HEAD NOISE – EP Review: “CONSEQUENTIAL QUASARS!”

South Wales-based Head Noise are a self-described “Oddball DIY electro trash punk band, spitting out angsty garbage about junk culture, broken technology and modern art.” Listening to their zany music, which sounds like it could have been created by the love child of Devo, The Vapors and Dr. Demento, I’d say that’s a pretty spot-on assessment. I first featured them on this blog almost exactly one year ago, when I reviewed their single “200,000 Gallons of Oil”, one of the tracks from their trippy debut album Über-Fantastique. Now they’re back with a new five-track EP CONSEQUENTIAL QUASARS!, serving up 13 minutes of non-stop musical mayhem for our listening enjoyment. The EP was released on April 23rd via the independent Welsh label Dirty Carrot Records.

Since I last visited Head Noise, they’ve grown from a threesome to a quartet, with the addition of a drummer. They now consist of Mitch Tennant (primitive keyboards & shouting), Wayne Bassett (guitar & synths), Jordan Brill (more guitar & synths), and Andres “Topper the Pops” Walsh (drums & percussion). Bassett is also involved in other music projects, including a recent collaboration with Dunkie, who’s wonderful EP The Vanishing and Other Stories I reviewed in March. The songs on that EP could not be more different than those on CONSEQUENTIAL QUASARS!, which features their signature ambiguous and surreal lyrics, unorthodox instrumentals and quirky vocals. 

About the EP, the band explains “The idea for the EP was to have more of a rough and ready, raw and energised approach to the recording for bit more of an experimental flair. The inclusion of the electronic drums alongside some much thicker and fuzzy guitars have given the latest batch of songs a certain kick to them, which the band are finding quite exciting to play with. The band thinks that this will transpose to the live arena very well, so are very much looking forward to debuting these songs when live music makes its eventual comeback.”

The EP kicks off with “Alaska Later“, a delicious punk gem with a frantic, driving beat, chugging riffs and colorful, fun-house synths that create a deliriously upbeat vibe. I’m not sure what the song is about, but it seems to speak to the foolishness of poseurs, idiots and wannabes: “We’ve got this shared hatred of idiocy. But now they’ve missed the bus for a slice of new-age hogwash./ Imitator. Alaska Later. Instigator. Alaska Later.” But later in the song, Tennant sings “The only thrill that I consider that is greater than this, is a smaller heating bill, and a bathroom that doesn’t smell like piss“, so it’s anyone’s guess. Then, in his twisted Dr. Demento voice, he chants “Liquidator, see you later. No you won’t. Dead.”

The wild and crazy vibes continue with “Cubist Ballet“, a frenetic punk ode to the early 20th century cubism art movement that shook the art world. Like all ground-breaking trends, it was met with much derision, expressed in the lyrics “But then they booed and hissed like proto-anarchists. Art is subjective. Then I have something to say. No matter the outcome from those zany days. The collaboration was wild and abhorred. So I think innovation deserves an award.” Things turn a bit more gothic on “Drift“, with a beat that reminds me somewhat of The Cure’s “Lovesong”. I really like the spooky, almost psychedelic synths, aggressive drumbeats and and mix of jangly and gnarly guitars. Tennant’s vocals sound more conventional here, though still delivered with the cheeky playfulness we’ve come to love and expect.

The trippy “Queztalcoatl’s Axolotl” has a bouncy retro 80s punk/new wave vibe, and rather nonsensical lyrics alluding to Greek and Aztec statues and enjoying the good life: “Like I tried to convey, I lust to compile with an Aztec flavor, and a salamander smile. You see my garden lacks a prophetic shrine, a kind of je ne sais quoi. Behind the concrete of hidden landmines, we’ll be sharing beluga caviar.” Whatever it’s meaning, it’s a fun tune.

