As EclecticMusicLover, I enjoy listening to a broad range of music genres and styles. And while my tastes generally lean toward alternative rock, dream pop, folk rock, synth pop and R&B, I’m always open to expanding my musical horizons by venturing outside my comfort zone. With that in mind, I was intrigued when singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Leah Al-Uqdah reached out to me about her band The Red Locks and their debut album Arena Dream Trap. Blending together elements of trap, hip hop, arena rock and dream pop, they create their own distinctly unique sound they’ve labeled ‘Arena Dream Trap’.
Based in Chicago, The Red Locks are also a rather unusual band, comprised of the aforementioned Leah Al-Uqdah, her husband DJ Privileged (aka David M Pospiech), and their 14-year-old son, percussion savant David Henry Pospiech. DJ Privileged has also been part of Chicago band Virga Trollyp, while Leah has played with bands Off The Radar and Another Pretty Lush. Both DJ Privileged and Leah play guitar, bass and keyboards, while their son David plays drums and keyboards. With a vocal range and timbre somewhat reminiscent of Björk, Leah sings lead vocals, and DJ Privileged sings back-up.
About their album, Leah confided to me: “So many years and tears have gone into these songs. I really feel the world needs these songs, to share a bottled remedy to aid in a hurtful world. I can help others grow from my pain and pensive notes from my very private spiritual journey. We titled the album ‘Arena Dream Trap’, because it’s the sum of our parts.”
Well, let me say that the instant I pressed play and heard the opening track “Our Father“, I was taken aback by it’s trippy vibes and explicit lyrics. I was not expecting to hear “The Lord’s Prayer” and the words “You know,eating pussy cures cancer” together in the same song, but I get it. My guess is that the song is a statement on the nature of what constitutes as ‘sin’ in our rather hypocritical Judeo-Christian culture. To drive home their message, The Red Locks layer spooky ethereal synths over a throbbing trap bass groove as Leah talk-sings the lyrics in her breathy echoed vocals.
That deep, pulsating trap bass groove continues on the next track “$14R“, short for “$o Impractical For Real”, only this time overlain by DJ Privileged’s jarringly beautiful psychedelic guitar chords that hover in a sweet spot between distorted and jangly, accompanied by recurring hand claps. I have no clue as to the song’s meaning, but I really like those resonant guitars. The curiously titled “Helen Keller” is even trippier, with spacey synths, otherworldly male voices and a discordant melody. But the most notable aspect of the song are Leah’s amazing vocal gymnastics, which go from oddly seductive baby-like croons to reverb-soaked menacing wails.
“Overrated” is more melodic and upbeat than the previous tracks, with swirling, almost carnival-like synths and cheerful drumbeats, accompanied by Leah’s lilting vocals. I think it’s the prettiest song on the album. But “Spinning to Survive” has a harsher lo-fi sound, with grungy guitars and David’s assertive and marvelously intricate drumbeats. Leah’s colorful vocals sound almost like another instrument in themselves, adding to the song’s rich texture and enchanting vibe.
Perhaps the most unusual track on the album, both musically and lyrically, is “This Semester“. The song has a fairly simple trap beat, but features an exotic and complex blend of spacey instrumentals and sounds. I’m probably way off, but the explicit lyrics seem to address pregnancy and sex. Leah starts off with a series of la-la-las in a sing-song manner, then sings in a baby-like voice “I think I really fucked up this semester, ’cause I think I know what’s best for her. A new way of expressing her true temperature. For an even cure, believe in her ability to grow that seed in her, the need to know that she’s for sure I’m keeping her, close to my heart. Because it’s not about pain. We’ll make sure no one gets fucked, but like everyone came.” Later in the song, DJ Privilege gets even more explicit, speaking lyrics I won’t repeat here.
“I Don’t Recall” is tasty little psychedelic acid rock trip, while “It Takes Like” is an acid trip on steroids. The eerie industrial synths, discordant percussion, gnarly distorted guitars and Leah’s almost maniacal vocals create a deeply unsettling vibe. I didn’t think the songs could get any more strange, but “1000 Words” proved me wrong. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, as despite the very discordant triphop melody, skittering chirpy synths and Leah’s starkly contrasting blend of tortured and sing-song vocals, followed by DJ Privilege’s rapped verses, the song has a certain bizarre appeal. They close the album with “StrungAlong“, a fairly mellow and gauzy rock track, featuring grainy distorted guitars, restrained percussion and Leah’s quirky warbling vocals. The song ends with her saying “thank you”, in humble appreciation for our having listened to their album.
While Arena Dream Trap won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a unique and utterly fascinating work that deserves attention. I applaud The Red Locks’ strong originality, imagination and musicianship, and if you like quirky trap music that pushes the envelope, you will enjoy this record.
Tarraska started out as a mostly acoustic cover band, but within a few years the guys began writing their own songs, and incorporating more electric guitars and heavier bass into their dynamic blend of classic and modern hard rock. Influenced by some of their favorite acts like Myles Kennedy, Tremonti, John Mayer, Slash, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Whitesnake, Iron Maiden, Five Finger Death Punch, Alter Bridge and Foo Fighters, their music took on a harder rock edge, characterized by heavy riffs, hard-driving rhythms and aggressive vocals. Jack plays rhythm and acoustic guitar and sings vocals, Ben plays lead, rhythm and bass guitar.
The guys released their debut single “Trailblazer” in May 2020, and followed that December with “Renegade”, which I featured on a Fresh New Tracks post this past February. Now they’re back with their third single “Prose“, which dropped December 3rd. All three singles will be included on their forthcoming self-titled album, due out in early 2022. A beautiful rock ballad that’s a departure from their typical harder rock sound, “Prose” became a fan favorite after Tarraska played it in their live shows. In response to the song’s positive reception, including even frequent requests for its lyrics, the guys felt it was the obvious choice for their next single release. They decided to record “Prose” with their full rock sound, and the result is a magnificent, deeply moving track that I think is their best release to date.
Jack reflects on his inspiration for writing the song: “The lyrics for ‘Prose’ were written to honour the many, many influences, artistic and familial, that have helped shape both my lifelong love for my art and who I am as a person. Of course, for me personally the lyrics refer to music, story and poetry as these are the mediums I resonate most strongly with, though for others it may be dance, painting or any number of other pursuits. I therefore see ‘Prose’, as I hope others will too, as a love song not for any one person, but for the ideas and emotions that so many have been able to express only through their dedication to, and love for, their craft.”
