CLINT SLATE – Album Review: “Dragons”

Clint Slate is the music project of French singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gregg Michel. Based in Paris, the versatile musician has been involved in numerous projects over the years, and wanting to further explore and experiment with his art, Michel created Clint Slate in 2015. The moniker is a variation of ‘clean slate’. That same year, he released his debut solo album Before the Dark, a beguiling work featuring 12 tracks he described as “a trip between sonic landscapes and electro-organic sounds, a travel in my mind, a snapshot of life between light and darkness.” The album was an exploration of his feelings of grief and loss after the death of his father. He followed up in 2017 with his exquisite second album Woodn Bones, which he premiered in a live performance on the internet with a full band plus choir in a theatre. It was an album recorded live and in a single take.

At the start of 2020, Clint was preparing to release his third album, a progressive concept work titled The Last Man, but then the Covid-19 pandemic swept across Europe, resulting in a lockdown in France and many countries. He decided to postpone the album’s release until the time comes that he can give it a proper release in front of an audience. He had also been involved with several collaborative projects, including becoming a metal singer for the former drummer of Skakin’ Street, a crooner for Alexandre Azaria’s soundtracks, Bono for a U2 Tribute, and a rock’n’roll clown for the musical stage troupe Les Franglaises.

The coronavirus brought all these activities to a halt, which then led him to conceive of a new project based on the idea of a ‘cadavre exquis musical’ (or ‘exquisite musical corpse’), and that could be created virtually and remotely. Enlisting the help of two other musicians, bassist Francesco Arzani and drummer Louison Collet, Clint set to work on an album entitled Dragons, which dropped today, January 4th. He wrote the music and lyrics, sang vocals and played acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, stylophone and percussion. He also produced, mixed and mastered the album. Louison also played glockenspiel on “Dark is Wire” and Clint played bass on “Obstacles”.

Dragons was inspired by Clint’s love of David Bowie’s album Earthling, which he explains “allows itself to digest Drum&Bass, Jungle and electro and to spit them out totally transfigured in a unique result. It’s thanks to this album that I realise the importance of breaking genres and codes, like listening to Mike Garson’s jazz out piano parts on the volcanic electro/rock “Dead Man Walking” or Reeves Gabrels’ string after string guitar solo with alien like sounds on “Looking For Satellites”. It also allowed me to discover William Burroughs and the Beat Generation, Bowie explaining that he applied the cut-up principle to several songs. But what is cut-up? It’s a process created by the surrealists where words written in the course of thought or newspaper clippings were mixed in a bowl and randomly drawn to create new phrases. It is a way to shake up inspiration, to renew oneself, to explore the unconscious and to play with meaning or nonsense.” Clint told me Dragons is a kind of love letter to artists and explorators he admires.

Work on Dragons took place between May and July 2020. Clint would compose the music, working as quickly as possible to keep from overthinking while he recorded melodies, riffs or suites of chords. He then sent them to Louison and Francesco without giving them any more information than an audio clip, chords and a BPM, which allowed them to add their own touches without knowing what the other did. The rules were simple: Be spontaneous and think as little as possible, record yourself three times maximum and get out of your playing habits. Once he received their tracks, Clint added them to the guitar parts and then distorted everything until the original idea had been transfigured or even supplanted by the new sounds. Each track was given a random name, which was then entered into a word generator to find the lyrics, flirting with nonsense, abstract and surrealism.

The result is a totally unique, fascinating and eclectic collection of songs that (in Clint’s words, as I couldn’t possibly say it better myself) “winds between styles, genres and atmospheres to propose a new journey through the unconscious and surf on the wave of the moment. The nine songs of the album are as many monsters and chimeras to discover and tame.” The album opens with “Sunset, Nova and Earth“, an interesting track that starts off with Clint rapping over an almost dubstep beat, accompanied by clicking sounds, then settles into a languid folk rock vibe with bluesy guitars. As promised, the lyrics are abstract and surreal: “You noisy capture birds to get the galaxies, the warm aurora of unseen specific lights. Recognize in us storytellers. Raw change might help sunset, Nova and Earth.”

David Bowie’s influence can be heard on “Reconciliation TV (The Love Tides)“, which to my ears also has a strong Pink Floyd vibe, thanks to its sweeping organ riff and colorful mix of jangly and distorted guitars, followed by relatively calm, introspective interludes. Clint’s knack for sounding like Bono is evident on the hauntingly beautiful “Ghost America“, a song that seems to allude to an America now past its glory “The rise of the greatest worldwide team. Theft beyond trading. The ghost of America, America.” “Dead Noise” has a somewhat cinematic feel as it builds to a dramatic crescendo, while the brooding “Dark is Wire” seems to channel Radiohead. With its combination of delicate synths, strummed guitars and Glockenspiel layered over Francesco’s moody bass line, the captivating song is one of my favorites on the album. And once again, the lyrics are obscure: “Nothing to die / dark is wire / shortcuts useless / a crisp stark pink interface.”

The Sixth Trip Plan” is a melodic and upbeat track based on a twenty seconds long riff on two very simple chords that Clint developed, and enhanced by a bass riff created by Francesco. I really like this video showing each of them performing independently, but sounding fantastic together. The lyrics are rather non-sensical, but make for a fun listen: “Fresh self-respect / Carbon exchange / Join the flowers of a hundred dictionaries / Double bread crown for twin Spanish horses / Challenge the last dance call that’s the sixth trip plan.”

The darkly beautiful “Obstacles” is another favorite, with stunning guitar work that Clint states was recorded in a single take shortly after he composed it. He adds that the song “mourns a world that has become as cold as steel“, as expressed in the lyrics “A wireless force / Dangerous events holding the web, focused / You offer everything / Stealth warranty / Candidates multiply instantly.” Though the lyrics are rather foreboding, his vocals are warmly comforting.

On the futuristic “Systems and Batteries“, Clint uses wobbly industrial synths, throbbing reverb and a skittering beat to create a harsh, yet dreamy otherworldly soundscape for his droning vocals, augmented by electronically-altered vocals speaking the lines “Imperial common unit / Imperial views / Theoretical tools and technology measure something here.” The final track “Smash” is an exhilarating guitar-driven progressive rock song that ends with the album title as the last word: “Update the leaders, compatible with riders / Commit together, contact the dragon.”

Dragons is an unusual but sonically satisfying album that I found immensely enjoyable. I applaud Clint for his imaginative approach in the creation of this unique work, proving that – even in isolation – musicians are capable of producing some really innovative and compelling work. If you like music that ventures outside the norms in terms of melodic structure, lyrics and sound design, you will enjoy this album.

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