XENNON – Single Review: “Hilt”

XENNON is a British synthwave artist/producer who up until recently was based in Tokyo, Japan. His music is heavily influenced by the synthesized sounds of the 80s, as well as Japanese game and video culture. He’s also curator of the Synthwave Sounds playlist on Spotify, which has amassed over 40,000 followers. In September 2019, he released his debut album MIAMI COP, a concept work inspired by the 80s hit TV show Miami Vice, as well as the synth-driven pop-rock that was so popular at that time. MIAMI COP tells the story of an alternative Miami circa 1987, where the city is a dystopian world in which technology has advanced far beyond our own world’s, and crime has spiraled out of control. (You can read my album review here.)

Now XENNON is back with “Hilt“, the first single from his forthcoming second concept album Dark of a Distant World. Inspired by the sci-fi and fantasy movies of the 80s such as The Neverending Story and Masters of the Universe, the album will take the listener on a journey to other worlds as we follow Kurt, a boy who holds the key to saving the planet Eternicron, and embarks on an adventure that transcends time and space. Once again, the concept and featured artwork was done by Travis Wright, who continues to work with XENNON on all of his releases and stories.

The song opens with an assertive synth drum beat that provides a strong rhythmic groove driving the song forward. XENNON then layers a colorful mix of swirling, shimmery synths, pulsating percussive beats and lots of crashing cymbals to create a vibrant, optimistic soundscape that has an almost anthemic quality. As the character Kurt, he plaintively sings of his struggles and self-doubt, not sure whether he has the fortitude to continue, but clinging to the hope that through another’s love and support, he’ll prevail. “I’m not sure I’m getting better. Days drag me down sometimes I’ve found. But maybe if here, beside you I stand, with this hilt tight in my hand. I’ll take it to the other side and get out, safe and sound.”

It’s another great song by XENNON, and I look forward to hearing more tracks from his latest concept album.

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AGENT JOHNNY RED – Album Review: “Run Against the Sequence”

Agent Johnny Red album art

Agent Johnny Red is an electronic musician, singer-songwriter and composer based in Portland, Maine. He’s been fairly prolific in his music output over the past five years or so, recording and releasing several singles, EPs and compilations, most of which are available on his Bandcamp page. At the end of May, he dropped his first official album Run Against the Sequence, a concept work inspired by his own personal life experiences.

He explained that the album “is about how humans get stuck in recurring behavior patterns or programs that are based upon past events. This is an album about Agent Johnny Red running against the sequence or patterns that were ultimately controlling his life. Addiction to bad relationships, food and drugs are all part of the sequence.” He added that the word ‘Against’ stands for how difficult it is to overcome these bad habits: “Kind of like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, no matter what you do you can’t escape it. But the character in this story does eventually escape at the end.”

The album opens with sounds of a man speaking the words “I won’t deny that there’s some strange, evolutionary process going on, but mankind won’t be destroyed. The fact that you and I are already here today is evidence of that“, and thus begins the first track “Just keep Repeating“. Agent Johnny Red uses an array of dark, yet beautiful swirling synths set to a pulsating EDM beat to create a mysterious atmosphere that conveys a feeling of being in a kind of twilight zone. Eventually, the man’s voice returns to say “Another day is done all over again.” “Figure out this Mess” has an equally ominous vibe, with harsh swooping and pulsating industrial synths forming a psychedelic backdrop for Johnny Red’s droning moody vocals.

On “Lightning in a Black Hole“, Johnny Red seems to be speaking to someone who can save him from himself and his troubles: “Tell me what you want me to be. I’ll tell you I’m all that I can ever be. / I just want to go out for a drive. Just to see the sky. I know it’s crazy, but we’ll be fine if we forget about time.” I really like the lush combination of synth sounds and textures he uses in this and other tracks, and how well his music pairs with his vulnerable, rather melancholy vocals.

The album features a number of terrific instrumental tracks, including “Videodrome“, with its fascinating mix of synthwave, sci-fi, EDM and dubstep elements; the uptempo and otherworldly “Destination of Red“; the mesmerizing, psychedelic and spacey “Save Some Space“; the techno-heavy “Survival is Changes“; and one of my favorites “Don’t Destroy the Water“, a wonderful futuristic fantasia of swirling sci-fi synths and haunting female chorale-like vocal drones, set to captivating dubstep beats.

