XENNON – Album Review: “MIAMI COP”

Xennon Miami Cop

XENNON is a synthwave artist/producer and music teacher who’s originally from the U.K., but now based in Tokyo, Japan, and he’s just released his debut album MIAMI COP. A busy man, he’s also curator of the Synthwave Sounds playlist on Spotify. Inspired by the 80s hit TV show Miami Vice, and the synth-driven pop-rock that was also popular in the 80s, MIAMI COP is a concept album that tells the story of an alternative Miami circa 1987. In this story, the city is a dystopian world in which technology has advanced far beyond our own world’s, and crime has spiraled out of control. Against this backdrop of illegal firearms and drug trafficking stands a troubled police officer named Jack Lancer, the MIAMI COP who aims to do battle with the bad guys.

The album was written, performed, produced and mixed by XENNON, and mastered by acclaimed music engineer Pete Maher, whose clients have included such noted acts as U2, The Killers, The White Stripes, The Pixies, The Rolling Stones, Nine Inch Nails, the 1975, Katy Perry, Depeche Mode, Liam Gallagher, Linkin Park and many more. Additional guest vocals and voice-over work on some tracks were provided by Allie, Bill Fore and Benny Rose. XENNON has dedicated his album to the memory of Jeanette Portues.

MIAMI COP opens with “Miami Beach Chase“, a fast-paced song that sets the stage for the battle to come, as Jack goes on a high-speed pursuit of a criminal on the streets of Miami. The exuberant track immediately reminds me of Patti Labelle’s 1985 dance-pop hit “New Attitude”, which was also featured on the Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack. XENNON turns introspective on the poignant “Flashback to Holly“, where Jack reflects on better times with his now ex-wife Holly, who left him because of his drinking and aggressive behavior, and how he wishes he’d treated her better: “But I can’t say the words that are deep in my regret. Like, ‘did I let you down?’ I couldn’t see you smiling back at me at first, but I can now./Let go, moving slow, because time is the only thing that makes it better.” The vibrant, shimmery synths and pulsating percussive beats enhance the powerful emotions expressed by XENNON’s clear, plaintive vocals.

Ominous grinding synths beautifully capture the evil essence of notorious arms dealer Baron Cleeth on “A New Enemy“. Jack comes to terms with what he must do to redeem himself and save Miami: “Saved in me, is the least that I can do to erase what I regret. Now, take me from me./Hating what I’ve done. Know then what I’ll do. Hating what I’ve become. But I know then what I’ll do.” Bill Fore provides Cleeth’s menacing voice-over. “The Visit” sees Jack going to visit Holly in an attempt to win her back, but she’s having none of it. The track has a bouncy, upbeat tempo and sweeping glittery synths that belie the bittersweet lyrics. Guest vocalist Allie sings Holly’s parts as she gives Jack the brush-off: “Shifting blame is what you do best. But I’m tired, yeah I’m tired. And I’m tired of trying.”

The Broken Man” is a near-epic, mostly instrumental track running seven and a half minutes. The music starts off with magical-sounding synth chords, accompanied by a deep, fluttering jazzy bass riff. The music then expands with psychedelic synths and an ominous throbbing percussive beat. Later in the song, guest vocalist Benny Rose performs the spoken voice-over for Jack’s boss Captain Carson, who admonishes him for being stupid and foolish to embark on a dangerous raid, and to use his pain and suffering as the fuel to re-ignite the fire inside him and become the valiant man he used to be.

Heeding his captain’s advice, Jack cleans up his act and pulls himself together on “The Montage“. XENNON employs more of those 80s dance-pop grooves with a bouncy deep percussive beat and lots of shimmery synths, giving the track a sunny, upbeat vibe that complements the hopeful lyrics: “Finally the fog is lifting and I can see everything once again. Achingly, I stand assisting the reason I’m here taking over me.”

With his attitude improved and confidence back, as he prepares to do battle with Cleeth, Jack decides to try again with Holly, sending her “The Letter“. Musically, the song has a strong 80s synth-pop sound, with a chorus that reminds me a bit of the chorus in Starship’s 1986 hit “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”. XENNON’s vocals are especially wonderful here, soaring to a near-falsetto in places as he croons “I’m alive, I’m seeing sights with my soulmate standing by my side. Can’t believe my eyes, where everything I ever wanted is mine. This part of my heart, is forever growing. I hope I show it every day. All the years that we spent, I want more of them. Cause I couldn’t be happier another way.