The track was recorded and mixed at Absolute Studios in Bournemouth by Gareth Matthews of GMMix, and mastered by Grammy-winning Brad Blackwood at Euphonic Masters in Memphis, Tennessee. Fellow musician Allan Varnfield played drums on “Prose”, as well as many of the songs on their forthcoming album, and will hopefully be joining the guys for live shows in 2022. About the recording process, Ben elaborates: “We knew the arrangement of ‘Prose’ was going to command our utmost attention; it was a delicate balance between a waltz and a rock ballad. Through its metamorphosis in the studio, the song unfolds from its acoustic roots to a powerful, yet melodic, ballad that hopefully captures you within its numerous dynamic shifts.”
As Ben alluded, “Prose” starts off with a beautifully-strummed acoustic guitar, as Jack tenderly sings “The songs and the stories of childhood, made me who I am today. And if I could thank you then I would, for lighting the path that I take. Expression committed to page…” As the song progresses, more guitars, bass and percussion enter, flowing and ebbing with each chorus and verse, becoming more intense in the choruses when Jack passionately sings “Your numinous prose, the verse and the line. The depths of your mind, slowly composed for you at the time. But the meaning implied, spoke to my soul, and taught me to hope, to love and to hold.” It all builds to a dramatic crescendo in the final chorus, highlighted by Ben’s gorgeous guitar solo and Jack’s fervent vocals at their emotional peak, after which the song fades out in a trail of serene strummed guitar notes.
To learn more about Tarraska, check out their Website
I’ve commented more times than I can remember on this blog about the staggering amount of musical talent that continues to emanate from the United Kingdom. One of the many British acts I’ve been following for more than four years is the charismatic young rock band Wild Horse. Based in Heathfield, East Sussex, the talented trio consists of brothers Henry and Jack Baldwin, and their long-time friend Ed Barnes. Now in their early 20s, the guys are already seasoned musicians who’ve been writing and recording songs since forming in 2013 when they were barely teenagers. Both Henry and Jack are multi-instrumentalists who play guitar, bass and keyboards, as well as sing vocals, while Ed plays drums and percussion, sings backing vocals and plays guitar on a few tracks.
While presenting a fun, lighthearted image with their high-energy and eclectic punk-infused style of blues rock, the guys take their music very seriously. Their dedication and drive, fortified with thoughtful lyricism, ace musicianship and a mature approach towards the music business, have taken them far and brought them both critical acclaim and a loyal and growing fan base. The Baldwin brothers are also prolific songwriters who’ve penned hundreds of songs over the years, and now have five albums to their credit.
Their debut album It’s Begun, featuring songs recorded when their average age was only 14, was released in January 2016 by a New York-based record label they were signed with at the time. (Henry sang lead vocals on that album, where he sounded alarmingly like a young Mick Jagger.) Working independently since 2017, the guys subsequently released three EPs from late 2017 to early 2018, then followed that June with their second album Songs About Last Night. They’ve continued to drop a new album every year since then. In April 2019, they released their third album DANCE!! Like An Animal, which I reviewed, then followed up in July 2020 with their fourth album WE ARE IN AN IDENTITY CRISES…BUT WE LOVE IT, featuring 16 tracks. Now they’re back with their fifth album When The Pool Is Occupied, which dropped November 18th. Their most ambitious work yet, the album contains a whopping 18 tracks!
Before I get to my review, I want to include a few thoughts about the album the guys shared in an interview for Brighton and Hove webzine BN1. “The album name ‘When the Pool is Occupied’ is actually a metaphor for self-love. We realised that this was the theme of the album quite late into the making of it. When we started writing the album, we were not in the best place personally, with lockdown giving us anxieties about the future and the direction we were going in our lives. As we neared the end of making the album we were in a much better place, as the whole process actually taught us a lot about ourselves, and we decided to make it our most honest record. So the album has become a musical imprint of our journey to self-love and happiness, which we hope everyone who listens will be able to relate to!
This album is definitely more mellow and that is down to a few things. Firstly, we didn’t want to be perceived as just a rock band anymore, and wanted to push the boundaries as much as we possibly could. We wanted our first record back after covid to be one that would make people dance, hence the strong disco and 80’s influence. Also, we took a new approach to writing and creating music in not only taking the reins on production, but also because Jack (our main songwriter) taught himself piano over lockdown and began writing songs on [piano], which gave us a whole new feel. From there, synths became a much more integral part of our sound, and we became really obsessed with creating an atmosphere in our music. Our previous albums were all recorded quite quickly, whereas this one took us over a year. The main difference is that every single tiny note and lyric on this album had so much thought put into it, which is why we’re so proud of it.”
Well, let me say that Wild Horse has created a near-epic album running just over an hour in length, and featuring 18 wonderful tracks that span across genres from rousing post-punk bangers to angst-filled piano ballads to bouncy dance-pop gems. The songs explore issues related to growing up in the modern world, relationships, struggles with addiction and mental health, and the long journey towards self-acceptance and self-love.
Opening track “Happy Love Songs” is a short and bittersweet piano-driven tune that sets the tone for the album. In his quirky endearing vocals, Jack plaintively laments “Why are there never happy love songs anymore? It takes two to fall in love, but it only takes one to fall apart. And then there’s never.” The song immediately segues into “Freaky Together“, a catchy, lighthearted earworm celebrating the liberating freedom of a no-strings-attached approach to relationships and life (ah, the joys of youth). The guys layer jangly guitars and woozy synths over a delightfully funky bassline and thumping drumbeats to create a fun and sexy dance beat that aims straight for the hips. Jack croons “Baby, I know that you could never need me. But come on let’s get down and dirty. Oh yeah, Oh, give it to me.” The sweet video nicely showcases the guys’ youthful charm and charisma.
