Category Archives: Reviews

Childish Gambino // Me and Your Mama

THIS JUST IN – Childish Gambino’s new single, ‘Me and Your Mama’, officially confirms that his album is gonna be boss as fuck.

The twinkly intro kicks into a series of layered loops dominated by a beautiful choral hook – ‘I’m in love when we are smoking that’, which Gambino finishes with soft melodic ‘la la la la la’s.

You’re halfway through the song and just starting to drift off to your new favourite lullaby beat when the whole thing explodes and suddenly you’re in the middle of a blues rock n’ roll break-down.

Gambino’s vocal style darts everywhere from classic rock screeches to smooth, high melodies to James Brown shouts. Sounds rush in and out – gospel vocals, synth lines, a creepy recurring laugh, an arsenal of effects. And just as suddenly as it blows up, it drops back down to a spacey, ‘Albatross’-esque outro.

Basically, this song is a fucking roller coaster and I can’t wait for the rest of the theme park to open.

 

Listen here:

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra, Mammal Hands and John Ellis at the RNCM

Last Saturday’s gig was a very different experience to the first time I saw Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra. Instead of standing a few feet away from the band in the intimate basement space of London’s Jazz Cafe, I was watching from a seat across a theatre in the prestigious Royal Northern College of Music. But any worries I might’ve had about being removed from the music soon disappeared. The gig was just as full of talent, passion and community as last time. You just got to sit down at this one.

The gig’s lineup echoed this sense of community. The supporting acts, Mammal Hands and John Ellis, are both signed to Gondwana Records, and Mammal Hand’s saxophonist, Jordan Smart, also plays in The Gondwana Orchestra. As well as the latter, Luke Flowers also drums for The Cinematic Orchestra, which John Ellis co- founded. After the gig, I mentioned this network of association to Jordan Smart and he referred to it as a family. It’s this sense of love and shared passion that makes music such a special and powerful thing – I always leave Matthew Halsall’s gigs with that in mind.

John Ellis was first of the family to perform, playing piano with a accompanying orchestra. After two gorgeous orchestral pieces from his upcoming solo debut, Seeds and Streams, I decided that this album cannot come fast enough. I’m still not over the fact that we only got two songs.

Next up was Mammal Hands. Over the last four years, the trio have won a strong and growing fan-base with their fiercely expressive nu-jazz – they carry this passion onto the stage, and then some. Jordan Smart, in particular, would often become so consumed by the music that he seemed unaware of anything else, which is such a wonderful thing to see in a musician. The band’s energy made them particularly good at creating tension. They’d build these incredible, atmospheric crescendos, get everyone on the edge of their seat, and then deliver with some crazy intense climax. Someone could be spilling their drink on you and you wouldn’t notice.

Matthew Halsall & Gondwana Orchestra slowed it down after Mammal Hands. Though they played a few of the same songs as at The Jazz Club, the performance style was altered to match the different concert setting – a more mellow, dreamy vibe for the seated audience. Josephine Oniyama was also present to lend her deep, sage vocals to songs like, ‘Only a Woman’, where she nails the difficult pitch changes, and ‘As I Walk’, a gorgeous, eastern influenced track. ‘Badder Weather’ also spotlighted Rachel Gladwin’s incredible skill with the harp – doubly impressive because she was playing with a broken leg. And yet she still hobbled all the way off-stage and on again for the encore charade. Now that’s dedication to the show.

The night ended with a piece that encapsulated the music and atmosphere of the gig for me. The pace, style and instrumentation varied, but never separated from one another. The shifts were fluid – like one great river that catches different lights and currents, but always stays connected.

 

Listen to the artists here:

Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra:

Mammal Hands:

John Ellis:

https://johnellismusic.bandcamp.com/track/unidentical-twins-2

Bon Iver // 22, A Million : the math behind the mind

If For Emma, Forever Ago and Bon Iver, Bon Iver conjure up the people and places of the memory, then 22, A Million conjures up the voices and landscapes of the mind.
As ever, Justin Vernon uses the music as a way to expresses the thoughts and feelings important to him at that time in his life. But it’s around here that similarities between the old music and the new album get pretty sparse. 22, A Million is an expression, not just for emotional release, but for inspection. The theme of calculation and codes is integral to the record. Every track name includes a numerical code and the album artwork is packed with symbols, both cultural and mathematical. Each song also has a lyric video which displays even more connections between words, sounds, numbers and images. Mathematical and emotional ideas are frequently combined in text and images – the video for ‘8 (circle)’ writes ‘you called +’ and ‘i came -’ and shows a bone dividing 8 and 9, and a diagram that fills with numbers and symbols to the sound of trumpets.

