KIDSMOKE – Album Review: “A Vision In The Dark”

Kidsmoke album

Kidsmoke is an exceptionally talented indie dream rock band based in the city of Wrexham in northeast Wales. On June 19th, after many months of hard work, they released their debut album A Vision in the Dark via Welsh label Libertino Records. Like so many bands, they’d planned to tour over the summer to promote their album, but those plans were dashed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, they decided not to delay the release of their album, and just wanted to get it out so their fans would have some new music to look forward to. And what a beautiful album it is, featuring 11 superb tracks. Their lush and beautiful guitar-driven sound is strongly influenced by such bands as Joy Division, The Cure, Wilco and The National, among others.

Formed in late 2012 by Lance Williams and James Stickels, who’d been friends since their school days, Kidsmoke was named after a song by one of their favorite bands Wilco. They released their first EP Higher in 2013, followed by a second EP So Long, Emptiness in 2015. Various members came and went, but the band finally came into its own with the addition of Sophie Ballamy and Ash Turner in 2016. Since then, the lineup has been Lance on Lead Vocals & Guitar, James on Bass & Vocals, Sophie on Guitar & Vocals, and Ash on Drums. The band continued to release numerous singles, along with an EP Save Your Sorrow in 2017, and had the experience of a lifetime when they performed at SXSW (South By Southwest Film & Music Festival) in Austin, Texas in 2019.

Kidsmoke

A Vision in the Dark opens with “Passenger” a lovely, uptempo song that sets the tone for the album. Its sunny, upbeat instrumentals, highlighted by jangly guitars and snappy drumbeats, contrast with the rather poignant lyrics “I’m moving on to God knows where, I’m dressed to kill the time I’m moving on, I’m a passenger.” Lance explained that the song is “about losing your direction in life, being swept along with the crowd and feeling helpless to stop it.” The song was chosen for NPR’s Austin 100 playlist.

The warm, summery vibe carries over to the next track “Layla’s Love“, with its swirling guitars and dreamy, ethereal melody. Lance states that the song “is a retrospective story of a relationship, where one partner begins to dwell upon the many ‘what ifs?’ we all face.” The male character in the narrative ultimately realizes that, though not perfect, the relationship remains strong and they’re still together: “Baby, the sun won’t rise over you. But I know we are still together. Layla’s love is the only love I’ll never lose.” I love the interplay between Lance and Sophie’s enchanting vocals as they sing “You gave me everything I had (I hope I did). Everything I wanted (you know I tried). But sometimes everything just isn’t enough.” This beautiful song stayed stuck in my head long after hearing it, and is one of the highlights on the album for me.

Kidsmoke continue to deliver the breezy feels on “Colourfield“, with its chiming guitars and cheerful, bouncy bass line, “Higher“, a beautiful reworking of a song from their first EP, and “She Takes You Under“, where they seem to pay homage to The Cure with bouyant jangly guitars and sparkling synths. Lance and Sophie’s vocal harmonies are particularly wonderful here, as well as on the brief but enchanting “Kaleidoscope“. The track is a chorus from an old song the band had previously written but never recorded, and serves as an interlude between side 1 and side 2 of the album.

Another standout track is “Rising Sun“, a high-energy tune with a retro 80s new wave vibe. The fast-paced driving rhythms and exuberant guitars are fantastic, and as always, the vocal harmonies are sublime. The lyrics speak to pushing back against others’ expectations, even when they’re coming from people who are closest to you: “Your days are done. I turn the black to blue. I turn the night to day. I’m the rising sun. I feel your love, I don’t want to follow.

The hauntingly beautiful “Take Me to the River” is another re-imagining of an old song from their debut EP Higher. A fan favorite, Kidsmoke decided to re-record it for the album. The song was featured on an episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, and is about being led astray from one’s path by negative influences. The bouncy, guitar-driven melody contrasts with the dark lyrics that seem to touch on a relationship doomed by the suicidal tendencies of one of the partners: “If I leave you, I’ll miss you, I’ll never make you mine. We’re sinking fast. We’re running out of time.” The richly layered guitars and pulsating bass are wonderful.

They continue to dazzle us with dreamy melodies and exquisite guitar work on “Still Dreams“, a deeply personal song Lance wrote based on his own experience having to come to terms with a life-changing event that made it hard for him to face the world. He elaborates “The song is about the expectations from family, friends or work to ‘get back to normal’ after something traumatic has happened. The overarching sentiment is about giving people the time they need to heal.”