Everything comes to a head on “The Raid” an exhilarating eight-minute-long tour de force. The track starts off with a cool special FX arrangement by Benny Rose, where we hear crystalline sounds of breaking glass, voices from a crowd of people and a circling police helicopter, all accompanied by deep, throbbing bass. Both Fore and Rose are back, providing voice-overs for Cleeth and Captain Carson, respectively. XENNON delivers a complex kaleidoscope of swirling, psychedelic, and industrial synths to create aural imagery of the epic battle between the Miami police and Cleeth’s gang of thugs. It’s a dramatic finish to a clever and imaginative concept work.

I’m not entirely sure we needed more 80s-inspired synthpop, but XENNON brings a fresh and creative approach to the genre with his ambitious and impressive debut effort. He’s done a very fine job composing exciting music and writing thoughtful lyrics, then using synthesizers to create the distinct moods and sounds that bring his classic tale of good vs. evil to life.

To learn more about the storyline for MIAMI COP, as well the character bios and images, go to XENNON’s Website.  You’ll find everything you need to know about the MIAMI COP universe, allowing you to more fully enjoy the overall experience. All artwork for the album and website was done by Travis Wright.

Connect with XENNON:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

NOTELLE – Single Review: “Beyond the Grave”

notelle-BTG

Nashville, Tennessee-based Notelle is a hard-working and talented music artist who, over the past five years or so, has been making quite a name for herself in the music capital and beyond. Working with DJs and music producers around the globe as both a writer and vocalist, her collaborations have accumulated more than six million streams on Spotify, have been featured on numerous Spotify and Apple playlists, and received over four million plays on YouTube, as well as coverage on Sirius XM Radio and EDM.com.

More recently, Notelle has been focusing on her solo career, spending the past year perfecting her sound – which she calls “heavy, messy pop” – with the assistance of producer Timothy Ryssemus of Altru Creative. Combining her love for dirty, chest-compressing low end and rhythmic, percussive synths with her gorgeous commanding vocals, she’s thus far created five superb singles that really showcase her musical gifts. Her stunning debut solo single,“Power”, premiered on local Nashville radio station Lightning 100’s The 615, while her third single “Out Of Love” was selected as a DJ pick and placed in regular rotation.

At the end of August, Notelle dropped her latest single, “Beyond The Grave“, where she explores a grittier, harder sound than her previous works. Straying from traditional song structures, she fuses elements of Appalachian folk melodies with driving industrial synths and deep bass, producing a dark and dramatic soundscape for her haunting vocals.

The track opens with her soft, breathy a capella vocals, then deep, pulsating bass and strong, percussive beats ensue, creating an ominous, yet incredibly seductive vibe. At about 1:20, the bass drops and a throbbing EDM beat grabs us by the hips, compelling us to move while Notelle’s vocals turn more urgent as she implores: “I find darkness so comforting. It hides the shadows I beg not to see again. Let me be your prey or virtue. If you leave me, let me grieve you. Sweetest love is the love we take. I’ll hold you from beyond the grave.” It’s a brilliant and beautiful track.

About the song’s lyrics, Notelle explained I have always been attracted to folklore about tragic love and loss. There is something about a ‘haunting’ that appeals to me. The idea that your longing for someone else can become so ingrained into your soul, that when your body passes on, the severity of the love and the loss stays behind and lingers – that’s so unbelievably interesting. It’s become a piece of your being. It’s almost as if there is no separation between what you feel and who you are, no way to disassociate from someone else’s crippling desperation for you or your desire for them…even after you’re gone. How can such an intense connection with another soul NOT leave some type of divine mark? Just because desire isn’t tangible, doesn’t mean it can’t take on a life of its own – maybe it gets stuck in some tragic loop in the afterlife.

To learn more about Notelle, check out her website
Connect with her on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream her music on  Spotify / Soundcloud Apple Music
Purchase on  iTunes / Google Play

STONED PIRATES – Album Review: “Flag, Skull and Rock n Roll”

Stoned Pirates album art

Stoned Pirates is the music project of Algerian-born Khaled Sahour, a creative and highly imaginative musician, visual artist and filmmaker. Growing up in a home where he was exposed to lots of music and art, he early on developed a love of rock, pop and disco, and taught himself to play music on a broken two string guitar. He started a band and sung his heart out to young Algerian audiences that seemed to connect very well, but eventually relocated to Los Angeles to further his career in music and film. On August 9th, he released his debut album Flag, Skull and Rock n Roll, which I’m pleased to be reviewing today.