The guys keep the lively vibes going with the delectable “Pornstar Martini“, an irresistibly bouncy mashup of punk, disco and funk, then later slow things down with “Coffee In The Morning“, the first of several romantic piano ballads. Jack’s heartfelt vocals are raspy and vulnerable as he sings of his ardor and desire to a potential romantic partner: “I’m sitting in my dirty University room. Haven’t slept for days now. And I was hoping that you could come around and stay, for 17 days.” But once they’ve become a couple, cracks appear in their relationship, which are explored on the lovely but bittersweet “Feel“: “I wanna talk to you about last night. You know I hate it how we always fight. But if you saw the world through my eyes, then you would understand about the way I feel.” And on “Symphony of Broken Hearts“, Jack sings of the pain he’s feeling over a broken relationship: “You said forever, and then you couldn’t stay. You said forever, until you walked away. And now I’m lying on my own, feeling sorry for myself.“
One of my favorites on the album is “Anxiety“, a joyful, upbeat song about the emotional roller-coaster ride we willingly take when attraction for another hits us like a ton of bricks, rendering us helpless in the throes of passionate longing. I love the exuberant synths, funky dance grooves and the guys’ beautiful vocal harmonies. Jack’s plaintive vocals sing of emotions we’ve all felt at some point in our lives, fearful we’ll make a fool of ourselves: “Petrified by the things you say (petrified). I only met you yesterday (yesterday). But really I’m fine. I’m just going with the groove. Only been preparing for like 24 hours through.”
Another favorite is the ebullient and sexy “Pray 89“, in which the guys sing the praises of a seemingly more innocent time (although those of us who were already adults in 1989 know it really wasn’t) and the freedom of living a life where self-love without emotional attachments is prioritized, but with an appreciation of the beauty in other people. The lyrics include the album’s title: “You bring the fire and sexy eyes. I bring the smoke to stay alight. When we go party we’ll do it right, like we belong in ‘89.Dance on the table to New Order’s new song. And we’ll be feeling alright when the pool is occupied.”
The guys’ willingness to venture out of their musical comfort zone is exemplified by the bluesy hip hop track “Confidence“, on which Henry’s backing vocals are more prominent. On the poignant “Just About Enough”, they turn tinkling piano keys into a true percussive instrument as they combine them with assertive strummed guitar notes and pounding drumbeats to become a powerful driving force, before finishing things off with gorgeous bluesy guitars, accompanied by Jack’s fervent vocals. And on “OneNight Robbery“, Jack does a decent job rapping some of the verses letting a former girlfriend know he doesn’t appreciate how she used him and only wanted his money after all the nice things he did for her.
Hands down the most charming track on the album is “Record Collection“, a delightful pop-rock song with a retro 60s power pop vibe. The sweet lyrics speak of connecting with someone you meet on a night out and taking them home, not because you want to have sex with them, but because you like their taste in music and want to share your record collection with them: “I don’t wanna be your lover. I just wanna show you my record collection. I don’t wanna get under the covers. I just wanna know if you like Mott the Hoople. I don’t wanna touch your hand. Just tell me your favourite band. Oh, the only thing I’m turning on is the record player.” I love the jangly guitars on this song.
“Kelsie” is a shining example of how a kiss-off song can still sound sweet. “Kelsie, you’re much happier on Twitter. But you want me back on tinder. And I just laugh and smile ‘cause I’m finally over you. Have you noticed I don’t care what you do? When you tell me you’re getting drinks bought for you. Shit, me too.” The track has a mellow, head-bopping melody with subtle hip hop elements, making for a really pleasing tune. The guys close the album on a positive note with “Thank You (It’s Gonna Be Alright)“, a minute-long piece with a church-like organ riff accompanied by Jack’s echoed vocal repeating the words “It’s gonna be alright“, followed by “The pool is occupied.” As the music abruptly ends, he says “And that was the album, thank you very much. Woo!”
Woo indeed! What a fun, delightful and brilliant album this is! With WhenThe Pool is Occupied, Wild Horse pushed themselves into expanding their songwriting and sound in the hopes of making their most honest record yet, and I think they’ve succeeded quite nicely. It showcases their continued growth and maturity as songwriters and musicians, while their sense of humor and playfulness remains fully intact.
Barbara is the music project of Henry and John Tydeman, two charismatic brothers from Brighton and Hove, England. Bucking the current music trends of hip hop, dancepop, 80s revival, post punk and godawful bro-country, their sunny, uplifting sound is a charming and anachronistic blend of – in their own words – “a bit of 70s US AM radio, a dash of English music hall, the effortless catchiness of a Broadway musical, a sprinkling of sequined power pop, luscious Disney strings and glorious golden harmonies.” Listening to their songs, I’d say that’s a fitting description I cannot improve upon.
The guys released their wonderful debut single “BRB” this past January, then followed in May with “New Communications”, a lighthearted take on the pitfalls of social media. Both songs garnered support by BBC Introducing and Louder Than War, and this past summer, they had the pleasure of performing at the Isle of Wight Festival. Now they’re back with a breezy new single “Rainy Days in June“, which dropped November 26th. Lovingly produced by Tom Rees, vocalist and guitarist for Welsh band Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, the song is a delightful ode to the joys of being alone. John and Henry sang vocals, with keyboards played by Henry, guitar by Dean Llewelyn, bass by Jack Hodgood and drums by Lawrie Miller.
Barbara really do channel the 70s on “Rainy Days in June”, with a pleasing and catchy pop melody that reminds me of songs like John Sebastian’s “Welcome Back”. In fact, it would make a great theme song for a TV sitcom. The sunny keyboards, buoyant rhythms and colorful guitars create a joyful backdrop for John and Henry’s lilting harmonies. Their smooth vocals are sublime, perfectly capturing the carefree sense of contentment with quietly sitting alone at home with a good book, away from the craziness and noise of crowds. It’s a terrific song, and my personal favorite among their three singles.
People say I'm silly to be sitting on my own
They're going to a party, but I'd rather be at home
Rainy days in June, but I'm making the best of it
I'm a halfway through this hardback
And I long to get back to the rest of it
These rainy days
Rainy days in June, with nothing to worry me
And there's no one I need to see
And no where important to go
But god knows I remember there were hundreds of people
And so, I'm ashamed that I took to my heels and slipped away
In a nod to the throwback vibe of the song, the brothers used a great vintage photo from the 60s of their grandparents John and Pauline for their single cover art. And for the delightful video, they used footage taken from their holiday in France this past summer.