Tracey Emin” is the most melodic of the five tracks, with a terrific guitar-driven new wave groove. And like many of their songs, it’s features an abundance of the band’s signature zany psychedelic synths, stellar guitar work and strong, thumping rhythms. The lyrics speak of the English artist Tracey Emin, specifically her 1997 work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she’d ever shared a bed with, including family members, friends, drinking partners and lovers: “Did you only mean to shock? Tracey Emin! Opening Pandora’s lock, and then throw away the key. Bringing you closer to me. Would you ever be content, hiding your life in a tent? Showing the state of your bed. Do you ever feel exposed…”

CONSEQUENTIAL QUASARS! is a thoroughly delightful little EP, and another fine release by this highly creative and eccentric group of guys. If you enjoy quirky, out of the ordinary music and vocals, you will like this record.

Follow Head Noise: Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream their music: Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Amazon

G. SAMEDI – Single Review: “Icarus”

There’s so much great musical talent out there that it sometimes makes my head spin. I’ve recently written about quite a few exceptional artists and bands, and today I’m pleased to introduce another – silky-voiced Australian singer-songwriter Sam Dawes, who goes by the artistic moniker G. Samedi. Sam’s actually no stranger to this blog, as he’s also the lead vocalist and songwriter for Sydney band Thunder Fox, who I adore and have featured numerous times. While still actively involved with Thunder Fox, who will be releasing their second album later this year, Sam decided at the beginning of 2020 to record and produce some of his songs as a solo artist. In little more than a year, he’s already released seven singles (the first was actually a double single), all of which are fantastic. His latest is “Icarus“, which dropped April 30th.

Curious about the name G. Samedi, I asked Sam how he came up with that moniker. He told me it’s “just a silly amalgamation of my real name, Samuel George Dawes. People would call me Sammy D at school, I liked the character ‘Baron Samedi’ from James Bond, and it just came together nicely.” Well, I think G. Samedi is an ideal name, as it suggests an air of sophistication and sexual mystery, both of which are characteristics of his wonderfully unique sound.

Drawing from R&B, soul, trip hop, electronic and alternative rock elements, Sam creates moody and sensuous soundscapes for the expression of his bold lyrics addressing the darker and more introspective aspects of love and relationships. Then he delivers them with his distinctive soulful vocals that go from smooth, sultry croons to plaintive falsetto. He writes all his own music and lyrics, records and programs all instruments, sings all vocals, and produces and mixes all tracks. The only think he outsources is the mastering.

“Icarus” is a stunning and fascinating track, featuring a complex, almost progressive arrangement and a colorful array of instruments and synths. The song opens with stirring synths and an almost gospel-like organ, accompanied with tinkling piano keys. I love Sam’s expressive vocals, which sound especially vulnerable as he laments about falling out of love for his partner and the resulting pain he caused her and the damage he did to their relationship, while admitting he still has strong feelings for her: “I still needed her after all / I fell away, wings like Icarus melting on my bleeding lust. I knew I’d fly too close for us.” As the organ recedes, the melody settles into a languid R&B groove, highlighted by a mix of shimmery and gritty guitars and a thumping drumbeat. His layered vocal harmonies are really beautiful too, turning more plaintive and heartfelt as he implores her to reconsider: “I just love you, isn’t that enough?” The song ends with sounds of a droning synth and pounding drum.

“Icarus” is wonderful, and another in an unbroken string of really stellar singles by this talented artist. If you like it, do take a little time to listen to some of his other songs as well on one of the music platforms below.

Follow G. Samedi: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Stream his music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloudYouTube

Purchase: BandcampAmazon

New Song of the Week – MELOTIKA: “Beautiful Disguise”

I follow thousands of indie artists from around the world, and have featured several hundred of them on this blog over the past five and a half years. One that I’m particularly fond of is Canadian artist Melotika, the alter-ego of singer-songwriter Mel Yelle. The hard-working, charismatic and personable artist began her music career in Toronto, releasing her first music in early 2018, but moved back to her home town of Montreal last summer. Her distinctive, sultry vocal styling, exotic beauty, and strong sense of individuality and determination coupled with an endearing vulnerability, set her apart from a lot of other female artists. Her honest and relatable lyrics touch on the universal subjects of relationships and love, as well as timely issues such as the minefield of social media and how pressures to conform can affect our emotional well-being.