Stoned Pirates’ unusual and eclectic music style comes from a wide array of influences ranging from classic rock acts such as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses, to the funk of Sly & the Family Stone, the dance grooves of Chic and Nile Rodgers, and the soulful pop of Michael Jackson – all spiced with an Algerian flavor. Not only does Khaled write, perform, record and produce all his music, he also creates his own visuals for his Stoned Pirates project. The album was mixed and mastered by Thomas Juth, and opens with “Turmoil (Intro)“, a brief track that sets the tone for the album. With a backdrop of otherworldly industrial synths and a hypnotic beat, Stoned Pirates chants “I’ve been waiting for the wind to blow. I guess it’s time to rock’n’roll.

Next up is “Nothing“, a dark, trippy song about feeling overwhelmed by loneliness and hopelessness, like one is powerless to change the sorry state of things. Stoned Pirates weaves a mesmerizing soundscape out of a fascinating kaleidoscope of synth instruments and exotic sounds. I love the xylophone, spooky keyboards, deep bass and guitar, accompanied by a cool, carnival-like synth riff. Khaled has a quirky vocal style in which he sometimes sings in a baby-like falsetto that I suppose could be off-putting to some, but once I got into his music I found it sort of charming. Using that falsetto, he sings: “Throw me a bone. Hit me with a stone, I just wanna feel something real.” But then, he sings in a deeper, almost menacing tone: “Nothing, absolutely nothing has changed today. Same old, same old sins and heartbreaks coming in new ways.

The surreal video he made for the song shows an astronaut floating aimlessly through dark space along with various objects like an old TV playing static, boxing gloves and pieces of furniture.

One of my favorite tracks is “The Devil in You“, a great kiss-off song to someone who’s deceived and caused hurt. The song has a sensual beat, with jazzy synths, funky bass, swirling guitar and some really terrific sax. Stoned Pirates bitterly sings “I didn’t see fully the devil in you. What are you truly, if not a foe? Don’t come back crying, knocking on my door.” Keeping with a similar theme, “Mr. Nice Guy” addresses someone who keeps taking advantage of a guy whenever she screws up: “If you cry for help, he will come to you. Convenient nice guy is always at your rescue.” Once again, Stoned Pirates employs a rich assortment of sparkling synths, along with a hypnotic dance beat to create a captivating backdrop for his colorful vocals.

On the bittersweet “In Time“, he laments of his regret about having broken up with a lover: “If I could I would go back in time, I would change the way we drew the lines. If I could I would go back in time. I would try harder to change your mind. Love will come to you in time. Just be patient, don’t cry.” The soulful track has a Michael Jackson vibe, featuring deep, sensual synths, highlighted by funky guitar and brass, all set to a strong, hip-swaying beat. The soulful, funky “Rebound” has him calling out someone who’s using him to get over another guy:  “Oh girl, who you think you’re trying to fool? Oh girl, who you think you’re playing here? Cause all the signs are clear. I’m talking about the rebound.”

Stoned Pirates uses a vampire metaphor on “Midnight Lover“, a sexy song about a seductress who preys on men to get what she wants. I love this lyric: “I saw her on the dance floor still trying to get more. Staring at me in the eyes while biting another guy.” Funky grooves abound on “Where I Belong“, another sultry tune with marvelous swirling synths and a beat so damn infectious it had me doing a lap dance in my chair! The aptly-titled album closer “The End” features a sultry Latin beat and jangly guitars drenched in reverb, accompanied by some tasty exuberant horns. Khaled employs his deeper vocals here, as he sings in an almost menacing whisper: “Sit back, relax, nobody is going anywhere. You think the end, but it’s only just the beginning.”

I’ve got to say that Flag, Skull and Rock n Roll is a marvelous album and a very impressive debut from Stoned Pirates. His innovative music is totally original, sounding like no one else I’m aware of. I love how he’s taken an eclectic mix of influences to create his own unique, fascinating sound. His beautiful, seductive melodies, compelling lyrics and use of a wide array of lush instruments and synths make for some really captivating songs that are pure joy to hear.