The title track “Run Against the Sequence” encapsulates everything the album is about, which is the struggle to reach a point of mental clarity and emotional freedom from bad habits and addictions that have kept you enslaved: “Every step that I take will get me closer to awake. Every love that you find will get you closer to rewind. I know that time’s confusing. What if it’s an illusion?” Musically, the song has a haunting piano-driven melody, with a colorful mix of wobbly and stabbing synths, accompanied by hand claps.

Hack Time (You Work Harder)” has an eerie, almost goth-like vibe, with throbbing industrial synths set to a hypnotic rhythmic beat. The tinkling piano keys add a nice textural contrast, keeping the track from sounding too dark.  Johnny Red’s electronically-altered echoed vocals sound pained as he laments of wanting to feel better and be free of his demons and addictions that offer only temporary relief from the pain: “Break free from the things in your brain. / You fell asleep at the wheel. You’re happy when you can feel. You’re happy when you heal. / I just wanna move around the sequence. I just wanna hack time.” It’s another one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Save the Light” is the point of escape, when Johnny finds the truth in the pain of not succumbing to addiction. His vocals are auto-tuned, giving them an even more haunting feel as he sings of being trapped by his addiction, and wanting to break free. ‘Seven seas’ are a metaphor for his freedom: “Back when you thought you could be everything, you saw something great in the seven seas. You ran benediction through your head but addiction had you dead. But you were here and you were sure that if you come back to the seven seas. Come back and let me be. I believe this is a dream come true.” He realizes he needs to be strong, keeping freedom from addiction at the forefront of his goals: “Think the way that you can feel. Fight the urge to make the deal. All these scars that will not heal are just dreams, they are not real.”

Yet he continues to struggle with self-doubt and guilt over pain he’s caused others: “No I don’t want to go back home. I want to stay on this earth. I wanna stay on this earth but you keep killing it. I am telling you I don’t want to see them die. I don’t want to see them cry just so I can feel alive.” He ultimately comes to the realization that he wants to live a life free from addiction: “And if I save the light, then the dark might take me tonight. And on the seven seas everything might be alright.” Johnny Red uses complex and lush industrial and psychedelic synths and some lovely guitar notes to create a somber, yet hopeful mood. It’s a magnificent and moving track.

The album closes on a more upbeat and positive note with “A Puzzled Picture“. The track has a lighthearted vibe, thanks to a lively mix of skittering spacey synths. The man’s spoken voice we heard on the opening track returns to offer a few lines of wisdom, though I’m unable to make out exactly what he’s saying.

Not being a musician, nor very knowledgeable about music theory, technique or mechanics, it’s often hard for me to fully articulate what I hear when listening to electronic music. That said, I have nevertheless written about quite a lot of it, and can confidently state that Run Against the Sequence is in the top tier of electronic music albums I’ve reviewed. Agent Johnny Red is a highly creative, talented and imaginative composer, as well as thoughtful songwriter, and should be very proud of his latest work. This is an album that requires a couple of close listens to fully appreciate all of it’s many nuances, but you will be rewarded for your effort.

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BRETT.GRANT.5 – Single Review: “Burning Fire”

Brett Grant

One of the joys of having a music blog is being able to give independent and unsigned artists some free press and hopefully expose them and their music to a wider audience. An artist I’m particularly fond of is Chicago-based singer-songwriter and composer Brett Grant, who goes by the artistic moniker brett.grant.5. Drawing from a wide range of musical sources and genres, ranging from 1920’s jazz and classical to video game music and experimental progressive rock, his sound is edgy, unorthodox and fascinating. And his brutally-honest and personal lyrics explore some of the darker sides of life, society, and mental health.

Brett’s been making music for many years, both as a solo artist and as a member of several bands. He plays guitars & synths and sings vocals for A Million Rich Daughters, and previously pounded drums in Sleep For Dinner and TOOFUNCHILD. In addition to his work with the aforementioned bands, as well as earning a B.A. Degree in Music last year, he’s released two solo EPs – digital dirge in 2016 and disqui.etude in 2019 (read my review here). Now he returns with “Burning Fire“, his first new single in a year.

The song is a repudiation of the religious dogma that keeps people enslaved on so many different levels – mentally, socially, culturally and physically. Brett explained that the song “is about rejecting concepts we’ve been force-fed, and trying to unveil the truth through all the lies. The ‘burning fire’ [refers to] the self-righteous light that the hyper-religious shine upon the world, casting dark shadows that create monsters.” As someone who was raised Catholic but am now Atheist, the lyrics strongly resonate with me. I’m always suspect when people invoke god and religion to legitimize their oppression of others, or to further their hateful racist, homophobic or exclusionary agendas.