Since forming in 2016, Annapolis, Maryland hard rock band VEER have made a name for themselves in the mid-Atlantic region through their hard-hitting melodic rock and riveting live performances, earning awards and an expanding fan base along the way. Comprised of brothers Ronald (vocals & guitar) and Jon (drums) Malfi, Ryan Fowler (lead guitar), and Christian Mathis (bass), VEER hit their stride in 2018 with the release of their debut album Apocalyptic, Baby, which nabbed a spot on the Amazon Top 100 Rock Albums list. That same year, they won a Maryland Music Award for Best Rock Band, then went on to win Best Rock Song for their 2017 debut single, “Come Clean,” by the World Songwriting Awards.
Last December (of 2020) they released their single “Red Tide“, a dark, grunge-influenced song addressing the repetitive nature of people who continually make the same mistakes over and over (read my review here). Now they’re back with a terrific new single “Science“, which dropped on November 13th. Both songs will be included on their forthcoming second album Soft Machines, due for release in Spring 2022 if all goes according to plan. Engineered and co-produced by Steve Wright (Slipknot, SR-71, Future Islands), the song features VEER’s signature hard-edged, guitar-driven grooves and pummeling rhythms, but presented with greater sheen and a stellar arrangement.
The song starts off with distorted psychedelic guitar notes layered over an otherworldly backdrop of spacey undulating synths, setting a rather unsettling mood appropriate to the title. Around 45 seconds in, the song shifts gears as the music explodes into a dramatic barrage of gnarly riffs, throbbing bass and thunderous drums. Ronald plaintively sings with increasing emotional intensity as the song progresses: “Angelina says it wasn’t right for me to look up at the stars. Far above, the atmosphere is clear, we’re on our way to Mars. Well I find you inside out, kick it over, hear me shout, I’ll shout again. Well you find me upside down, you kick it over, hear me shout.” His vocals soar into a full-blown anthemic chorus as he implores “Science! Return my pride.” It’s a great song that’s easily one of their best.
About “Science”, Ronald says it’s “about fact versus fiction, hard science versus fantasy. Strangely enough, it was written prior to the pandemic, but listening to the lyrics now, it’s eerily prescient. A song about living with your head in the clouds now has a more cynical and poignant meaning.” The beautifully done, surreal video, which was created by band drummer Jon Malfi, has a futuristic, space themed feel, in keeping with the song’s subject matter. He states “It was important for the video to compliment the song, but also for it to stand alone visually, on its own merits. It’s telling its own story against the backdrop of our music.” I think it brings VEER’s lyrics to life perfectly, and more.
Novus Cantus is an innovative music act comprised of brothers Alexander (vocals and guitar) and Christian Herasimtschuk (drums and percussion). Based in the Hudson River Valley roughly halfway between Albany and New York City, the duo draw from a broad and eclectic mix of influences ranging from traditional ethnic music like flamenco and Hungarian folk, to classical Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, to alternative rock, to create their uniquely enchanting and exotic sound. They’ve been performing and recording together since 2010, and have released a fair amount of music. I’ve written about them three times over the past three and a half years, and you can find those reviews under “Related” at the bottom of this post.
On November 16th, they released their latest single “Georgia“, along with a darkly beautiful video that nicely captures the song’s brooding essence. The song was recorded and produced by Novus Cantus, with assistance from Scott Apicelli of Blue Sky Music Studios, who mixed and mastered the track. The video, which starts off with historical images and realistic sounds of battle, features footage made available by pexels.com, as well as Civil War images from the Library of Congress Image Archives. Live footage of Novus Cantus performing the song were taken by Alex and Christian, as well as A. Delgado.
Though the music consists primarily of Alex’s gorgeous strummed guitars and Christian’s layered percussion, accompanied here and there by spare synths, the haunting song has a lush fullness of sound. Alex’s guitar work is truly stunning, with a vibrant blend of acoustic and electric guitars. The strummed acoustic guitars lend a soothing Americana/folk vibe to the song, but when he plays those chiming electric guitar notes, the song takes on a richer, more cinematic feel, especially when combined with Christian’s dramatic percussion. Alex’s heartfelt vocals beautifully convey the feelings of loss and despair expressed in the lyrics, and when his backing harmonies are added to the mix, the song becomes even more impactful. It’s another stellar release by these amazing brothers, and I’m happy to choose it as my new song of the week.
About the song, Christian told Albany-based The Capital Underground podcast that “Georgia” deals with a character in the post Civil War era struggling to return to the only place he knew. Only it’s no longer really home, but rather a place of suffering and loss. In his heart, he’s conflicted, because it’s the only home he’s ever known.
Oh I'm going home to Georgia
Oh I'm going home to see That house of bondage in Georgia
That was the only home for me
Oh how I long for rest
This cross must rest upon my breast
But now I'm going back to Georgia
A war-torn refugee
Time's calling out in Georgia
The voices of my family
Winter has fallen and spring now has come
Let's go and see what Sherman has doneOh how I long for restThis dream is deep within my breast
That sweet wistful dream of Georgia
Is nothing but a dream for me
Where am I to go but Georgia
It was the only home for me
One of the most uniquely wonderful bands on the planet is Thunder Fox, a wickedly funny, intensely creative, and outrageously talented five-piece based in Sydney, Australia. Drawing on elements of funk, soul, jazz, blues rock, hip hop, reggae and pop, they skillfully channel the sexy funk of Prince, the soulful croons of 70s-era R&B artists like Al Green, Ronald Isley and Teddy Pendergrass, and the brassy exuberance of Earth, Wind & Fire into their delectable music stew. And while their sometimes bawdy lyrics and playful antics would seem to indicate a juvenile zaniness – not to mention the fact they could all still pass for teenagers – their music has a stylish, jazzy sophistication, thanks to their exceptional songwriting and musicianship, as well as having both a saxophone and trumpet player in their lineup. Finally, though they’re all straight men, they’re not afraid to be playful and affectionate with one another, as well as tear down gender barriers by sometimes showing a more feminine side. As a gay man, it makes me admire, love and respect them all the more.
Thunder Fox has been making and releasing music since 2015, but I first learned about them in 2019 when they reached out to me about their hilarious single “Been Busy”, one of the tracks on their wonderful debut full-length album Love at First Sniff. It was most definitely love at first sniff for me, and I loved the album so much I wrote a review about it. Over the past two years, they’ve experienced a few lineup changes, and now consist of the dangerously charismatic Sam Dawes (Lead Vocals/Guitar), Travers Keirle (Sax/Vocals/Rhymes), Jesse Tachibana (Trumpet/Vocals/Synths), Max Vallentine (Drums), and Casey Allan (Bass). They followed with several more singles, a few of which I also reviewed (that you can read by clicking on the ‘Related’ links at the end of this post). Now they’re back with a second album Sanctuary, which dropped November 18th, and it’s every bit as delightful as Love at First Sniff.