Connect with Stoned Pirates:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

CRAIG-RUSSELL HORNE – Single Review: “Sleepwalking”

Craig-Russell Horne is an independent electronic music artist and producer from Glasgow, Scotland. Formerly a member of Scottish alternative rock band The 21st State, he’s been called one of the most promising newcomers to the Scottish electronic scene and, after listening to his music I can fully understand why. He blends a wide array of dynamic synthesized sounds with samples of old films and classic songs to create fascinating soundscapes for his compelling lyrics and distinctive vocals. Following up on his brilliant 2018 debut album WITH THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT, he’s just released a captivating new single “Sleepwalking“.

Craig-Russell Horne2

“Sleepwalking” is about someone with insomnia. Horne explains: “It tells a romantic story of someone who is kept up at night by their past, which constantly runs over in their mind. They can only find solace and, ultimately rest, when with the person they love.  The first half of the track addresses the initial thoughts of regret and fear leading to the insomnia. The vocals are spaced and thin to represent internal thought while also panning from left to right to represent the thoughts spiraling around the head. In the second half, the conversation takes place between the two partners. It is open and honest while also dealing with the embarrassment of opening up. It symbolises love in the form of trust, humility and devotion.

The film samples [heard in the song] are from the 1955 film noir, ‘The Big Combo’, in which a police lieutenant who comes under pressure from a violent gang is helped by the gang leader’s wife to stop their reign over the city. As in ‘The Big Combo’, the two people represented in “Sleepwalking” are unexpected, perfect partners who have experienced very different lives but are brought together by a common bond.”

The track opens with a snippet of conversation between the aforementioned police lieutenant and the gangster’s wife, accompanied by an enchanting little keyboard riff. Once Horne’s vocals enter, the music swells with more of those glittery keyboards, along with somewhat grainy background percussive synths that creates an intriguing contrast in sound textures. Horne has a rather deep, emotive vocal style, but his delivery is understated on this track compared to many of the songs on WITH THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT. His vocals have a vulnerable yet seductive quality as he croons of his fervor:  “Sleepwalking is the only vibe. And you’re the only thing that keeps me up at night. I’ve tried every drug to get me back to sleep. And then I realize that you cut too deep.”

Connect with Craig-Russell:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music
Purchase:  Google Play / Amazon

KILLER TAPE – EP Review: “Ghosts”

Killer Tape2

Killer Tape is the music project of young artists Ella Heaton and Luke Hudson. Originally from Leeds, England, Ella is currently studying in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and Luke in Berlin, Germany. In June (2019) they released their debut EP Ghosts, featuring three stunning lo-fi tracks. Melding elements of shoegaze, ambient, electronic and psychedelia, the duo create mesmerizing soundscapes that transport us to dreamy, faraway places.

First off is the title track “Ghosts”, a haunting, ethereal song that opens with clicks that sound like a cassette tape being placed into a player, accompanied by a droning acoustic guitar and mysterious, sinewy synths that gradually build as the track progresses. With breathy echoed vocals that sound appropriately ghost-like, Ella gently croons “There’s a man on the ceiling, and he’s full of misdemeanour.

The dreamy “Scrimmage” features marvelous glittery synths and a fuzzy, reverb-heavy guitar that borders on surf. Ella’s echoed chanting can be heard in the distance, accompanied by a spooky organ riff at the end of the song. I love it!

The final track “May Day” is brief, lasting only 1:40 minutes, but is a wonderful composition, with more of that spooky organ and throbbing spacey synths that impart a fascinating otherworldly vibe. This time it’s Luke’s distant echoed chants that can be heard. The track ends with the same clicking sounds we heard at the beginning of “Ghosts”, signifying that the tape has been removed from the player.

Ghosts is a great little EP from this talented young duo, and my only criticism is that it’s too short, leaving me wanting to hear more.

Connect with Killer Tape: Facebook / Instagram
Stream or purchase on Apple Music / Google Play / YouTube

ARTHUR KAY – EP Review: “Arthur Kay”

Arthur Kay

Arthur Kay is a renaissance man of sorts. The hard-working and versatile Norwegian musician has been a prominent figure in the Oslo music scene for the past decade. In addition to being frontman for galactic jazz-pop band Dr Kay and his Interstellar Tone Scientists, Kay has worked or collaborated with indie rock band The Switch, Norwegian rapper Ivan Ave, and neo-psychedelic pop-rock band Orions Belte, among others. Becoming a veritable whiz kid on synths and keyboards while still a young child, Kay had mastered Ray Manzarek’s iconic “Light My Fire” organ solo by the age of eight.