Musically, Brett uses a complex and dramatic mix of harsh, psychedelic and spooky industrial synths, along with a hypnotic drumbeat to create a dark, ominous soundscape befitting the scathing lyrics. His vocals are equally menacing as he practically snarls his verses, yet there are moments of haunting beauty too, especially in the bridge where he plaintively implores “the world ends with you / the world ends with me / the world ends with us / at least we’ll all be free.”

Like many electronic songs with experimental and progressive rock elements , I found that “Burning Fire” gets better with each listen, as I discovered more nuances in both its melodic structure and the array of instruments and sounds used in the song. Brett will be donating all proceeds from purchases of the song to Black Lives Matter Chicago.

in underlying tunnels in my head
disqualifying thoughts all painted red
creatures undying I can’t regulate
identifying efforts to castrate

your burning fire’s been oscillating
the shadows discharged are starting to take hold
your burning fire is suffocating
nightmarish monsters eroding self-control

emulsifying actions and my thoughts
i’m patronizing the stations of the cross
the underlying message won’t come clean
but I’ve been spying actions so obscene
yeah I’ve been trying to fight this dissonance
by qualifying the sacrifice I’ve spent
the mystifying stories I’ve been told
unsatisfying, removing my blindfold

your burning fire’s been oscillating
the shadows discharged are starting to take hold
your burning fire is suffocating
nightmarish monsters eroding self-control

the world ends with you
the world ends with me
the world ends with us
at least we’ll all be free
the world ends with you
the world ends with me
the world ends with us
at least we’ll all be free
the world ends with you
the world ends with me

your burning fire’s been oscillating
the shadows discharged are starting to take hold
your burning fire is suffocating
nightmarish monsters eroding self-control

Follow Brett: Twitter / Facebook / Instagram
Stream his music on  Spotify / Soundcloud
Purchase on Bandcamp / Apple MusicGoogle Play

CROSSFLOW & IAMWARFACE – Single Review: “Take the Shot”

British electro-rock group IAMWARFACE is one of my favorite indie bands, with an aggressive name that’s a perfect descriptor for their bombastic and edgy groove-based sound. I’ve written about the Brighton & London-based band numerous time on this blog over the past four years, most recently last August (2019) when I reviewed their magnificent album Year of the Dragon. Their creative and charismatic front man Matt Warneford recently teamed up with Bedfordshire-based musician/producer Crossflow (aka Karl Morey) to collaborate on a spectacular new song “Take the Shot“, which drops today. Crossflow co-produced, mixed and mastered Year of the Dragon, and was eager to work with Warneford again: “Been working with these guys for a while in a production capacity so it was only a matter of time until Matt and I got writing, both being filthy electronic shouty guitar bastards.

Matt Warneford
Matt Warneford

Crossflow composed the music and arrangement for “Take the Shot”, then sent it on to Warneford, who wrote and sang the lyrics. The song features the explosive dynamics, darkly beautiful melodies and always-lurking sense of danger typically found on many IAMWARFACE songs, but Crossflow injects layers of harsh industrial synths into the mix, giving the track an even more ominous Nine Inch Nails feel. Underlying the whole thing is a crushing dubstep-style beat that would make The Prodigy proud. The result is a bombastic and spooky soundscape for Warneford’s electrifying vocal gymnastics. He’s an amazing vocalist, with the ability to sooth us with a beautiful croon one moment, then chill us to the bone with a feral rawness the next as he snarls “Take the shot, suck it up!

I’m not certain, but the very dark lyrics seem to be from the perspective of a vampire, or possibly a zombie, stuck in an afterlife filled with regret:

I cannot breathe, I cannot feel
Just waiting here in the afterlife
These wounds won’t heal
My lips are sealed
Face up against the cage
Like you and everybody else
(Alright)

I’ve loved every single song by IAMWARFACE, and “Take the Shot” is no exception. So crank up the volume and have a listen for yourself!

Follow IAMWARFACE:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes / Google Play

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HAN BLOOM – Album Review: “Higher State of Mind”

Han Bloom Higher State of Mind

Han Bloom is a classically trained pianist, composer and singer-songwriter based in London, England. Strongly influenced by modern jazz, progressive rock and experimental music, she uses her classical training to musically explore themes of interest to her such as society, politics, culture, ideology, conformism and big brother, among others. In her bio, she states that she “always strives to be as original and free thinking as possible. Creativity is the answer.” Sounds like a winning combination to me.