Sam has written a marvelous background piece about their inspiration and creative process behind the album, and rather than try to paraphrase, I thought I’d simply share his eloquent words verbatim:
“‘Sanctuary’ is our second full length album, which marks the dawning of a new era for Thunder Fox in many ways. After having a couple of members leave the band and experiencing a few other obvious set backs during 2020/21, we needed a second wind. As an artist it’s really easy to lose motivation and focus when faced with challenges that draw you away from your art such as band member turnaround and, say, a global pandemic. As such, I think we all really felt the need to pick up where we’d left off somehow and find some momentum by creating again. With the addition of Casey the Bass Ace to the crew, it was a great chance to dig into some new and improved sounds and try to reshape our art in a way we had yet to explore.
We had the idea to stay in a far-off Air BnB during one of lockdown’s rare lulls, and managed to snag a spot at a beachside bungalow in Nambucca Heads in order to get away from the bullshit and just create. It was a week of literal bliss, at least for me, where we could all engage in art fully and be immersed in the creation of a project again. In all honesty, we didn’t have much of a plan for the album’s concept or soundscapes; we’ve always got so many ideas spinning from all the unique inspirations of the different members that half the battle is just taming the flaming bird’s nest of ideas into a nice, silky coif. What we did have, though, was a bunch of time on our hands, a cathedral-esque living room with high, echoing ceilings and a glistening sun to spill across the verandah as we sat and flicked through old recordings of rehearsal jams.
Now and then, we’d land on a groove that tasted sweet enough to revive and try to mould into a full blown banger. Once the songs started shaping up and I began to feverishly type lyrics into mynotes app, the mood of the record began to take shape. Turns out I was feeling all kinds of put out by the doomsday that was the year past and my lyrics would tumble out of my brain like multi-coloured, cynical snowballs, building in size and scope as they rolled. If I were to describe the sentiment of the record in one word it would be “cynical”. More broadly, though, I think I’ve always weaponised cynicism as a way of attempting to understand the world around me. I felt cynical about the political climate, about love, about my day job and how I felt I’d never leave. It felt good to write it out.”
The album opens with sounds of a plane flying overhead, then the guys break into a gospel choir on the joyously upbeat “Head in the Clouds” as they sing “Something pulling me up out of my seat. Rather be anywhere than where I’ve just been. Smile but stay silent. Don’t want no one to see. Head in the clouds. It’s a glorious thing.” And a glorious thing it is, chock full of funky grooves, sunny instrumentation and uplifting harmonies, highlighted by Sam’s gorgeous silky vocals which often rise to an angelic falsetto.
He’s provided wonderful background notes for each song that are more colorful and interesting than anything I could possibly write, so I’m just gonna share them all. It’ll likely make this review too damn long, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’m going to include them! Here’s what he has to say about this track: “If Thunder Fox are known for anything, it’s being able to avoid taking things too seriously. ‘Head in the Clouds’ came to me in a blue dream on one of those hot nights where your brain feels sticky. We wanted to open the album with some fun and familiarity before shit got real.”
The album includes four brief interludes that serve as intros or connectors, the first of which, “A Party“, leads us into the funky gem “Good Time“. Sam sets the stage: “Early twenties, share house, undesirable shindigs with desirable chemicals. This night I wasn’t so much pissed off as I was hammered and concussed after having hit my head on the pavement following a few libations too many at the bar. I returned home to my lovable city dirt shed to find hundreds of people swarming. As I stumbled through the crowd, blood still tacky on my forehead, I thought to myself, ‘this is a great idea for a song.’ Luckily when we got to nutting it out at our makeshift writing space up the coast, Max had the perfect drum groove he’d been wanting to try for ages. It came together in a flash.”
Each of the guys shine on this track. Sam starts things off with a funky little guitar riff as Sam and Casey lay down a soulful rhythm on drums and bass. Amid flourishes of Jesse’s jazzy trumpet notes and Traver’s cool sax, Sam cheekily complains “Why is no one acting like I’m the man of the house? No one at this party seems to know my name, and that ain’t right. Yeah, I’m pissed off coz I got here, and nobody offered me a good time.” Good times indeed!
The guys dial up the energy on “Not For Sale“, a bouncy, funk-infused take on the old adage that money can’t buy you love: “I know you got more money than me, but money is just temporary. Cash ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, when money can’t buy my heart, heart, heart.” The song has an irresistible Earth, Wind & Fire vibe, highlighted by the band’s signature horn section and Casey’s funky bass groove. Sam explains: “Casey, being a relatively new addition to the band at the time, brought with him a synth bass and a set of fingers carved by the gods. Man, he had such a groove on that pile of plastic, the rest of us were floored. We wanted to write something dark, but funky (duh) and bad boy Casey had just the stuff. I know I’m not the only one who had it etched into my brain early on by social media among other sources that success and happiness is defined by finance, followers and fame. Damn we were wrong. Sometimes we lose ourselves so immensely to the pursuit of materialistic ends, we forget how ridiculous it all is. I know I did.”