I’ve featured Melotika’s music on this blog several times over the past three years, when I reviewed her singles “Unaware Part II [Blindside]”, “Bittersweet Reality“ and Bury the Bones, a dark, haunting song about a woman who’s a psychopathic killer. And just last month, I featured a collaborative single “Eternal Eclipse” that she recorded with German electronic music producer Lazer Squad as one of four fresh new tracks.  Now, the prolific artist returns with her latest single “Beautiful Disguise“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. Released on February 12th, it’s the lead single from her forthcoming album Dancing Without You, due for release this coming fall. She wrote the lyrics, and the music was composed by her frequent collaborator Sean Savage, who also mixed and mastered the track.

A concept album, Dancing Without You will be a collection of songs that Melotika states are “sort of like a personal diary exposing super vulnerable moments of my life, through alternative electro pop dance music. If I were a teenager, this would have been the perfect pop album to listen to.” Especially fond of artists like Blondie, Eurythmics, Madonna and Depeche Mode, she wanted to capture the essence of their 80s dance-pop/new wave sound for “Beautiful Disguise”, and I think she and Sean succeed quite nicely. The mesmerizing song features a lush palette of shimmery, almost haunting synths and bold hand claps layered over a hypnotic dance beat. Melotika’s rich, sultry vocals were run through tape, providing a captivating vintage texture that’s quite appealing.

“Beautiful Disguise” is based on a song Melotika first wrote in her late teens. She shared some details about it on her Facebook page: “The original song was called ‘Misery’ then switched to ‘Victim’ for some time. The song was a generic angsty break-up type song. Last year when I looked back at it, I decided to reinvent the song and add some more fictional story telling. I thought that a typical break up song would be cliché and over done, so I created a tale about a beautiful forbidden lover, and breaking free from the toxic situation. The lyric ‘The devil inside of me is the devil inside of you when you got nowhere else to go’ refers to the concept ‘misery loves company’. Do we fall in love with bad people or are we obsessed and fall in love with the drama?

Connect with Melotika on  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Apple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase on iTunesBandcamp 

TOBISONICS & COSTI release a powerful and timely new single “Eye of the Storm”

Tobisonics is the music project of Toby Davis, a longtime alternative electro-pop artist, composer, songwriter and music producer based in Luxembourg. For several years, he used his creative vision and talents mixing, mastering or remixing other artists and bands’ music, but starting in late 2018, he decided to create his own musical works as Tobisonics. About his moniker, he explains “All Tobisonics really means is Tobi sounds. And that’s how I think of myself, as a noisemaker, rather than a musician.”

Costi is a London-based hip hop artist and rapper who describes himself as an “Emcee slash poet who mixes spoken word with hip hop music.. plus a little guitar.” He’s been featured on Fresh on the Net – Fresh Faves 316 and the BBC Introducing Mixtape, and has been involved in numerous musical collaborations and projects, including as one half of the hip hop/electronic music duo One Line to an Angle, who released a terrific single “Cassette Tape”, along with several remixes, last October.

Costi

I’ve previously featured Tobisonics three times on this blog, most recently last October when I wrote about his single “Military Industrial Complex“, a politically-charged electronic track featuring two important and diametrically opposite speeches by Presidents Eisenhower and Trump. (You can read my previous reviews by clicking on the “Related” links at the end of this post.) Angered by Trump’s incendiary Rose Garden speech last June, in which he threatened a harsh government response to the Black Lives Matter protests, Toby decided to contrast Trump’s menacing words with Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address warning of the need for perpetual vigilance to safeguard the liberties of the American people against the military industrial complex and include them in his song. Though the song resonated with listeners and music critics, and received radio play on Amazing Radio US, KGUP FM, and scores of respected independent radio shows, Toby later confessed to having mixed feelings: “I feel ‘Military Industrial Complex’ was artistically successful but, in terms of its application, it failed. I wanted to engage with traditional voters on the right, instead I just ended up just preaching to the choir.”

With that sentiment in mind, he decided to create a new song that would tackle populist nationalism not with clever comparisons, but with hope: “I wanted to inspire hope and remind people of a time when we believed we could be one race of humans, a better people, a great people, a global people.” He teamed up with Costi to collaborate on a song they titled “Eye of the Storm“, an electro-synth retro-wave anthem of hope to raise people up after all the stress, worry, fear and pain of 2020. The single will be released on all music platforms on Wednesday, January 20th, in recognition of Joe Biden’s Inauguration as the 46th President of the United States. It’s the first of four collaborative music projects Tobisonics has planned for 2021.