Kidsmoke slows things down with “Little Easy“, a gentle song of thanks to someone for their love and support: “Little easy. You’ll never know how much you mean to me. You play the part, you play it right.” With its languid beat, mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and lovely vocal harmonies, the song has an early Fleetwood Mac feel, at least to my ears. About the inspiration for the song, James explains “I felt a little bit directionless at the time; I’d moved back home to Wales from Manchester for a job that didn’t work out and I was missing city life. I always aim for emotion in my music, but this one felt a bit more genuine…I just wrote how I felt.”

They save the best for last, closing out the album with “The Bluest You“, my favorite song of them all. Being a lover of music who cannot write a note of it, nor play a single instrument, I’m always awestruck at how people can create such gorgeous melodies, then bring them to fruition with various instruments. What Kidsmoke has achieved with “The Bluest You” is nothing short of spectacular, creating a song of such incredible beauty and depth that it renders me speechless. The glorious swirling guitars are as dreamy as they come, and James and Ash keep the spellbinding rhythm with their pulsating bass line and perfect drumbeats, respectively. Once again, I must make note of the stunning vocal harmonies delivered by Lance, Sophie and James. This song is honestly one of the most beautiful I’ve heard in a long while.

I’m not the only one for whom this song is a favorite. Lance said “This song is a live favourite of ours”, while James noted “This is my favourite track. I originally intended for it to be an instrumental – thankfully I soon decided against that idea. I knew from the moment it was written that it was destined to be the last track on the album.”

The song lyrics address mental health, specifically the effect someone’s issues have on loved ones around them. Lance explained: “It is a fly on the wall look into a household where one person’s depression is affecting everyone else who lives there. The song doesn’t address the feelings of the person suffering with depression, it is a sort of commentary from the viewpoint of the rest of the family.”

I’ve gushed about A Vision in the Dark throughout this review, so I don’t know what more I can say except that it’s an absolutely stunning album from beginning to end, and ranks among the very best releases I’ve heard so far in 2020. Listening to it is an immersive experience, as one gorgeous track flows into the next, keeping the listener in a continuous state of thrall. Other than for the minute-long interlude piece “Kaleidoscope”, the other ten tracks could all be hit singles, they’re that good.

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YOUNG DECADES – Single Review: “Islands”

Young Decades

Young Decades are a new English rock band based in Manchester who released their beautiful debut single “Islands” on April 24th. Before I get into discussing the song I’ll provide a bit of background on the band members, who’ve had a bit of a journey to get to where they are today. Prior to forming as Young Decades earlier this year, three of the four current band members were part of Liverpool-based band COLOUR, which itself was formed early in the 2010s from the ashes of two previous acts – Liverpool band The Changes, and Manchester band Red Light Motion. As COLOUR, they released a number of terrific singles and EPs, including “Strangers”, “Kafé” and “The Famous Boy Making Things”, winning a BBC award and national radio play along the way.

With their sound moving in new directions in early 2020, the band in short order lost two girlfriends and their drummer, and decided to relocate to Manchester. With a COVID-19 lockdown looming, they rushed to hold auditions for a new drummer, posting ads everywhere they could around Manchester. After only 20 minutes into their first audition with one of Northwest England’s best percussionists in the form of YouTube drummer, Luke Bolger, the decision was made to bring him into the fold. The four immediately reformed as Young Decades, in reference to the first two decades of the century from which the band was formed. The official lineup now consists of James Tidd (vocals), Scott Harvey (guitar, keyboards), Liam Downey (Bass) and Luke Bolger (drums).

Young Decades’ music is a glorious mash-up of rock, synth pop and EDM elements, and “Islands” is the very embodiment of their lush, dreamy sound. The gorgeous song was co-produced by the band and Tom Longworth, and mastered by renowned mastering engineer Pete Maher (U2, The Killers, Nick Cave, The Pixies). The song has a sweeping, synth-driven melody reminiscent of some of The Killers songs that I love. The galloping riffs and thumping drumbeats beautifully evoke the urgency expressed in the lyrics about two people struggling to save themselves by running away to find a place they can be free. I love the richly colorful synths throughout the track, and one of the song’s highlights for me are Scott’s hauntingly beautiful piano keys.

James has a wonderful, emotive singing voice, and his vocals sound amazing as his earnest croons in the verses soar to passionate heights in the chorus, accompanied by stirring harmonies that bring goosebumps. “Islands” is a stunning record, and a spectacular debut for this talented band of musicians.