With that in mind, Han recently released her ambitious debut album Higher State of Mind, which dropped on May 1st. She wrote all music and lyrics, played piano and all other keyboards, programmed all instruments (other than the drums that were played on some tracks by Eddie Van Dorgen), sang all vocals, and produced, mixed and mastered the entire album herself (with the exception of one track “Free Me Now”, which was produced by Harry Powell). With 13 tracks and running an hour in length, there’s a lot to listen to, but I’ll touch on the songs that really clicked with me.

The album opens with “Bach Got Funked Up“, a fascinating instrumental track that fuses contemporary classical, modern jazz and experimental elements. Employing an array of ominous wobbly and spacey synths and jazzy piano chords, Han creates a trippy and mysterious soundscape that whets our appetite for what’s to come. Next up is “Burn“, a bewitching track that starts off quietly, with distant sounds of storms accompanied by the most delicate of keyboard synths. As her low-key, quirky vocals enter, the tempo changes to a toe-tapping beat, with jazzy piano, organ, cool synths and gentle percussion. I like the whispy little ‘whoosh’ snare sounds she uses to convey a feeling of water being softly poured onto a smouldering fire.

Blasphemy” resonates strongly with me, as I like Han’s biting lyrics touching on the hypocrisy that so often exists in religion and democracy: “Don’t tell me with your shit decree, excuse my Christianity. Don’t tell me about blasphemy, when you don’t know how to live in peace. Don’t tell me with your shit decree, about democracy, cause you don’t know nothing about me. But it don’t matter, so I won’t shatter, But they don’t listen, so I keep on living in sin, gladly.” I really like the song’s cool, jazzy grooves, and the deep synth bass,  moody piano keys and tapping percussive beats that make it a great listen.

One of my favorite tracks is “Finer Things“, both for it’s great tongue-in-cheek lyrics and mellow, jazzy vibe. Han’s conversational-style vocals and nimble piano work give the song a fun, casual quality that makes it sound like a live recording of a performance you’d hear in an intimate little nightclub. In fact, I think her music style is well-suited for that format, and it would be fun to see her perform live. About the song, she says “‘The Finer Things’ is a disposable comedic tribute to Frank Zappa that utilises the ridiculousness and profound impact of ‘influencers’ and ‘influence culture’, and the subsequent snowflake generation that it resonates with.”

I love the lines decrying influence culture and the fact she’s doesn’t quite measure up to their shallow definition of success: “Hello, my name is Hannah Bloom, and this song is about the death of influence culture…hopefully. I wanna shop at Liberty, but they welcome me bitterly, ’cause I ain’t got no money. I’m sorry, ’cause in my disposable song, don’t get me wrong. I like the finer things and I sure do love the joy that it brings. I love Pucci, Emilio Pucci…so much better than Gucci. So tutti frutti, but instead I’m wearing Tom Sweeney, which is for men.” Exasperated, she later asks “Can somebody please explain to me what an influencer is? “Cause in my mind it just makes sense that they’re professional beggars. And a lot of people would say the same thing about musicians. And they do say the same things. But we actually do stuff, and we’re just undervalued, whereas influencers are like super valued in society. And it’s like please stop making our generation stupid and meaningless.” I couldn’t agree more!

On “Free Me Now“, Han uses a greater electronic approach and somewhat darker tone to address the subject of addiction. In her notes about the track, she states that she developed the song’s framework off a Korg Tribe drum pattern machine she’d been experimenting with. She then layered delicate piano and organ keyboards to create an enchanting soundscape for her airy vocals. About the song’s meaning, she explains: “Lyrically it depicts a prior relationship with addiction that I needed to express in a raw and free form; hence the experimental instrumentation found in this track.” Her blunt lyrics get straight to the point: “I have an obsession. Addiction, yeah. My mind is imprisoned. Loneliness is not your friend. Free me now. You gotta let me out. Free me now. I don’t wanna be a burnout.