This mathematical expression of emotional, subjective ideas represents an attempt to make sense of the unpredictable and nonsensical human mind – to find ‘the math behind it’. The record’s constant merging of art, technology, math and poetry is also a symbol in itself of the clashing and merging of new and old within music-making. 22, A Million acknowledges itself as an example of this. Whilst it relies heavily on live instrumentation and maintains aspects of the romantic, acoustic style of earlier Bon Iver, the new record enthusiastically embraces the potential of the digital age.
One really interesting thing about 22, A Million is how it combines natural and artificial sounds to express emotional experience. The record uses a load of weird and wonderful tools and techniques in its attempt to express itself. One amazing tool used throughout the album is the ‘Messina’ – an instrument created by Justin and his engineer, Chris Messina, to fluctuate pitches in a number of different harmonies. The instrument is used in ‘____45_____’ to warp the saxophone which, paired with Justin’s overdubbed vocals, creates a gorgeous, trippy, introspective track. The Messina is given sole credit for ‘715 – CR∑∑KS’, which uses volume and pitch fluctuation to echo the similarly fluctuating emotions of a troubled mind. ‘M◊◊N WATER’ also uses digital effects to describe human experience – heavily manipulated samples build the calm, modest track into a discordant jumble of overlapping sounds that echo the conflicting, erratic behaviour of thoughts. This feeling of conflict is also created in a number of songs by overdubbed vocals singing different lyrics. If minds could sing, I imagine it’d sound a lot like this record.

Despite the intimate, referential nature of Justin’s lyrics, the album is by no means an expression of just his feelings. Its plethora of emotional, symbolic content not only offers the audience a glimpse into Justin’s mind, but the mind of every contributor, including their own. Like the album’s artist, Eric Carlson, says, ‘symbols in the context of music have a lot of power’ – ‘Justin assigned a specific meaning to the numbers and logic to their creation, but in the end, they are open containers to be filled with new meaning’. 22, A Million is not just one story – it’s a sprawling mass of creation and expression that invites you not only to listen but to think, create your own connections, and find the math in your own mind.

Moses Sumney // Lamentations : a voice that transcends worlds

Though Moses Sumney’s extraordinary voice and unique sound have earnt him a solid fan-base and a good deal of support in the music industry over the past few years, his modest number of releases has left him relatively out of the spotlight. But recent collabs with the likes of Thundercat, Solange and Cinematic Orchestra, the release of Lamentations, and his upcoming debut LP are rapidly pushing Sumney into the limelight.

Sumney writes that Lamentations is made up of songs that didn’t fit the tone of the upcoming album – but this is by no means an EP of rejects. On the contrary, it may be one of the most beautiful, imaginative releases of the year.

Sumney’s music has an immediately dissociative effect. It seizes the senses, replacing them with those of some far-off ethereal place. The EP’s instrumental intro, ‘Ascension’, actually feels like immersion – dark waters simmer around the listener while guitar notes glance off cavern walls and ghostly voices echo out from hidden depths. Over the record’s five tracks, Sumney shifts through avant-folk, downtempo, synth-pop and choral – ignoring genre barriers as he builds his vast, intricate dream-world.

For me, the pearl of the album is the final track. ‘Incantation’ is a Yiddish recitation of Jewish prayer: the first line of the Kedushah and a night-time protection prayer. The song is stripped down to bare the full, raw beauty of Sumney’s voice. Harp-like guitar flickers in like a candle after the first prayer and low choral vocals follow, perfuming the sound as his voice twirls, dances, and eventually soars beyond reach.

If this is just a taster of what’s to come, we should all be very, very excited about Moses Sumney.