I’m On The Run, I’m Hanging On
Just Hold Your Breath, And Grab My Open Hand
A Hurricane, An Aching Pain
Is Closing Down, Shutters On Everything
Oh My Love Is, Ever Burning
Build It High, As the Seasons Turn In
[Oh
My Love] Oh My Love, [Time Is Up] Time Is Come
[Oh My Love] To Build Something From the Sea
Build An Island, Where We Can Be
I Need The Dry Land, Just You And Me

Can We Build That High, Can You Say You’ll Try
Don’t Just Sit And Stare, I Can Almost Feel It
The Cooking Sand, Falling Through My Hand
Like The Time We Waste, Being On A Different Page
Oh My Love Is, Ever Burning
Build It High, As the Seasons Turn In
[Oh My Love] Oh My Love, [Time Is Up] Time Is Come
[Oh My Love] To Build Something, From the Sea

Build An Island, Where We Can Be
I Need The Dry Land, Just to be…
All Ours, It’ll Be All Ours, It’ll Be
All Ours, It’ll Be All Ours, It’ll Be
All Ours, It’ll Be All Ours, It’ll Be
Build An Island, Where We Can Be
I Need The Dry Land, Just to be…

On May 2nd, Young Decades released a special EP Islands Audio Negatives, featuring five alternate versions of the song, including acoustic, instrumental and slowed-down versions the band is calling “audio negatives”. They’re all really beautiful, so do check them out:

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COLD WEATHER COMPANY – Single Review: “Way Up”

Cold Weather Company

I recently learned about Cold Weather Company when they followed me on Twitter and shared their latest single “Way Up“, and I was instantly enchanted with their music. Since then, I’ve been binge listening to their substantial back catalog (they’ve released three albums over the past four years). Based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the alternative folk band formed in 2013, and consists of Brian Curry, Steve Shimchick and Jeff Petescia. All share songwriting and singing duties, with Curry and Petescia playing guitar and Shimchick on piano.

Influenced by the music of such bands as Mumford and Sons, Fleet Foxes, Dave Matthews, Chad Stokes, Tallest Man on Earth, Coldplay, Keane and The Decemberists, their richly melodic sound is both guitar and piano-driven, with all three of them singing in perfect harmony. They released their lovely debut album Somewhere New in 2015, which had a pure, acoustic sensibility that allowed the guitars and piano to really shine. A year later, they dropped A Folded Letter, another album containing 13 tracks that delivered more of their sublime acoustic guitar/piano compositions. All of the songs are beautiful, but two of the highlights are “Wide-Eyed” and “Gettysburg”. They followed up in 2017 with an all-instrumental version of A Folded Letter, then early this year they released their gorgeous third album Find Light, an ambitious work featuring 16 tracks in which they expanded upon their sound with the addition of more orchestral instrumentation. That album received widespread and very well-deserved acclaim.

In August, they released their latest single “Way Up”, and it’s a real stunner of a tune. The song opens with the tinkling of piano keys, then expands into a breathtaking soundscape of strummed guitars, gentle bass and some of the most enthralling piano I’ve heard recently. I’m not sure which band member is singing the lead vocals, but they’re positively captivating. And as always, the guys’ vocal harmonies are exquisite. I love this song.

The band states that “Way Up” “is about finding a new perspective, and seeking hope when things are looking bleak. We could all use a little bit of that sometime.” We sure can!

Soon I’ll find my peace with time and break this (Break this hold, break this hold, from sea)
Cause I’m not foolish, I was made to shake this
No more breathless fights adrift in missteps
Oh, I’ll rise
All I ever needed is the current to survive

I found my way up, I saw the ocean meeting the sky
I found my way up, I saw the ocean meeting the sky

No more restless nights of drifting listless in my mind
Cause all I ever needed is the current to survive
I found my way up

Follow Cold Weather Company:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / iTunes / Google Play

New Song of the Week: MARS MOTEL – “My House is About to Fall Apart”

Brooklyn, New York-based Mars Motel make some of the best alternative dream rock of any band around today, and are having quite a busy and successful year. In May, they released the stunning “Coming Up For Air”, the first single from their forthcoming album Passenger X, due out later this year. I reviewed that song, which has spent the past three months and counting on my Weekly Top 30. Two months later they released a second single “D’Ya Wanna Get Lost With Me?”, and recently played a triumphant show at the Bowery Ballroom in Lower Manhattan. They now return with their third single “My House is About to Fall Apart“, which I’ve selected as my New Song of the Week.

