nuanced vocal performance which is both emotive and restrained. The track allows her to perform some Beyoncé-style vocal gymnastics whilst the simple but very effective title hook quickly lodges in the memory.

The final track on the EP, Farewell, has also been released as a single. It’s a very moving tribute to Era’s father who sadly passed away and the lyrics reflect the grief that everyone feels who has lost a loved one. The stripped back approach allows Era’Nay’s poignant words to truly hit home and this song shows the emotional range and depth of her songwriting to great effect.

Overall, this is a consistently excellent EP from a very gifted singer and songwriter. With an honest and relatable lyrical style combined with strong hooks and slick modern production, Era’ Nay has everything it takes to reach the top. This EP could well be the stepping stone she needs to get there.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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ALBUM REVIEW: Incandescent by Lights That Change

Lights That Change are an alternative shoegaze/dreampop group, the musical brainchild of producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Marc Joy. After a long career in numerous bands, Marc formed LTC and they emerged with their first material in 2013, the E.P. Rainbow On Your Shoulder. In 2016, they released their highly acclaimed debut album Byzantium and have since gone through various line up changes, culminating in the present group featuring Kahl McCann, who co-writes the material and provides lead vocals.

This latest album, Incandescent, consists of ten tracks (with a special bonus track, Sad Reality). The album opens in a mesmeric swirl of atmospherics that sets the film noir-esque feel that pervades the rest of the songs, a mood that perfectly melds melancholy and transcendence to forge a musical alchemy.

Naughty Sleepy soon develops into a gorgeous wall of sound; Stephen Morris-esque (Joy Division circular Tom patterns and icy, Low-era Bowie synths combine with Karl McKann’s serene, echo-drenched lead vocals. The sonic landscape is completed by Marc Joy’s shimmering guitar lines and simple but effective bass, the result being a compelling, otherworldly listening experience and a very fine opening track.

Never is even better, encapsulating the group’s ability to lurch from an almost gothic eerieness on the intro (The Cure are an acknowledged seminal influence) to the skyscraping, euphoric guitar line that opens the song. This is also the most fully realized development of their signature sound, the dreamy shoegaze and guitar-driven undercurrents of My Bloody Valentine merged with the languid cool of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and The House Of Love. With it’s hypnotic chorus and abundance of killer melodies, this must rank as one of LTC’s finest moments.

Resolution is then the perfect contrast, a brooding and intense track that finds McCann’s voice surrounded by a swirl of phasing synths with pulsing bass and desolate sounding percussion. The resulting soundscape brought to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal and the lyrics show a similar self-negation: “I’m in denial, I’m in denial…”. But the title hook offers hope of redemption.

Next comes a reprise of Never, an interesting reimagining of the second track. This version is both more psychedelic and more vocally focused, the killer chorus more lyrically audible: “We count to forever and ever and never….”. Both versions of this song are excellent, showing different sides to the group.

Fall Apart is another sonically powerful track, conjuring an ethereal, otherworldly soundscape that feels like the musical equivalent of a David Lynch film. The insistent low-end synth triplets gives the music a compelling restlessness, counterpointed by a particularly dreamy and mesmerising performance from Kahl McCann.

Mountains In The Sky maintains the enigmatic quality that unites every track on the album whilst displaying another facet to their sound, this time exploring the acid-drenched sonic territory of bands like Wirral psychedelic rock group, The Vryll Society. The circular guitar lines and brooding bass work in tandem with another killer lead vocal from McCann, and writer/producer Marc Joy deserves special credit for the boundary pushing Martin Hannett-style production here.

Double Versions (album version) is a reimagining of a track that first appeared on 2020’s EP, Lost Echoes And Shadows. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s one of the album’s most immediate and catchy songs, the infectious title hook lodging in the memory on the first listen, displaying a Bernard Sumner-esque pop nous.

Desecrate returns us to the more turbulent and intense style that permeates the majority of the album and this track reveals itself to be a real hidden gem upon repeated listening. Starting out as a glorious melange of surging bass and rolling toms, as guitars and synths entwine, it breaks out into a stately chorus with an angelic vocal. This is contrasted by the unsettling low-end vocal doubling on the verse, encapsulating the band’s effortless gift for balancing the yin and the yang.

Just Yesterday maintains this vibe but takes us to more ethereal places, the musical equivalent of looking out at a sea of clouds from a plane window. What at first sounds sparse again reveals a wealth of detail and intricacy and works as the perfect bridge track to the album’s finale Tiny Machines Part 2.

Captivating from its introduction, this closing track seems to epitomise the brooding grandeur of the LTC sound, the vocal floating over ascending minor key guitar lines and a haze of low end synth. This dichotomy of uplifting melody with a dark and melancholy vibe gives the group its potency and power, summed up by the refrain, “There is a paradox…”.

Overall, Incandescent stands as the finest Lights That Change album to date. Seamlessly fusing a plethora of alternative and shoegaze influences and reimagining them in their own creative vision, this album sees them producing their most powerful work so far and deserves to be widely recognised as one of the best in its genre.

VERDICT = 9.1 out of 10

Alex Faulkner

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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

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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SINGLE REVIEW: Reconciliation by Rickard Nygren

Rickard Nygren is a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist based in the deep, Darlecarlian woods of Sweden. He studied jazz music at the Music Conservatory in Falun for three years and the same subject for two years at fridhemsfolkhogskola. He plays saxophone, guitar, piano and the Ewi (Electronic Wind Instrument) and performs all the instruments on his compositions, which he also self-produces. He regards Miles Davis as a seminal influence, especially the albums Kind of Blue and We Want Miles.

Reconciliation is a mid-tempo instrumental and his first music release. The intro immediately creates an atmospheric, evocative soundscape with a cascading, echo-drenched guitar line. A punchy, strident 2/4 beat kicks in along with pulsating, obstinato bass. This circular guitar melody has a mesmeric effect and sets the mood for the entry of the Ewi (electronic wind instrument) which gives Nygren’s music its unique signature sound.

After an initial swirl of lead melody, the music then breaks down to a sophisticated, jazzy section which evokes a meditative mood. It’s given musical colour through  delicate piano and shows the influence of Miles Davis, especially Kind of Blue.

The beat then returns and the Ewi melody really develops, spanning a large melodic range and showcasing the versatility of this instrument, as well as Nygren’s natural skills as a composer. The recurring five-note motif underpins the end section and even within its three minute duration, the music has an enchanting effect on the listener.

Overall, this is an impressive debut release from Richard Nygren, a very talented musician, composer and producer. Fusing his jazz influences with electronica, this combination finds its perfect expression in Nygren’s use of the Ewi, which forms a strong part of his unique and original style. This is perhaps the hardest thing for an artist to develop, but Richard Nygren has emerged fully formed as a composer and producer.

VERDICT = 8.8 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

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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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