For the song, Tobisonics sampled President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, along with lyrics written and sung by Costi. The track opens with Costi singing the chorus, followed by several verses alternating with the repeated chorus. Musically, Tobisonics employs a powerful thumping synth bass beat, accompanied by ominous swirling industrial synths that seem to mimic bombs dropping from the skies, while Costi raps the biting lyrics with an impressive and commanding flow. At the two-minute mark, Kennedy’s speech enters, followed by the chorus. In the fifth recitation of the chorus, Costi’s lyrics are interspersed with the most famous lines of Kennedy’s speech:

The future’s bright that’s the neon lights
(And so my fellow Americans)
Demolition man put your dreams on ice
(ask not)
Said it’s going down if you’re seen on sight
(what your country can do for you)
Countdown started and we leave tonight
(ask what you can do for your country)

The song ends with the often-overlooked second part to Kennedy’s most famous quote: “My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man”, driving home the strong unifying message Tobisonics and Costi desired to great effect.

Click on this link https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/tobisonicsandcosti/eye-of-the-storm to pre-save the track.

Connect with Tobisonics: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Amazon

The Winachi Tribe – Single Review: “Time For Love (David Tolan Remix)”

British electropop/funk band The Winachi Tribe make some of the most deliciously catchy and cool music of any artists around today, and I love them! Formed in 2015 and based in and around Manchester and Leeds, the group is comprised of Liam Croker (vocals), Antony Egerton (keyboards, programming), Inder Goldfinger (percussion), Jamie McGregor (lead guitar),  Ritchie Rich (bass) and Mr. Whommit (drums). Drawing from an array of legendary influences such as Parliament-Funkadelic, Sly & The Family Stone, Primal Scream, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Massive Attack, The Stone Roses, Talking Heads, D’angelo, Prince and Daft Punk, they create their own infectious style of funk-infused electro/dance pop.

I first featured them in 2018 when I reviewed their fantastic dance song “Transition”, and then again this past March when I reviewed their single “Funky But Chic“, a delightful song released as a marketing collaboration with iconic Italian fashion brand Pantofola d’Oro. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the links under “Related” at the end of this post.) Now, to celebrate the 5th year anniversary of their debut single “Time For Love”, they’ve released a new remix by Grammy nominated producer David Tolan, who’s produced records for Tears For Fears and Primal Scream, among others. The single is being released today, December 4th, via British independent label A1MRecords.

The original song has a wonderful, hip-swaying Kool & the Gang-Chic vibe, but on the new remix, David Tolan dials up the energy with a heavier dance groove, lots of swirling spacey synths, and more pronounced Nile Rodgers-style guitar riffs that take the song to the next level. Liam’s raspy vocals are low key, yet overflowing with a sexy swagger that’s just too damn irresistible. I also like that the backing female vocals and jazzy trumpet flourishes are still prominent on the remix. It’s a superb track all the way around, and guaranteed to get even the most stubborn wallflower onto the dance floor.

The great cover artwork for the single was created by Pete Phythian.

Follow The Winachi Tribe:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Apple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  iTunes / Amazon

THE OCEAN BENEATH ft. FRAN MINNEY- Single Review: “Skin”

When I last featured British electronic music project The Ocean Beneath on this blog in July 2019, it was to review his marvelous debut self-titled EP The Ocean Beneath (which you can read here.) The Ocean Beneath is the brain child of Leeds-based musician, composer and producer Matt Burnside. Influenced by bands such as Gunship, HVOB and Talk Talk, he combine 80’s synthpop elements with modern recording techniques, analogue synthesis and huge melodic grooves to create music that sounds retro, yet fresh and now.

He recently teamed up with Leeds-based singer-songwriter and electronic musician Fran Minney for their smoldering new collaborative single “Skin“, which drops today, September 29th. In their own words, the song “encapsulates the almost drunken touch-starved feeling a lot of us have experienced during lockdown these past few months with a beat to help you dance out that desperation.” Well, I must say that Matt and Fran do a superb job in capturing those desperate feelings of desire through their sensuous instrumentals, arrangement and vocals.