Formed in 2017 by singer/songwriter and guitarist Sarik Kumar, Mars Motel also includes Wes Wynne (Guitar), Justin Lieberthal (Bass) and Craig Stauber (Drums). Their beautiful music melds a dreamy 90s Brit-pop vibe with an immersive, guitar-driven wall of sound influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The War on Drugs, and I love it!

Kumar explains that “My House is About to Fall Apart” is about a relationship on the brink of failure, but could also apply to the world as well – “that strange moment when you know it’s going to collapse, but you are still on the ride down.” Musically, the song has a languorous tempo, highlighted by shimmering synths and gorgeous layers of jangly and chiming guitars that create a lush, dreamy soundscape. The subtle bass and thumping drumbeats, accentuated with lots of crashing cymbals in the dramatic chorus, keep the perfect rhythm moving forward. Kumar’s lovely and powerful vocals beautifully convey a sense of sad resignation as he plaintively sings “I need to find a peace of mind I’ve lost. It’s deep inside, buried inside I know. My house is about to fall apart.”

Connect with them on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / YouTube
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

CRYSTAL CITIES – Single Review: “Under the Cold Light of the Moon”

Crystal Cities Single Pic

‘Dream Rock that sounds like Death Cab For Cutie had a War On Drugs with The Beatles.’ That’s how Australian band Crystal Cities describe their enchanting sound, and it’s spot-on. Their wonderful songs feature thoughtful lyrics and stunning melodies delivered by superb instrumentation and vocals. In March 2017, the Sydney-based three-piece released their outstanding and critically acclaimed debut EP Who’s Gonna Save Us Now. The gorgeous title track and lead single “Who’s Gonna Save Us Now”, which I featured on this blog that April, reached #1 on the Unearthed Overall Charts within a few days of its release, and ended up on my 100 Best Songs of 2017 list. Now they’re back with a stunning new track “Under the Cold Light of the Moon“, the lead single from their forthcoming album of the same name, set for release on 31 May.

Crystal Cities is comprised of the very talented Geoff Rana (Vocals, Guitars), Jared King (JK) (Bass, Backing Vocals) and Daniel Conte (Drums). Since the release of their EP, the guys have had a productive two years and have come a long way, from a garage in Sydney to Abbey Road Studios in London. First, they signed a record and publishing deal with global music company Audio Network (one of a group of companies owned by Toronto, Canada-based multinational mass media and entertainment company eOne). Second, through that partnership, the band had the opportunity to record their debut album Under the Cold Light of the Moon at the prestigious Abbey Road Studios.

According to Rana, the new single “was inspired by the plight of young North Korean girl Yeonmi Park who escaped North Korea in search of freedom.” After seeing her moving speech at the One Young World Summit 2014 in Dublin, Ireland, where she told the audience “When I was crossing the Gobi desert, scared of dying, I thought nobody in this world cared. It seemed that only the stars were with me. But you have listened to my story. You have cared. Thank you very much”, Rana felt compelled to interpret her story through a song.

Crystal Cities Yeonmi Park

And what a beautiful, uplifting song it is! Starting off with a faint whisper of synths and delicate tapping of cymbals, a chugging riff of jangly guitar, set to a thumping drumbeat, soon enter the mix along with Rana’s raspy, yet lovely vocals. The music gradually builds as layers of guitar and percussion are added, backed by lush orchestral strings that create a stirring, cinematic soundscape for the hopeful lyrics:

Made my way out through the desert
Made my way across the sand
Under cover of the night I’m face to face
I’ve been thinking of a place
I’ve been making my escape
Under the cold light of the moon

Rana’s intricate guitar work is gorgeous, while King and Conte keep a tight rhythm with their defty-played bass line and drums. The song, along with the rest of the album, was flawlessly mastered by Paul Stefanidis at Viking Lounge Mastering, engineered by Adam Alexander and John Romeo (assisted by Tayla Gibbs), and mixed by L.A.-based engineer Paul Lani (David Bowie, Prince, Megadeath). Regarding the provocative photo for the single and album which shows the guys blindfolded, Rana explained: “This album will have plenty of lyrical references to themes of escape, resistance, and limited/restricted views. Having us positioned in a sort of prisoner-like scenario with blindfolds on seemed a great way to represent these themes.” The photos are courtesy of Amy Benjamin Photography.

The beautiful animated video for the song tells the adventure of Yeonmi Park’s harrowing nighttime escape. It was created by Jordyn-Rae Morrison (The-F0X).