The second interlude “A Circus“, featuring carnival music, unnatural-sounding neighing horses, and Travers’ quirky vocals, leads us into “Fruitcake“, a delightfully silly song with nonsensical lyrics like: “Moose ate my tooth paste. Said his tooth aches. Ate a few too many half baked fruit cakes, more than he could take. Now he’s a on a diet, trying to shift the weight lifting rakes by the lake.” Sam elaborates: “I don’t even know if Travers knows what this song is about – more millennial existentialism, I’d say – but it’s gotta be one of the most fun, hilarious and groovy tracks on the record. Full Travers, as we say. We came up with the groove and guitar vamp at a soundcheck in Townsville. We were just fucking around at the time but it resurfaced months later at the Sanctuary shack. We jam packed it full to the brim with Thunder Fox-isms and fuckery ‘til it made us laugh our asses off and we knew it was a banger. Fruitcake was one of the many opportunities we all got to try and flex our production chops and collaborate using DAWs and samples, you know, like modern shit.“
The guys tap into their R&B side on “Love You 2“, a sultry, heartfelt song about apologizing to a loved one for having fallen short, and reaffirming that you still love and cherish them. Sam explains: “Drawing from the same existential angst of the previous tracks, there came a time in the months following the writing of ‘Sanctuary’ that I noticed I’d let my material pursuits get in the way of the most important thing imaginable – delicious, unadulterated, full throttle, hyper-vulnerable romance, baby. ‘Love You 2’ is an apology, in a way. Apologising for allowing myself to become so distracted by desire, work and anxiety that I almost forgot to tell someone how much I fucking love their sweet ass. Heed my advice, friends, tell whoever it is you love them. Every. Chance. You. Get.” Accompanied by a languid, soulful and jazzy groove, Sam softly croons “Trying to sort out my life. I know we’ve been here like one million times. I love you too by the way. I’m sorry it took so long to say.“
The 55 second-long instrumental track “A Dream” has more of an alt-rock feel than most of their songs, and serves as a fascinating lead-in to the reggae/ska/goth rock beauty “Blue Light Blindness“. Deliciously dark and melodically complex, the song calls out our mobile phone addiction. Sam elaborates: “‘Blue Light Blindness’ has a serious ring to it if you ask me. You know, us millennials and our god damn phones, right?! Seriously though, I couldn’t name a more potent drug than a smartphone packed with social media apps. We know it’s bad, it distracts us from the importance of self-worth among other things but, we can’t stop. I was listening to Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’ and Marilyn (fuck you) Manson’s ‘The Beautiful People’ and I wanted that hardcore triplet groove so bad, I wanted the darkness. Luckily everyone was on the same page with that one. This one started as another off-the-cuff jam we happened to have recorded on one of our iphones (good for something after all) and it was pieced together intensely on the first day of writing. When we added in the horns we realised we had some James Bond shit on our hands.”
There’s so much going on musically, from a bouncy reggae beat one minute, to a psychedelic gospel-like interlude the next, only to be broken by an explosion of goth rock distortion and mayhem before circling back to the reggae/ska groove. God damn, I love this song!
I love “The Weekend” too, on which Thunder Fox give us their delightful take on the drudgery of soul-sucking dead-end jobs that leave us in a continual state of living for the weekends. Sam opines on the subject: “More angst, more day job, more bullshit. Until it stops being the norm, I won’t stop writing about it. I mean, can any of us really imagine a bearable life that entails 5 days of working our asses off to afford 2 days of drinking away the stress? Not me. But, it be like that sometimes. We thought it was pretty funny to put the little kids voices (not real kids, just us, we’re not made of money) in there because it became apparent that this way of being was built into our psyches from the youngest possible age. Work, party, work, party, die. No thanks! The irony is, we made this song a party anyway, the screaming, the South American street festival dirty sax interlude is one of the best moments on the album hands down.”
The song is another melodically complex track, starting off with swirling guitar notes and quirky otherworldly childlike sounds, followed by a few seconds of children’s – that is, the band’s – sing-song voices. The song quickly transitions to a lovely melody with Sam’s beautiful smooth vocals, which are abruptly broken when he wails “I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” The song returns to it’s melodic groove, as Sam laments “I feel like crying when I clock in. Feel my soul dying for a few cents. A hundred hours to cover rent. All this shit just makes me sick. The clock it ticks from nine til six. I don’t wanna wait for the weekend! No!” Man, can I relate! At around 2:20, we’re treated to a jazzy trumpet and sax-fueled burst of energy as the melody briefly turns into an exhilarating Latin-esque dance beat. These guys just keep blowing me away with their inventiveness and musicality.
“A Lapse” is a minute and a half long instrumental featuring super-gnarly, funky grooves that would make Grandmaster Flash proud. This lead us to “All the Stars“, a sexy and soulful song that sort of continues with the theme introduced on “The Weekend”, namely, what is the point of all this disorder and uncertainty in life? Sam elaborates: “Ah, sweet entropy, the cause of, and solution to all of life’s entropy. I wrote this as a poem in another one of my moments of existential disaster, still reeling from a day of working a call-centre job of all things. Believe me when I tell you there’s no stronger vacuum to suck the soul right out of the holes in your face than a fucking call-centre job. Anyway, ‘All the Stars’ is the epiphany that this happens to all of us at some point in our lives, maybe even forever. We’re all stars really, but we sure as hell don’t act like it. We run in circles trying to make sense of this chaos. All of us. One of my favourite elements of this one is the longing, weeping horns after the chorus. When Jesse and Travers get together to dream up a perfect horn line, they never miss.”
The first part of the song is gorgeous, with shimmery guitars, glittery synths, and those weeping horns layered over Casey’s sensuous bassline and Max’s restrained percussion, creating a dreamy, enchanting soundscape for Sam’s resonant falsetto. Two-thirds of the way in, the song abruptly shifts into high gear to become a rousing punk-rock banger, with blaring horns and frantic rhythms. It’s simply perfect!
The album closes with “The Stew“, a wild and funky ride with more grooves than a box full of vinyl records. I love the soulful James Brown-like vibe, driven by a funky bassline and stuttering drumbeats, and highlighted by fluttering horns and Sam’s rapid-fire vocals. Sam sez “This track is a band favourite from way back. We wrote it in 2017 and played it at a few shows but it never really saw the light of day and faded away eventually. When it came to putting together a track listing for ‘Sanctuary’, we listened to an old live recording of “The Stew” and all agreed we’d be crazy not to show this off. To me, ‘The Stew’ is Thunder Fox’s anthem. It perfectly sums up our chaotic mixture of anything and everything that brings us joy. It’s more than the sum of its parts, to say the least. When I wrote the lyrics, I was riding high on a wave of rockstar ego that feels so real when it hits but, when you wake up to jackhammers in your brain, you remember you’re so full of shit and you’re going to work hung over. I really wanted to just take the piss out of myself in a song, try bring myself back down to the ground. Here, I get in touch with my sarcastic, self-depreciating British roots. When all is said and done, I’m fully aware that I’m not God’s gift… Thunder Fox is.”
I wholeheartedly second that, as I adore this band, and adore this brilliant album. With Sanctuary, Thunder Fox has one of the best albums of the year on their hands, and it should also be in yours.