Photo by Matthew Baxter

After listening to “Skin” a few times, it struck me how it has a somewhat similar feel as Everything But The Girl’s 1995 hit song “Missing”, not only because of the way it transitions back and forth from a calm, moody vibe to a sensuous dance groove, but also that Fran’s sultry vocals remind me of Tracey Thorn’s.

The song opens with enchanting glittery synths, then Fran’s lush vocals enter as the music expands with darker, more ominous synths and a crisp percussive beat. At the one minute mark, a throbbing dance beat ensues along with Fran’s haunting, echoed vocals, and lasting around 15 seconds before calming down, only to briefly return at 1:50. This back and forth pattern continues through the rest of the track, building to an exhilarating crescendo in the final chorus before calming back down at the end. It all serves to create a strong sense of tension and unfulfilled desire that makes for a very powerful song.

The days and the months
The weight of your touch
I’ve waited so long
The dry thickened clay
Baked deep in the layers
I’m breaking away

I am lost in your skin
Feel the waves crash within
I’m off my feet
I’m floating
Your skin, your, your skin, skin
Your skin, your, your skin, skin

The sand and the blood
A coarse thickened flood
I waited so long
The foam and the blue
That brought me to you
The pull of a truth

I am lost in your skin
Feel the waves crash within
I’m off my feet
I’m floating

I die a little each time x3
I die a little
I die a little each time x3
Let me drown in this night

I am lost in your skin
Feel the waves crash within
I’m off my feet
I’m floating

Connect with The Ocean Beneath: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  SpotifyApple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

Connect with Fran Minney:  FacebookTwitterInstagram

100 Best Songs of the 2010s – #96: “Wander” by Vox Eagle feat. Pierre Fontaine

The song at #96 on my list of 100 Best Songs of the 2010s is “Wander” by Vox Eagle, featuring rap vocals by Pierre Fontaine. Vox Eagle is the music project of Australian-born and now Colorado-based singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Crosby. One of the tracks from his outstanding 2018 album TriumAvium, “Wander” is an enchanting mashup of melodic dream rock and hip hop, and when those magical keyboard and string synths wash over us like a shower of tiny diamonds, it’s absolute bliss. Eventually, a trip hop beat ensues as Andy freestyles about how communication has broken down in his relationship, his vocals going from sultry to falsetto as he sings: “We don’t talk no more, baby girl, we just wander.” Guest vocalist Pierre Fontaine’s smooth rap vocals take over on the last third of the track, adding another wonderful textural element to this stunning track. I love this song so much I’ve probably listened to it five hundred times.

HEAD NOISE – Single Review: “200,000 Gallons of Oil”

Head Noise

Born from a love of inane junk culture and modern art. Here to disorientate, but also to captivate.” So say Welsh new wave/electro/art-punk band Head Noise about themselves and their deliriously fun retro-80s music that sounds like a crazy mash-up of Devo, Erasure and The B-52s. Formed in 2016 and based in Aberdare and Mountain Ash in southern Wales, Head Noise consists of Mitchell Tennant (Keytar/Vocals), Wayne Bassett (Guitar/Synth) and Jordan Brill (Guitar/Synth). The band started out as a duo act with Mitch and Wayne performing an original set of songs at an art exhibition, which according to their bio was described by an attendee as “David Lynch meets the Pet Shop Boys”. Jordan joined the band in 2017 as a second guitarist and synth player, giving their music a fuller sound.

In October 2017 they released their debut EP Special Effects Improves The Defects, which includes some hilariously-titled songs like “The Meat People” and “The Man With the Rubber Head”.  That was followed in August 2018 with the Microwave EP which, along with their humorous and entertaining live performances, catapulted them to notoriety (or infamy, depending on who you ask), throughout South Wales and Southwest England. They’ve also had the good fortune to open for bands like Wolf Alice, Public Service Broadcasting and Electric 6. This past November (2019), they dropped their debut album Über-Fantastique, an ambitious and marvelously trippy work featuring 14 tracks. The album release was accompanied by a limited run of CDs which quickly sold out.