Listen here:

Balance and Composure // The Light We Made : a playlist for angsty romantic daydreams

  • Sounds like: Title Fight, Tigers Jaw, Cheatahs
  • Recommended songs: ‘Midnight Zone’, ‘Afterparty’, ‘Postcard’

It is made clear from the offset that things have changed. The first track on Light We Made, ‘Midnight Zone’ opens with a fluctuating synth line, gently punctuated with guitar and drum hits until they break through into a sparkly, downtempo sound that leans more towards shoe-gaze than the rough, heavier style of earlier Balance And Composure. Jon Simmons’ usual grated shouts are replaced with high, dreamy vocals and there is a far more melodic focus. The shift in musical style is entwined with the lyrical theme of the album – that of change, growth and acceptance, particularly in regards to love and music.

‘Spinning’ and ‘Afterparty’ feel a little more like classic B&C, albeit their most mellow songs. The live instruments are subdued but more central, and Simmons’ vocals drop to his dragging, melancholic style, albeit with an added melodic buoyancy.

‘For A Walk’ tries something very different – its sexy, grungy electronic style starts off well and it has the potential to be really cool song, but it gets a little lost. The tension created by the muffled shouting is unfortunately dissipated when, instead of building, it’s pushed almost out of earshot by the synth. ‘Mediocre Love’ also falls a little short, bringing back the favoured sparkly guitar and soft, melodic vocals but failing to do anything very exciting with it.

It’s in the album’s single, ‘Postcard’, that the band really nails a confident and interesting new style. The recurring guitar riffs and vocal hooks create a moody, immersive vibe while the programmed drums give you something to grip and keep the song from feeling whiny or slow.

There is a lot less experimentation in the latter half of the album, and the sound lapses into a kind of subdued old B&C style. This can be forgiven and understood, however, when you think about where the band is right now. The group has just returned from a lengthy break and, having been away from music for a while, are unsure of where they stand with it.

It’s clear from this album that they want change, but it’s also clear that they’re not completely sure of how they want to change, and they’re worried about what fans might want. This album is a cautious, intriguing probe into something new. As with all experiments, there are hits and misses, breakthroughs and dead ends – but this new direction has a lot of potential. I look forward to watching the band refine and settle into their new dreamy, downbeat sound. Despite its downfalls, the album is currently my favourite playlist for angsty romantic daydreams.

Written for and published by http://www.headfirst4music.com/

Listen here:

Biffy Clyro // Ellipsis : hits and misses

  • Sounds like: Twin Atlantic, Band of Horses, Foo Fighters, Marmaduke Duke
  • Recommended songs: ‘On a Bang’, ‘Howl’, ‘Don’t, Won’t, Can’t’, ‘In the Name of the Weeman’

 

Like the first track on the album, whose intensifying intro builds anticipation for a disappointingly average track, Ellipsis is somewhat of an anti-climax. The interviews, teasers and discussion leading up to the new record promised something bold and exciting, and Ellipsisjust hasn’t delivered. Similarly, the energetic build-up and intro riff on ‘Wolves’ only makes it more disappointing when the song dwindles into bland melodies and predictable progression. Simon’s vocals and lyrics, not only on ‘Wolves’, but through much of the album, fall short of his usual wacky genius. The riff at around 3.13 is awesome – it’s just a shame that the song then returns again to the boring title chant to finish. The entire album hovers around this region of ‘OK’, with some parts rising above and others sinking below. Overall, Ellipsis falls far short of the passion, imagination and variation expected from a Biffy Clyro record.

Friends and Enemies, Animal Style, Herex and Flammable are all pretty forgettable – though not awful tracks by any means, each falls into the category of that predictable, catchy chart rock that sounds a lot like about 50 other tunes. On first listen, ‘Re-arrange’ could easily be dismissed as a similarly unoriginal pop-rock love ballad, yet there is a sincerity to it that somewhat cuts through its thick gloss. It also makes for undeniably smooth listening, perfect for a summer afternoon drive. ‘Medicine’ is another pleasant but unexceptional track. The bridge, with its soft vocals, darting synth and rising strings, provides a pretty and much needed detour from an otherwise predictable song progression.

Thankfully, the album does perk up near the end, with the exception of ‘People’ – a boring, clichéd acoustic. ‘Small Wishes’ is a fun, quirky track which nicely juxta-poses a jaunty country music style with sharp, challenging lyrics concerning Scottish independence. ‘Howl’, ‘Don’t, Won’t, Can’t’ and ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’, however, are the real saviours of the album. ‘Howl’ yanks you to your feet with its upbeat, melodic energy. Simon’s vocals suddenly regain their presence, swooping through sunny melodies that complement the song’s cheerful chord changes and peppy drums. When the disappointing ‘People’ threatens to kill interest again, ‘Don’t, Won’t Can’t’ strikes right back with an energetic reggae beat, punchy vocals and engaging, cryptic lyrics. The song ends with a wonderfully distinctive Biffy breakdown, leaving the listener longing for a head-bang. This wish is granted immediately by ‘In the Name of the Wee Man’, which sees a return of the aggressive, ragged guitar and famous vocal screeches that dominate Biffy’s earlier, heavier records.