Now Kay has recorded his first solo effort, a self-titled EP Arthur Kay that’s scheduled for release on October 11 via Jansen Records. In advance of the EP release, he’s unveiled the first single “Holiday Pay“. The upbeat song is a celebration of the Norwegian institutional policy of employers being required by law to pay a certain percentage of last year’s wages as holiday pay during the Summer months. Like the title would suggest, the song has a bouncy dance beat that evokes a blissful summer day at the beach. Kay artfully employs a mix of sunny keyboard synths, an irresistible dance groove, and touches of jazz and funk to create a breezy track that just makes you feel good. Kay’s smooth vocals are pleasing as he sings about the joys of having nothing pressing on his schedule: “The rush of sweat pants, and lazy mornings every Sunday. Of waking up too early Monday, knowing where I’ll be the entire day. Holiday day, holiday pay, that’s the life that I chose, OK.”

Kay has produced two versions of the song, a 6:13 minute-long ‘single version’ featuring some terrific instrumental runs that would have made it a great disco song back in the late 70s or early 80s, and a shorter 3:42 minute-long radio edit.

The EP will feature four other tracks, the first of which is “Say It Out Loud“, an exuberant jazz-infused tune with an infectious strutting beat. If this song doesn’t get you moving, nothing will! Kay’s jazzy synths and intricate keyboard work are sublime, and quite impressive. It’s no wonder he’s in such demand by other artists wanting him to play music for their songs. The lyrics speak to his adoration for his love and how, even though he’s hurt her in the past, she’s the one that sustains him: “You are my power. You are my one. You are all the things I love under the sun.”

Next up is “Higher Ground“, a languid, ethereal track with hazy atmospherics and glittery synths that make for an enchanting listen. The bittersweet lyrics lyrics speak to coming to terms with the fact that the only way to survive is to completely avoid the one you want but cannot have: “A higher ground is all there is, and all that’s left for me to do. This blankly stare at empty space, and concentrate on simply just not calling you. Take a stand, as a peaceful man, and make my way from A to B./I’ll keep on falling. I’ll keep on getting through. And all I have to do is stay away from you. That’s everything that’s left of what was me and you.

On “My Love is an Only Child“, Kay seems to channel James Blake, with stunning piano work, delicate synths and soft, layered vocals. With a sense of sad resignation, Kay croons the poignant lyrics that seem to touch on the fragile nature of his love: “My love is an only child. No he can’t come play outside. Won’t go running around with scissors. That’s the point that you’ve been missing.” It’s a really captivating track.

Standing on Shoulders” starts off with a beautiful piano-driven melody as Kay sings about growing up with childhood fantasies and dreams of being a hero, going on adventures and saving the world: “I was mad with desire, stoking a fire, singing my songs of a savior far away. The savior was older and wiser than me. He held all the answers and sway. His feelings could be what he’d like them to be, but never did he run away. ” Suddenly, the music transitions to a lively Latin-infused beat, with exuberant synths and percussion added to the mix. Kay acknowledges that his childhood dreams were made possible by being able to stand on the shoulders of others who were there to support and nurture him: “Well, that savior was me, but now age 33, I have the hopes of my youth now following me. / I’m beginning to see that my savior was also just standing on shoulders and reaching for dreams that were living inside an adventure that’s made just for people like me.

Arthur Kay is a lovely and immensely enjoyable little EP by this talented singer-songwriter and musician. He’s a great lyricist and composer, skilled at crafting songs with thoughtful, introspective lyrics, memorable melodies and beautiful instrumentals.

Connect with Arthur on Facebook
Pre-order Arthur Kay on Bandcamp

THE OCEAN BENEATH – EP Review: “The Ocean Beneath”

The Ocean Beneath is a British electronic music project based in Leeds. Influenced by bands such as Gunship, HVOB and Talk Talk, they 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. This EP has been a labor of love for them, working extremely closely with producer Grant Henderson and lyricist/vocalist Nath Jackson to create a first-rate musical offering. The songs were recorded at Loom Studio in Leeds, and mastered by Katie Tavini.