Head Noise has just released one of the album tracks “200,000 Gallons of Oil” as a single, along with a wacky video that nicely showcases their zany, playful nature. (Be sure to check out their other imaginative and quirky videos on YouTube.) The song is catchy as hell, with a thumping synth bass-driven beat that immediately sets our toes tapping and head bopping. The guys layer a cool assortment of spacey, psychedelic synths to create a trippy vibe, then add crisp percussion and subtle, funky guitar notes to fill out the sound. I like how they top things off with some well-placed cowbell near the end for good measure.

The lyrics are rather silly and make no real sense to me, unless they’re singing about an unfortunate oil spill. But whatever their meaning, they’re perfectly suited to the lively music and band’s quirky persona. Mitch has a great singing voice, and delivers the lyrics with a cheeky sense of urgency:  “200,000 gallons of oil. Fill up the bath, you grotesque gargoyle. 200,000 gallons of oil. There is a potential cause for concern. Sit by the side of the road and get wet. Cut off the area with hazard tape. I’m just not ready to deal with it yet.”

Follow Head Noise: Facebook / Twitter/ Instagram
Stream their music: SpotifyApple Music / Soundcloud
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google PlayAmazon

New Song of the Week – STRANGELY ALRIGHT: “Psych Film”

Strangely Alright Psyche Film

Strangely Alright is a five-piece band from Seattle, Washington who refer to themselves as an “Eclectic Traveling Minstrel Magic Music Medicine Show”. They’ve built a huge following not only because of their entertaining and quirky style of punk-infused psychedelic rock, but also for the strong messages of humanity, love, kindness and acceptance in their songs. The band is fronted by Regan Lane, who does much of the songwriting and sings lead vocals, Sean Van Dommelen (lead guitar, vocals), Ken Schaff (bass), Raymond Hayden (keyboards, vocals) and Jason Bair (drums). They’ve released a number of recordings over the past several years, including their terrific album The Time Machine is Broken in 2013, as well as a compilation album All of Us Are Strange (The Singles) and an EP Stuff, both of which were released in 2018. You can read my review of Stuff here.

On the heels of their epic and mesmerizing Pink Floyd-esque single “Inside a Place”, Strangely Alright are back with a fantastic new single “Psych Film“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week. The song is about connection, trust, and valuing someone for who they are, warts and all. About their creative process, the band explains: “Part of being in a band, or relationship for that matter, is trust. Regan and Sean’s songwriting chemistry and trust are based on mutual respect and similar journeys from that darkness into the light that work for them. ‘Psych Film’ is a perfect example of one of the ways they create. [It’s] like having two painters painting on the same canvas at different times in order to create one cohesive piece of art.”

The track is melodic and trippy, with a bit of a 70s era David Bowie vibe thanks to lush psychedelic guitars and wonderfully spooky synths. The drums and percussion are flawless, and I love the deep, throbbing bass and heavy, buzzing reverb that continues throughout the song. Regan’s pleasing vocals are comforting as he croons the optimistic lyrics:

In the best of us you’re gonna find a good thing
In the worst of us you’re gonna find a bad thing
A different job
A different life
A different God
A different wife
In the best of us you’re gonna find a good thing

I don’t have to be alone no more
Connection
I don’t have to change
Who I am today
I am here and that’s enough to make it all ok
Connection
In a movie where the hero isn’t handsome
He got a job but he cannot afford the ransom
A different skin
A beating heart
A different dream
A tiny spark
In a movie where the hero isn’t handsome
I don’t have to be afraid of me
Connection
There’s a tiny thread
That I cannot see
But I feel it when I touch it with an open mind
Connection

Ooooo
A sinner today a saint tomorrow
A sinner today

To learn more about Strangely Alright, check out their website
Connect with them on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Apple Music / Reverbnation / Soundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunesGoogle Play

SURRIJA – Album Review: “Surrija”

Surrija Albumcover

This past January, I introduced my readers to Surrija, the music project of the hyper-talented singer-songwriter Jane Lui, when I reviewed her marvelous single “Nothing Love”. The song was the lead single of her self-titled album Surrija, which dropped April 3rd. Born and raised in Hong Kong, and now based in Los Angeles, Lui began studying classical piano at the age of five, and that traditional training, combined with her love for the music of artists like Tori Amos, Kate Bush and Björk, helped shape her unique sound and music style. She has a gorgeous and unusual singing voice, and uses it almost like another instrument in her arsenal, seducing us with tender whispers one moment, then startling us with a feral urgency the next.