Connect with Crystal Cities:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes / Google Play

MARS MOTEL – Single Review: “Coming Up For Air”

I’ve been following Brooklyn, NY-based alternative/dream rock band Mars Motel for a while now and love their captivating music, but somehow neglected featuring them on this blog. After hearing their gorgeous new single “Coming Up For Air“, which dropped on May 10 and premiered on the music website Substream Magazine, I quickly had to remedy that sorry situation.

Mars Motel

Formed in 2017 by singer/songwriter and guitarist Sarik Kumar, Mars Motel’s roots actually go back more than a decade earlier. While visiting his parents in Long Island in the summer of 2016, Kumar found some nearly-forgotten demos of songs he’d recorded in his bedroom and saved on his old computer during his senior year of high school.  The rediscovery of these songs inspired Kumar to pursue his love for creating music and form a band he named Mars Motel. Kumar brought the demos to producer Tommy Eichmann at Mission Sound in Brooklyn, NY, where they reworked them into five singles that melded a dreamy 90s Britpop vibe with an immersive, guitar-driven wall of sound influenced by the likes of Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The War on Drugs. These singles, including “The Enemy”, “Green” and “Living in the Moment”, were released over a period of months in 2017 into early 2018. I strongly recommend that my readers check them out, as they’re all pretty incredible.

Along with Kumar, the band lineup now includes  Wes Wynne (Guitar), Justin Lieberthal (Bass) and Craig Stauber (Drums). Following the critical and commercial success of their initial single releases, the band released a live EP The Eclipse Sessions, featuring live recordings of some of those singles and two previously unreleased B-sides. The EP was recorded on, and named for, the Great American Solar Eclipse that spanned the entire United States on August 21, 2017. The band is now working on their forthcoming album Passenger X, which was recorded at Virtue & Vice Studios in Brooklyn with engineer Rocky Gallo, and scheduled for release later this year. The first single off that album is “Coming Up For Air”.

It’s a stunner of a tune, with swirling riffs of chiming guitars backed by shimmery synths and a pleasing rhythm section of gentle bass and confident thumping drumbeats. They all meld into a breathtaking soundscape for Kumar’s beautiful, soothing vocals. He told SubstreamThis song is about an android-like being longing to be human and attempting an alteration. It captures the universal need for connection and the loneliness one can feel in being viewed as an outsider.” With just the right balance of smooth crooning and soaring passion, Kumar sings: “D’you see me now, floating. D’you see me now, walk on water. Nobody’s watching today. Nobody’s watching my ways. Can you feel it now? Electric heartbeat running parallel. One more spark and I’m through. I can’t wait to be with you. I’m coming up for air.

“Coming Up For Air” is a marvelous song, and offers a promising glimpse into what we can expect to hear on Passenger X. I can’t emphasize enough how much I love every song Mars Motel has put out thus far, and I’m eager to hear more great music from this exceptionally talented band.

Catch Mars Motel at one of these upcoming shows:

Thursday 30 May 2019 – Pianos, New York, NY
Mars Motel with Loona Dae and Sundaes (US)


Mars Motel with The Exits (NYC)


Mars Motel with Above The Moon and PLZ RSPND


Mars Motel with Heavenly Faded

Cover photo by Andrew Segreti.

To learn more about Mars Motel, check out their  Website
Connect with them on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / YouTube
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

Featured Song & Video: CRYSTAL CITIES – “Who’s Gonna Save Us Now”

Every once in a while you hear a song for the first time and it’s instant love. That was my reaction upon first hearing the breathtaking new single “Who’s Gonna Save Us Now” by Australian band Crystal Cities. Musically and lyrically, the song is absolutely stunning, and it’s arrangement and production are flawless.

Based in Sydney, Crystal Cities is Geoff Rana on vocals & guitars, Jared King on bass & backing vocals and Daniel Conte on drums. The guys call their music “Dream Rock that sounds like Death Cab For Cutie had a War On Drugs with The Beatles.” It’s a perfect description of their music style.

Crystal Cities

The beautiful video was directed by Vittoria Merlino-Dentice and, as explained in notes for the video, is “set in the 1940’s, [and] follows the journey of two young child compadres as they escape from their well-to-do life, exploring the Australian countryside, and searching for truth from a perspective of innocence and vulnerability.

Connect with Crystal Cities:  Twitter /  Facebook /  Instagram

Stream their music:  Soundcloud /  Spotify /  YouTube

Purchase:  Bandcamp /  iTunes