The EP features five tracks, three of which are instrumentals and two with vocals by Nath Jackson. The first track “Wake Up” is a trippy instrumental, with spacey, psychedelic synths set to a languid, strutting beat that almost borders on trap. The intricate, pulsating synths have a sci-fi quality at times, giving the track a cool, mysterious vibe that’s almost mesmerizing. It nicely conveys images of that hazy state we often feel upon waking up from a deep sleep.

Next up is “Transcend“, a gorgeous track that calls to mind some of the wonderful 80s songs I loved by A-ha, New Order and Depeche Mode. More of those marvelous spacey synths abound here, but this time they’re delivered with a bouncy, upbeat tempo and accompanied by additional sweeping synths that form a lush soundscape for Nath Jackson’s stunning vocals. He wrote and sings the encouraging lyrics about overcoming one’s fears and uncertainty, and opening oneself up to all the experiences that life offers: “The secret’s hidden in you. Stop and take a look around. You never know what you might have found. Open up, and soak it in. Watch it as your time begins.” I love this song.

The blissful mood is abruptly interrupted by an unsettling, deep-bass synth accompanied by sounds of distant ambulance sirens on the brief but complex instrumental “The Meridian“. The ominous sounds are suddenly replaced with a beautiful interlude of glittery synths before ending with a return of the sirens.

Setting Sun” is a spectacular track, and probably my favorite on the EP. Everything about it perfection, starting with an enthralling EDM beat that grabs me squarely by the hips, transporting me to a dreamy place from which I want no escape. The pulsating, psychedelic synths are darkly beautiful and lush, and have I mentioned that infectious dance beat? Jackson returns to grace our ears with his warm, sensual vocals that are absolutely captivating. I really love his voice! He sings of someone trying their damnedest to avoid committing to love: “Well you may be the last one standing. The devil’s on your tail but you keep on graspin’. Sail your dreams out to the sea. Pull them on the line and bring them home to me. A love line and watch it shine. And I won’t stop until you are mine. You don’t know what you’ve become. And you can’t hide behind the setting sun.”

The brilliant video produced for the song is trippy and beautiful, showing Jackson’s handsome face superimposed with a colorful mix of psychedelic, tech, vintage, urban and nature imagery.

The final track “Nocturnality” is another instrumental, with a powerful, thumping dance beat and intricate, sweeping synths that remind me a bit of the great dance music of European composers Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder that was popular in the mid to late 70s. And, like the music of those composers, “Nocturnality” is fairly long, running nearly six minutes. It’s a wonderful, melodic track.

The Ocean Beneath is a superb little EP and a terrific debut effort for this talented music project. One of the things I especially like about it is that each song sounds and feels entirely different, making for a fascinating listening experience. Some electronic music albums and EPs can become numbing after awhile, when one track after another sounds pretty much the same, but this one always surprises with every listen.

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

DEREK SCHMIDT – Album Review: “Major Arcana”

Derek Schmidt Major Arcana

Derek Schmidt is an imaginative and talented queer composer, songwriter, and sound designer based in San Francisco, and he’s created one of the most uniquely wonderful and ambitious musical works I’ve ever come across. With over 15 years experience working and performing in the Bay Area in solo performances and as front man for three different acts – folk band All My Pretty Ones, queer electronic band Adonisaurus, and Oakland electronic band Partyline  – Derek has produced numerous albums across many genres, and has been a featured composer on independent film and performance art projects, including the feature length film Home And How To Break It. Most recently, on March 1st he released an opus concept album Major Arcana, a monumental 22-song interpretation of the trump cards (or major arcana) of the tarot deck.

The album was a five-year-long undertaking made possible through the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Grant, one of the city’s most prestigious awards for individual artists. Each song explores one of the 22 trump cards, from 0 The Fool to 21 The World (Universe). As Derek explains: “Each card is a meditation on the symbolism within that card, as well as my own personal relationship to the card. Utilizing samples as a form of sympathetic magic, a mixture of both personal and more transcendent lyric writing, acoustic and electronic arrangements in combination with lush harmonies, Major Arcana has become a set of exploratory rituals attempting to capture the wisdom of each card, for myself and for everyone.