Recording under her given name, Lui produced three studio albums between 2004 and 2010, along with numerous singles and covers, which you can find on her SpotifySoundcloud, and YouTube pages. Despite her success, however, she felt constrained, and wanted to make music that more closely reflected what she refers to as her “slightly feral tendencies.” It was with this new approach that Lui rebranded herself as Surrija. In 2016 she spent time in Barcelona, Spain, where she initially found inspiration from Picasso’s artistic output during his own years spent living there. But eventually, she became fascinated instead with his famous lovers and muses who he kept in the shadows, often preventing them from realizing their own potential. Wanting to tell their story, she began researching about some of them and writing songs for what would become her debut album Surrija. As a concept album, Surrija is a complex and remarkable work, with a lot to unpack. Not being a musician, I approach this review with a bit of trepidation, as I hope to adequately articulate at least some of its many nuances.

The first album cut and lead single “Nothing Love” actually predates her time spent in Barcelona, as it was written in 2013. The song – and the entire album actually – is a musical feast for the ears, with an impressive array of instruments, synths and sounds. Starting with a foundation of stuttering dubstep beats, Surrija and her team of musicians layer a rich and colorful kaleidoscope of sounds and textures to create a dramatic and rather chaotic soundscape that thrills and surprises at every turn. Surrija plays the Moog synthesizer, electric organ, piano and mellotron, Matt Chamberlain plays drums, mixed percussion and modular synths, Maxwell Gualtieri plays electric guitar, Sophocles Papavasilopoulos plays piano and clarinet, and Christine Tavolacci plays the enchanting flute that’s one of the song’s highlights for me. Lui told the webzine Clout: “‘Nothing Love’ is about the kind of heartbreak that hurts so much it feels absurd”, and her fervent vocals most definitely convey that kind of emotional intensity.

Surrija and gang
Albert Chiang, Surrija, Maxwell Gualtieri & Sophocles Papavasilopoulos

Next up is “Barcelona“, one of my personal favorites on the album. Like most of the tracks, it was co-written by Lui and Albert Chiang, and while the lyrics are ambiguous to me, the song’s arrangement and Surrija’s captivating vocals are incredible. The song starts off almost tentatively, with wobbly industrial synths set to a slow dubstep beat as Surrija’s softly croons. Subtle keyboards and haunting guitar notes enter as the song builds, soaring to a dramatic crescendo in the chorus as she passionately sings “I’ll be waiting in Barcelona”, covering me in goosebumps.

A number of songs are named for Picasso’s paintings, muses or lovers, the first of which is “Sylvette“, which is also the title of Picasso’s 1954 painting of a young woman with a pony tail. The model for the painting was a young French woman named Lydia Sylvette David, who worked in a pottery studio near Picasso’s studio. Finding her appearance appealing, he ultimately created 40 works inspired by her. It’s been said that she was an inspiration for actress Brigitte Bardot and the Roger Vadim film And God Created Woman. Now 85, Lydia starting drawing to pass the time while she sat for Picasso, and became an artist in her own right. (Wikipedia) Musically, “Sylvette” has a throbbing synth-driven dance vibe with funky guitars and sharp drumbeats. Surrija’s soulful vocals remind of a bit of Madonna on this track, which actually sounds to me like a song Madonna could have sung in the 90s.

Minotaur” is inspired by Picasso’s fascination with the mythical creature, which was a prominent and recurring motif in his artwork from 1928-1958. The bull is a significant element in Spanish culture, representing power and strength, as evidenced in the rituals of bullfighting and the running of the bulls. For the online art webzine Widewalls, art critic Balasz Takac observed that Picasso “apparently perceived himself as the Minotaur, a creature of huge physical power and sexual energy, which suited his need for expressing the male principal in all of its glory. He somehow saw the battle in corrida through the prism of his own relationships with women. On the other hand, it is also important to point out that the bull is a rebellious and durable animal eager to resist the attacker, which is relevant in the light of Picasso’s political engagement and reaction on the rising Fascism in the 1930s.”