In naming themselves after the entrance to an old newspaper distribution office in the center of Nottingham, England, it’s no surprise that British synth-pop band Express Office Portico do not shy away from tackling relevant and timely issues. Since forming in early 2020, the talented five-piece consisting of Tara Freeman (lead vocals, keyboards), Billy Townsend (lead vocals, keyboards), Reuben Tobolewski (guitar), Ben Phipps (bass) and Olly Walton (drums), has released three singles touching on mental health and well-being.
Their first, “I Like it Weird”, dealt with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and how it can exacerbate feelings of jealousy over past lovers. Their second, “Mishmesh”, explored the dangers of alcohol dependency, and how our coping mechanisms and compulsive tendencies can manifest themselves in toxic habits. (I reviewed both of those singles, which you can read by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) Now they’re back with a new single “Then Wave“, which addresses the struggle of coping with abandonment and trust issues. The track was produced and mixed by Joshua Rumble and mastered by Fluid Mastering. The beautiful artwork was created by Antonio Pacelli.
With “Then Wave”, Express Office Portico gifts us with another beautiful synthpop song, overflowing with their signature swirling synths and Tara and Billy’s captivating harmonies. The sounds of theremin, accompanied by Ben’s throbbing bass notes and Olly’s perfect drumbeats, creates a dreamy backdrop for Tara’s enchanting vocals as she plaintively sings the lyrics describing someone struggling to reach out for affection amid their fears and anxiety over letting people get close to them. As she sings the verses, Billy repeats the words “Can’t get up” over and over, driving home the feelings of anxiety and helplessness in overcoming one’s insecurities:
Let me be swallowed by my own self doubt
Nauseous from constantly spinning around
(Can't get up)
Time to sit with my shame
(Can't get up)
Feeling flows through my brain
(Can't get up)You are infecting my very body
So close I can feel you inside of me
Time to sit with my shame
(Can't get up)
Feeling flows through my brain
(Can't get up)
I stop calling your name
(Can't get up)
Then wave, calling your name
(Can't get up)
Polarizer is a phenomenal five-piece band from Chicago who play a progressive style of alternative rock they appropriately describe as “loud, spacey epic rock”, earning them comparisons to bands like Muse, Rush and Jane’s Addiction. Formed in 2011, they’ve undergone a few changes in line-up over the years, and now consist of singer-songwriter Taylor Brennan, Stan Tencza (keyboards), Ian Palmer (guitars), Chris Shen (bass) and John Schiller (drums). (Brennan is also vocalist for Chicago rock band The Million Reasons, who I’ve featured numerous times on this blog.)
Polarizer released their debut EP Lightscapes in 2013, followed by a superb full-length album The Fall and the Swell in 2016, after which they stayed fairly quiet over the next few years. They returned to the studio in late 2019 to begin recording their long-awaited second album Love from the Underground, but the pandemic interrupted their progress for several months. Finally, in August 2020, they released their single “One for One”, then followed six months later with a second single “Metronome”, which I reviewed. Both singles are included on Love from the Underground, which dropped November 11th.
Two years in the making, the album is most definitely worth the wait. It’s a dark, beautiful, and utterly magnificent work that marks a triumphal return for Polarizer. While none of its 12 tracks can be described as “catchy”, they’re all incredibly melodic and meticulously-crafted. Overflowing with nuance, the songs are highlighted by deeply compelling lyrics, jaw-dropping instrumentation and Brennan’s arresting tenor vocals. It’s not often that I love every single song on an album, especially one as long as this, but that’s exactly the case with Love from theUnderground. I’ve listened to it more than ten times, and still feel almost giddy at the arrival of each song. This has also been one of the more challenging album reviews I’ve ever written, as there’s a lot to unpack, both musically and lyrically.
Like a lot of albums, this one also features songs addressing such oft-covered topics as love, loss, familial relationships and even politics. Kicking off the album is “Sink intothe Ghost“, an intense rock song that, along with closing track “Dead Can Sing“, as well as the hard-hitting gem “We’ll Meet Again“, speak of coming to terms with losing people that helped shaped you, who with their deaths took a piece of you with them, and leaving you wondering whether you could have done anything to change the outcome. On “Sink into the Ghost”, Brennan passionately implores “What if I sing aloud the right words? What if I sing aloud, could I really be heard? It won’t bring you back. It won’t make me whole. Until the dead can be, I will sing no more.”
One of the highlights on an album full of them is “Metronome“, a truly spectacular song calling out the divisive and destructive ways of many of our leaders, and urging newer generations to rise up against those forces to build a better future, with a lyric from which the album’s title comes: “The old way is divisive. It keeps us small. Make way for the new kids. They’re coming up. / The future belongs to those in love from the underground.” Everything about the song is perfection from start to finish, and when the music erupts into a monumental crescendo, bolstered by Brennan’s impassioned vocals that almost sound like another instrument in themselves, I’m left covered with goosebumps. I love the song so much that it spent 20 weeks on my Weekly Top 30, going all the way to #3. I love the video too, which shows the guys giving a socially-distanced yet electrifying performance in a Chicago studio.
Continuing on a similar theme, “One for One” is a scathing takedown of those who traffic in conspiracy theories, intolerance and extreme political views, nicely delivered with hard-driving rhythms, grungy riffs and psychedelic synths. Brennan’s vocals are almost chilling as he sings the biting lyrics: “I’m fluent in this psycho talk. I speak the party’s opinion. Last one in on the lie and the lie’s all yours. I am a nightmare in the dark. Turn on the lights I come to life. Melody never taught that you can’t catch falling stars. I’m all for one and one for one. The story ends. You’ve lost your friends to the party’s opinion. There’s a lot on the line. So where is your line crossed?” Man, those last three lines really resonate with me, as recent political trends have greatly strained or ended several friendships and familial relationships.
Polarizer ventures toward metal rock on “Eventually You Get Caught“, with an opening guitar riff that reminds me a bit of “Enter Sandman”, though the song sounds totally different, both melodically and structurally, than the Metallica classic. And the flourishes of distortion at the end are definitely metal-esque. The hard-driving “Everything is Mad” is heavy and intense, though Brennan told me it’s meant to be a joyful song about a parent feeling so stunned and humbled by bringing a new life into the world, but also left wondering what this responsibility and joy means when they aren’t living their own truth. Will the compromises they need to make in order to experience true happiness be reachable?