Give Ellipsis a few listens. Accept that it’s not Biffy at their best and allow yourself to find the gems hidden amongst the filler – after a few plays, parts do start to shine out. That being said, you really shouldn’t have to work that hard to find something great in a Biffy record. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an awful album. For another rock band, it may well be a particularly good album – but not for Biffy. They say we are the harshest judgers of those we expect the most from, and it proves true in this case. I am loath to speak ill of one of my favourite bands, but I know that Biffy Clyro are capable of more than this album offers.

 

Written for and published by http://www.headfirst4music.com/

Listen here:

Spiritual Jazz Magic : Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra play Camden’s Jazz Cafe

It’s Monday July 11th in north-west London, and under the sultry shifting colours of Camden Town’s Jazz Café, Matthew Halsall, the Gondwana Orchestra and Dwight Trible weave spiritual jazz magic.

Halsall’s atmospheric compositions, rooted in the music of Pharoah Sanders and John and Alice Coltrane, blend the rich expressiveness of modal jazz with delicate Eastern influences. His intuitive employment of The Gondwana Orchestra’s harp, bass, drums, piano, saxophone, vocals and his own trumpet creates a gorgeously textured, emotive and distinctive sound – one that is rapidly propelling him to the top of the UK jazz scene.
The gig is kick-started with an eponymous track from the album, When The World Was One. The band, the music and the eyes of the audience are immediately energetic and gleeful. Crashing drums, hopping piano and a fantastic trumpet solo transports me to a smoky 20’s jazz café – an image helped by the stage fog that seems to rise from the musicians’ fast moving hands, catching the coloured strobes as it climbs. Experiencing this group live is something I cannot recommend enough – the harmonies saturate the air so heavily, you can almost see it.

Halsall’s intelligent arrangements draw out the most from the orchestra and the effect is even better/more pronounced live. Lulls and solos give each instrument space and focus, while grand crescendos demonstrate their powerful harmonic potential. The band maintains this balance throughout the performance, constantly building and releasing tension to allow every muscle of the orchestra to be flexed and flaunted. Regardless of pace, complexity or number of active instruments, every sound weaves flawlessly into each other. It’s great to watch a group of musicians who are so (warning: pun) in tune.

After a few songs, Dwight Trible enters the stage. Halsall is a big fan of the seasoned jazz vocalist, and the two haven’t played together since they met at last year’s Joy of Jazz festival in South Africa – the excitement is infectious/spreads through the crowd. It’s inspiring to see a group of people who are so proud and excited to be making and sharing music – there’s never a moment where one or more performers aren’t grinning with delight. After a quiet and unassuming entrance, the music starts, Trible opens his mouth and the whole crowd is knocked off its feet. The immense power and passion of his voice rains down upon us as he performs John Coltrane’s ‘Wise One’ and his own song, ‘John Coltrane’. Trible’s vocal range and control is staggering. Using a variety of techniques, he guides his voice from soulful thunder into wavering hush and up to ethereal heights. As his second song finishes, there’s an awed silence. Halsall laughs and suggests a 10 minute break for everyone to ‘recover’.
The audience is welcomed back with promises of more ‘spiritual jazz nuggets’. As promised, every song is a piece of musical gold, each with its own distinctive style and focal point. Trible returns to the stage for the last few songs: a soaring, soulful rendition of ‘The Creator Has A Masterplan’, ‘I’ve Known Rivers’, an enchanting lament from Trible’s Cosmic record, and the passionate ‘You’ve Gotta Have Freedom’. The inevitably demanded encore, Trible’s enchanting ‘Celestial Blues’, breathes the last magic of the night over the audience. As the lights come on and the crowd reluctantly begins to disperse, I feel the spell quietly breaking and wonder if the Gondwana Orchestra are touring again soon.

 

N.b. This review is from earlier in the summer – I will be posting a couple of articles I finished before the website went up.