I may be way off, but the lyrics “Behind the terror where the gentle lives / Breathing heavy always counting on the scars and open wounds / She knows those lilies and nightlight” seem to speak to how one of Picasso’s lovers would deal with him in the context of his identity as a Minotaur.

Another favorite track of mine is the enchanting “Dora“, highlighted by beautiful violin, deep, resonant piano keys, and Surrija and Albert Chiang’s exquisite vocal harmonies. The song is named for French photographer, painter and poet Dora Maar (aka Henriette Theodora Markovitch), who had a tempestuous affair with Picasso from 1935-43 (even though he was still somewhat involved with his previous lover Marie-Thérèse Walter). He painted many portraits of her, often depicting her as a tortured, anguished woman, which she did not appreciate. The most well known of these portraits is “The Weeping Woman.” Her sentiments are vividly expressed in the lyrics: “You introduced me to your war / I learned a lot keep folding it in / Take care of the dark / Knife between the roses on the table top / The blood I kept and promised / Like a dream come true / You’re a dream come true.

Serial philanderer and overall louse that he was, Picasso dumped Dora for his next lover Marie Françoise Gilot, with whom he had a stormy affair from 1943-53, and subject of the song “Gilot“. She was also an accomplished artist, but her professional career was eclipsed by her involvement with Picasso. After they split up, he discouraged galleries from showing or buying her work, and tried to block the publication of her memoir Life with Picasso. (Still alive at 98, she later married Jonas Salk, developer of one of the first polio vaccines.) “Gilot” has a harsher, lo-fi sound, with a skittering dubstep beat and spacey synths, highlighted with some somber piano keys. With breathy, ethereal vocals, Surrija softly laments as Gilot, coming to terms with Picasso’s shortcomings and finally choosing to move on: “You could be here with history waiting / Keep still for a moment / ‘Cause I know you and all you want to take / I see you through your loops and endings / Sweet wreckage awaiting / It’s hard but i will walk away.

Turnstile Hostile” seems to address Picasso’s penchant for having a revolving door of lovers, and his mistreatment and ultimate discarding of them: “Turnstile hostile temperamental / We lined up for your blows / Arms up gun point my anger hollowed / Can’t feel the quiet it’s time to go.” The gnarly synths, gritty bass and punchy drums create a discordant vibe that suits the biting lyrics. “Semibelieve” is a rather haunting, ethereal song with ambient psychedelic synths, delicate piano keys and distant sounds of crickets. I can’t figure out what the lyrics are about, but Surrija’s soft, breathy vocals are lovely as she sings them.

Mercy Street” is a beautiful and haunting cover of the song written by Peter Gabriel that originally appeared on his 1986 album So. Though unrelated to the subject matter of the other tracks, it seems to fit the album’s overall theme quite well, The album features two brief instrumental tracks, the first of which “She Learned to Not Be Scared” consists of a pensive but lovely piano melody accompanied by ambient sounds of rain and thunder, broken at the end by sounds of a tape recorder being turned on with some entirely different music playing before being abruptly shut off. The second is “H.U.M.“, which is essentially 30 seconds of deep synth bass.

The album closes with the beautiful piano ballad “Almost Time“, a bittersweet song that seems to speak to broken relationships and the pain they leave in their wake: “Well it’s almost time / Maybe you’ll get lucky / At least in my mind / No answers for I know I’d lose / But i can say ‘least I tried so I can hide.” The only sounds we hear are Surrija’s captivating piano and vocals that start off tender and heartfelt, then rise to an impassioned plea in the chorus that brings chills.

Surrija is a brilliant and innovative work, and one of the most fascinating albums I’ve heard so far this year. Though each track can stand on its own, I think the album should be listened to in its entirety from beginning to end to fully appreciate its beauty, power and nuance. Surrija and her fellow musicians have crafted a stunning work that should make them all quite proud.

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Stream her music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase: Google Play / cdbaby