The band’s extraordinary musicianship is showcased on virtually every track, highlighted by Palmer’s virtuoso guitar work, Tencza’s colorful keyboards and the tight rhythmic grooves of Shen and Schiller not to mention Brennan’s gorgeous resonant vocals. Case in point is “Ever a Stranger“, with beautiful riffs layered over a galloping bassline, and featuring a thrilling guitar solo by Palmer in the bridge. The lyrics touch on the loss of innocence, and realizing you can no longer rely on a relationship when your partner refuses to meet you halfway. “Fear the attraction, harder to trust. You’re calling it love, but your love’s not returned. /And I need you now, how I knew you then, but strangers still have a way to go.”
The centerpiece of the album is “Le Drama Des Os” (The Drama of Bones), a stunning five-minute long celestial masterpiece that tells the romantic saga of Black Hole and Nova. Brennan explained the meaning behind their characters: “Black Hole is the more isolated loner, living day to day, not pushing himself to find happiness, just floating about, not taking chances. The ‘black hole’ title means that this character needs light and joy in his life he hasn’t seen before. Like a black hole when he receives this light, this energy, he can’t get enough of it, consuming it at all costs. And Nova is the opposite, an endless giver of light and energy, who meets Black Hole at the time when he needs her most, but the mutual need and attraction is almost unsustainable, its almost destructive. It’s like two magnets being pulled apart slowly but that attraction being too strong to break it apart. They get together at all costs, and it either is the most beautiful love ever on record, or it ends the world around them as they know it.“
The song opens with Palmer’s glittery guitar riff, accompanied by Shen’s gentle bassline as Brennan softly introduces us to the two characters: “Black Hole was proud to be alone. He never had to give a piece away. Nova had pieces on her mantle, that never added up to anything. The Big Bang they felt was catastrophic challenged everything they thought they knew.” The music explodes like a supernova in the choruses with a riotous mix of raging and swirling guitars, thumping bass, otherworldly synths and thunderous drums, before calming back down in the verses as Brennan concludes the story: “Finally their eyes met from a distance. The bigger bang had stolen from their core. As the world around them faded into darkness, nothing of the pieces that they were. Traveling the path of least resistance. Compromise with the best intentions, still halfway to nowhere.”
The great songs keep on coming. “Phases of the Moon” is a full-blown rocker, loaded with a chugging barrage of gnarly riffs and explosive rhythms. Brennan’s vocals sound lower and more muscular on this track, and I love how they trail off to a low growl at the end. The darkly beautiful “Time of Death” has a strong Muse vibe, thanks to its eerie piano riffs and shredded guitars. Brennan passionately laments “Throw me a line, I feel insane. Does it seem that way to you? It falls away, it’s all the same. Another hour I’m making mirror deals selling out my future self. High hopes are put off until tomorrow.” And the marvelous Alice in Chains-esque “Glow”, with its fierce, jaw-dropping guitar work and explosive rhythms, speaks of being drawn to someone so intensely that you can barely function.
The dramatic album closer “Dead Can Sing” brings things full-circle with a blend of shimmery and gnarly guitars, sparkling keyboards, pummeling bass, tumultuous percussion and soaring vocals, giving the song a wonderful anthemic quality. In the final chorus Brennan plaintively sings the refrain “Until the dead can sing and be heard, where do I turn to? And in the end when it’s my turn, how will I find you?” as the song fades off in a trail of spooky synths and military drumbeats.
What more can I say about this spectacular record that I haven’t already gushed about? Love from the Underground is a marvelous, flawlessly-produced album, and one of the best of 2021 in my humble opinion. I love Polarizer’s music, and hope my readers will give this album a listen and enjoy it as much as I do.
Hailing from Chicago, post-punk band a million rich daughters play a unique and fascinating style of, in their own words – “garage/industrial/horror inspired alternative post-punk – music that transcends the typical boundaries of the observable universe.” Founded by brothers Brett and Jake Grant, with Brett on vocals, guitars and synths, and Jake on drums, the four-piece now includes Matt Clepper on guitar and Dani Putrino on bass. (Brett also has a solo project under the moniker brett.grant.5.) Exactly two years ago to the day – November 15th also happens to be Brett’s birthday – they released their brilliant debut EP Hidden Parents, which I reviewed. Now they’re back with a haunting new single “Left Behind“, their first new music release in two years.
Brett was inspired to write “Left Behind” during a painful separation from his wife Ashlee (which thankfully was only temporary, as they’re both very special people who I’ve become quite fond of, albeit by long distance). He elaborates “In the broader sense, it’s about the helplessness of being left behind by someone who has outgrown you, and the feeling of betrayal that comes with that. One thing about this song is it’s all just AAA format. It’s a single verse repeated over and over as the music builds around it to the climax at the end. I intended for it to convey the whole concept of ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ When I was going through all that, I was literally just stewing in my emotions, self medicating with whatever I could get my hands on, and I felt unable to break out of the cycle. Add to this, this ALL happened right at the beginning of Covid. So I was going through all this, and suddenly I couldn’t leave the house or see anyone.“
The song is darkly beautiful and melodic, with more of a dream pop sound than most of their previous songs. It opens with a simple, rather somber guitar riff as Brett forlornly laments “Well, I’ll swallow my pride and ‘ll eat my mistakes. And I’ll throw up the memory if that’s what it takes. Devour the regret, I’ll gorge on the shame. If it means in the end you’ll absolve me of blame. Your words when you left me been plaguing my mind. Now I’ve been vanquished, you’ve finally left me behind.”
Approximately 50 seconds into the track, Matt’s gorgeous swirling guitar enters, accompanied by Dani’s gently thumping bassline and Jake’s measured drumbeats, creating a dreamy but haunting backdrop for Brett’s increasingly impassioned vocals, backed by lovely soaring harmonies. Everything continues to build to a dramatic crescendo, replete with a blistering guitar solo in the final verse before trailing off in a outro of spooky synths as Brett sadly concludes “Your words when you left me been plaguing my mind. Now I’ve been vanquished, you’ve finally left me behind.” I love this song, and think it’s their best one yet.
The wonderful artwork for the single was created by Brett’s beautiful and creative wife Ashlee.