Derek Schmidt2

With a running time of one hour and 38 minutes, listening to this album is an immersive experience. If you allow yourself the freedom to do so, you can easily get lost in its enthralling soundscape of electronic dream pop magic. Musically, the album features a bold array of synthesizer sounds and textures, complemented by Derek’s enchanting ukelele. I’ve never fully appreciated just how beautiful music from a ukelele can be, but Derek draws forth sounds that are exquisite and utterly charming.

I generally tend to discuss or at least mention every track on my album reviews, but with 22 of them on Major Arcana, doing so would turn this review into a thesis. So, I’ll instead touch on some of what I consider to be highlights or my personal favorites. The album opens with “0 The Fool”, named for the first card of the tarot deck. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it perfectly showcases Derek’s skill at using synthesizers to create richly complex musical compositions. He employs all sorts of exotic and quirky synths, pulsating drumbeats and clicks, over which he layers his lovely strummed ukelele, and the result is an absolutely captivating song. Derek’s pleasing vocals have an earnest vulnerability as he sings: “Before I begin, and after I’m gone. That’s where I’ll be. That’s where I belong. Not afraid anymore, my arms open wide./ What is real, always was. And cannot be destroyed. And a fool for me. I’m a fool for you.”

Derek continues to explore each card in the tarot deck, artfully tailoring the synth sounds and song lyrics to the card’s themes.  Swirling spacey synths highlight “I The Magician” and “II The High Priestess”, with the latter featuring sharp thunderbolt-like sounds that conjure up images of spells being cast. The exuberant horn synths at the beginning of “IV The Emperor” symbolize the power and majesty of the position, and Derek’s ukelele riff later in the song is sublime.

On “VI The Lovers”, Derek uses sunny, whimsical synths as a backdrop for his lyrics extolling the joy of his love affair: “I love to love my lover so. To understand all that I don’t. It’s his fluency, won’t scare me. We laugh like kids, we find out things./ Where I am and where do you begin?” “IX The Hermit” sees him pondering loneliness and isolation: “It all comes down to a room of one’s own./ And all I need is a little more time. A few more hours in the day, and then I’ll turn to everything I’ve put aside. / Rearrange the furniture and open windows, give yourself some air.” And on the gorgeous “XI Lust”, he expresses ardent desire and passion through dramatic, soaring synths.

As would be expected, “XII The Hanged Man” is dark, with moody synths, a mournful backing chorus and a pensively strummed ukelele, accompanied by a funereal march drum roll. Derek sings of things from the point of view of a man about to be executed: “Hanged man sees it differently. Upside down, blood rushing to my head. Unfriendly faces become smiles instead. How many times have I been here before? Caught up, emotionless and always wanting more.” “XIII Death”, on the other hand, is not at all depressing, and in fact is one of the more beautiful songs on the album, with glittery, uplifting synths and Derek’s soaring ethereal vocals. He envisions life’s end as a new beginning: “A great unknown, behind the door. The ocean floor. A mystery yet to solve. The ones unmet. The tears unshed.”

A standout track is the mesmerizing and powerful “XIV Art”, for which Derek has created a fantastic video with the help of visual artist Video Hole (J Mason Buck).

Another of my favorites is “XVI The Tower”, one of the more musically complex tracks on Major Arcana. It’s a rather melancholy song, yet contains many beautiful and melodic passages that continually surprised and held my interest at it unfolded. And “XVII The Star” is pure delight, with its spacey sci-fi synths, sweeping melodies and lovely ukelele. “XVIII The Moon” is another highlight, and was the first song Derek wrote for the card cycle. In an interview with webzine Out Loud Culture!, he explained: “I was inspired by the meaning of the card, which usually involves ideas around intuition, illusion, and a general mystery. To me the moon is an ever present set of symbols like all of the cards that capture some aspect of the human condition. It’s a playful card but it can be bewildering, and I loved writing a song about that mystery. It was like a meditation.”

Closing the album is “XXI The Universe”, an appropriately epic six and a half-minute-long fantasia of glorious sound. Derek pulls out all the stops in creating a song of such incredible beauty and nuance that it takes my breath away. He uses a dazzling array of intricate synths ranging from glittery keyboards and shimmery strings to sharp industrial, sci-fi and atmospheric sound effects. All of this is of course accompanied by his beautifully strummed ukelele and richly-layered ethereal vocals. It’s one of the most spectacular tracks on the album, and a fitting conclusion to this magnificent and monumental work.

Connect with Derek:  Facebook / Instagram
Stream on Spotify
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes / cdbaby