On the moody “These Games” – which Han says was inspired by the George Orwell classic 1984 – she rejects the expectations and ethical wrongs of social conditioning practiced by Western societies, pressuring us to conform to a specific set of social norms, and leaving us often feeling like our lives are unfulfilled. Han croons “So she goes to work for the man. Hiding his sweet lies, pulling the wool over their eyes. She says ‘I don’t know why I do it. And I don’t know how I do it. But I need to survive’. / So he says he stayed at work late today. Hiding his bitter lies. Wasting his own time, and he knows he’s not right to do it. But he just can’t say no ’cause money’s his goal. / And I see it happening every single day. And I don’t know why they play these games with themselves.” The song has a languid, piano-driven melody, with delicate synths, subtle organ notes, and Eddie Van Dongen’s gentle percussion.

My absolute favorite track is album closer “Light and Love (Coda)“, a stunning eight-minute-long instrumental that really showcases Han’s impressive compositional and piano-paying talents. She weaves a rich tapestry of ambient and glittery atmospheric synths, then adds vibrant piano keys to create a breathtaking contemporary classical piece that can easily hold its own among the works by many of today’s classical composers. I would love to see her put out an entire album of this kind of instrumental music.

I’ll be honest that it took a couple of plays for this album to grow on me, as the melodies are more experimental and free-form than typical pop, folk or rock music, requiring a more careful listen to fully appreciate its many nuances. I love when artists fuse multiple elements and genres into their music, and I applaud her courage to experiment with her sound and create a style uniquely her own. If you like music that strays from the conventional, with more contemporary, experimental and progressive jazz, pop and rock vibes, delivered by some really superb piano work, then you will enjoy Higher State of Mind.

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SOFT SHELTER – EP Review: “Judgment Day”

Soft Shelter EP Art

Soft Shelter is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and music producer based in Santa Barbara, California who writes pleasing indie dream pop songs laced with alt-rock, psychedelic, pop and electronic elements, and featuring thoughtful lyrics. Since the release of his first single “Ashes” last November (2019), he’s been a busy guy, dropping a new single or EP every month or so. In March, he released his single “Anticipation”, and now returns with his second EP Judgment Day, featuring “Anticipation” and two new tracks written during the COVID-19 quarantine.

He states that the EP is sort of a loose trilogy, with rather moody songs that still contain a certain optimism toward the future: “I tried to understand what it means to be an individual within a community during a global pandemic.” He wrote, performed , sang, produced and mixed the songs. Mastering was done by Matt Pereira (aka KOMAK).

Soft Shelter2

The first track, “Anticipation,” was written during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, and it’s title is an apt descriptor for the growing anxiety of the period. Soft Shelter states that the song “speaks to the anxious feeling that accompanies the anticipation of a crisis and the weird sensation of questioning whether it’s paranoia or legitimate.” The song is beautiful, with warm, shimmery synths and gentle percussion, over which he and fellow musician Noah Kastenbaum have layered beautifully strummed guitar notes. It all creates an enchanting backdrop for Soft Shelter’s ethereal vocals, which rise to a lovely falsetto in the choruses. The xylophone at the end is a nice touch.

Dead Metaphors” touches on how languages evolve over time, with word meanings going from literal to figurative, and trying to stay optimistic: “Time to hit stop and rewind. Dead metaphors don’t stay behind. We too can rise again. Let’s just say when.” The song has a languid sort of hip hop beat, with piano, programmed drums and gnarly electric guitar being the dominant instruments. I like how he makes the music shudder just before the second chorus, like hitting stop, rewind and play on a tape machine.

The third track “Judgment Day” was inspired by the writings of French philosopher Albert Camus, who Soft Shelter admires. He explains that the lyrics “attest to feeling lost and looking for guidance, which is often the case when people look to religion or philosophy or any ideology for meaning or support. We have to work toward uncovering our blind spots and the things that prevent us from seeing clearly.” This is beautifully articulated by the lines “It sure feels like judgement day. Tell me what the wise men say?  In the end, perhaps we’ll find all the things that made us so blind. Will anything be the same?

Musically, the song has a pleasing synth-pop vibe, highlighted by resonant piano keys, crisp percussion and electric guitar. As always, Soft Shelter’s velvety smooth vocals are captivating. The track ends with an excerpt from Camus’s Nobel Prize speech, in which he calls attention to how artists require beauty but also are uniquely tied to their communities: “True artists hold nothing in contempt; they oblige themselves to understand, rather than judge.”

It’s gratifying to see so many artists using their imaginations and creative talents to write relevant and topical music during this unfortunate virus quarantine, and Soft Shelter’s Judgment Day is another shining example of this. He will also be donating 50% of all sales of his EP on the Bandcamp music site to food banks.

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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.

Connect with Surrija:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream her music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase: Google Play / cdbaby

New Song of the Week – COUNCIL: “Savages”

Council Savages

I’ve been following New York alternative rock band COUNCIL for the past four years, and have featured them on this blog a number of times, beginning in 2016 when I reviewed their debut EP Rust to Gold, and most recently in June 2019 with the release of their single “Born Ready”. (You can check out those reviews under “Related” at the bottom of this post.) Through their signature sweeping melodies, bold instrumentation and anthemic choruses, COUNCIL’s dynamic sound has been compared to Imagine Dragons. Their magnificent life-affirming single “Rust to Gold” received worldwide acclaim, including being played at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, as well as on American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, World Of Dance and Premier League. It’s been streamed more than 7 million times on Spotify, and ended up on my list of 100 Best Songs of 2017.

Council3

COUNCIL is comprised of three strikingly handsome brothers – Patrick, Doug and Andy Reeves. Patrick (bass and lead vocals) and Doug (drums) are twins, and Andy (guitar) is a year younger. Raised on a farm in rural upstate New York, they now split their time between tending the family farm and working on their music in New York City. The guys have just released their latest single “Savages“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.

It’s a darkly beautiful and grandiose anthem, highlighted by a complex mix of dramatic industrial synths. The track opens with spooky synths and haunting plucked guitar notes that set an ominous tone. The music then expands with sharp percussive synths, deep bass and thunderous echoed reverb sounds that add a palpable sense of tension and foreboding. The instrumentals are really spectacular, and the finest of any song COUNCIL has done thus far.

The lyrics speak of a couple for whom the love that originally brought them together has turned into hate and acrimony for one another. Patrick fervently laments that they now behave like savages to each other, his vocals soaring to a passionate wail in the chorus.

All the plans that we made were just a lost cause
It’s like we turn a parade into a death march
A dirty angel landed on my shoulder
She said be calm and let the drums take over
I’m just trying to blow these ashes into sparks
We live like savages, savages…oh oh, savages!

Connect with Council:  Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / ReverbnationApple Music
Purchase it:  iTunesGoogle Play

DEBRIS DISCS – Single Review: “We Never Die”

Debris Discs is the solo music project of British singer-songwriter James Eary, former front man of Manchester, England alternative dream pop band Coves & Caves. Last October, I featured his first single “Animals“, and now he’s back with his third release “We Never Die“. It’s a beautiful and poignant song that touches on the notion that love is a powerful and enduring component in the cycle of life. The song is part two of his hope and survival themed audio triptych, the first of which was his previous single “Daniel and the Apocalypse”, which he released in January.

Eary states that the song was inspired by a visit to his grandparent’s memorial bench on a windswept day on the Northwest English coast. “‘We Never Die’ is an attempt to find comfort in the despair of loss. It tells the story of lifetime lovers so entwined they reach their end of days in tandem. They search for solace in the legacy they leave behind and a love that burns in perpetuity. It’s a message to each other and their families that this is not the end. There are no goodbyes.

“We Never Die” is an enchanting dream pop gem, fashioned from a rich palette of swirling glittery synths, subtle guitar chords and gentle percussive grooves. Debris Discs skillfully incorporates all these musical elements into a lush, sweeping backdrop for his sweet vocal harmonies, resulting in an achingly beautiful track that captures the power and romance of an enduring love. He has a marvelous singing voice that registers in the higher range, just below a falsetto, and it’s positively sublime on this track.

It’s ok we never die
They keep our dreams
And our names they engrave in aluminium
On a park bench plaque
For all to see
Who we were, what we did, where we’ve been

Muscles knotted
All our words forgotten
Milky eyes, milky eyes
We’ve come too far
So now we wait for stars
And no goodbyes, no goodbyes

It’s ok we never die
No eulogy
Just a spark, flickers free from the embers
To illuminate and help them see
Who we were, what we did, where we’ve been
Who we were, what we did, where we’ve been

Connect with Debris Discs: Twitter
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  Bandcamp / Google Play

Erki Pärnoja – Album Review:”Leva”

Erki Parnoja LEVA album art

Though the vast majority of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog have been from the US, UK, or Canada, I always enjoy writing about ones from other nations. In the past week or so, I’ve featured a band from Malta and a music producer from Luxembourg, and am now thrilled to introduce my very first artist from the Baltic nation of Estonia: the astonishingly talented songwriter, composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist Erki Pärnoja. Based in the capital of Tallinn, Pärnoja plays guitar, bass, keyboards and synthesizers, and creates some of the most exquisite instrumental music I’ve heard in a very long while. Using an impressive array of instruments and textures, he weaves lush, dreamy soundscapes that envelop us in layers of shimmery atmospheric gossamer. Seriously, his music is fucking gorgeous!

He’s been recording and releasing music for the past five years, beginning with his late 2015 debut EP Himmelbjerget. He followed that EP with two stunning albums, the guitar-dominant Efterglow in 2017 and more synth-oriented Saja Lugu in 2018, both of which I’ve immersed myself with over the past several days. The track “Ranna I” from Saja Lugu has been streamed more than 2.3 million times on Spotify. All three works are exceptional, and I highly recommend that my readers check them out on one of the music streaming platforms listed at the end of this review.

Now Pärnoja is back with a glorious new album Leva, which dropped on February 12. His previous works have all been instrumental-only, however with Leva, Pärnoja for the first time introduces lyrics and vocals on some of the tracks. Also, while still delivering his signature enchanting melodies and dreamy soundscapes, he now injects a more orchestral perspective, along with more exotic elements that give the album a fresher, more eclectic feel.

The album was recorded in Gothenburg, Sweden in early 2019, and features a number of guest musicians. In addition to Swedish producer/keyboardist Filip Leyman and Danish drummer Ulrik Ording (Pärnoja’s loyal collaborators since his debut album) are Estonian singer-songwriter Anna Kaneelina, Swedish marimba player Love Meyersson, and the string quartet Prezioso. The striking artwork for the album cover was painted by Estonian artist/photographer Riina Varol, and incorporated into a beautiful cover design by Estonian artist Helmi Arrak. Pärnoja has written wonderful little explanations for each of the seven tracks on Leva that provide insight into his creative process, and enable us to more fully understand and enjoy each song. I will quote or paraphrase from them in my own discussions of each track.

The title of the opening track “Maa” is the Estonian word for “land” or “country”, and serves as an introduction to the album, both musically and conceptually. Pärnoja explains: “The whole album is about living and the different lives people lead, and that we can’t really get a look into other people’s worlds. The song gradually reveals a view into one world. It starts off as a harmless dreamy waltz, and moves with baby steps into this vast open field with all the space and possibilities in the world.” His words perfectly describe how the instrumentals and dreamy synths gradually expand into a lush soundscape like a field bursting into color with the first warmth of Spring. Although primarily an instrumental track, he uses his voice almost like an instrument with his lovely ambient background vocals.

The gorgeous Middle-Eastern infused “Fatigue” was inspired by the music of Algerian band Tineariwen, which Pärnoja first heard around ten years ago. It happened to be playing on the sound system in a second hand store in Toronto he walked into, and he immediately loved it. The use of what sounds like a zither or oud, along with Moroccan castanets. give the song it’s enchanting Middle-Eastern flavor. Parnoja states that the song is a kind of tribute to Tineariwen that came to him in one big rush. “The dreamy state symbolizes a need for something more or something better, and the continuous loops are the circles that always try to catch us and take us back to their cycles.”

The title track “Leva” is positively stunning, with layers of strummed guitars, backed by enthralling strings that give the song a haunting, otherworldly feel. The lyrics are in Estonian, a language closely related to Finnish, and beautifully sung by Pärnoja and his wife Anna Kaneelina. Nearly seven minutes in length, “Leva” almost sounds like two different songs, and in fact, the first time I listened to it on my smart phone though earbuds, I thought it was two separate tracks. The first part, which is more gentle and melodic, seems to end at 4:07, then two seconds later the music starts back up with a heavier, electric guitar-driven sound, deeper bass, stronger percussion and more passionate vocals.

About the song, Pärnoja explains: “This is most certainly the song that started it all. It holds the essence of the whole album. It became clear to me that even if you are content with your life, and if everything seems to be in order, you can still be going in circles and not be moving on in life. It might just be that you’re in the same place as you were years ago, and it’s only minor details of your life that have changed. I realised that I want to live more and better and make good use of my time.”

Here’s a lovely acoustic performance of “Leva”. For this version, Pärnoja and Jonas Kaarnamets played guitar, Pärnoja and Anna Kaneelina sang vocals, Peedu Kass played acoustic bass, Kristjan Kallas played drums, and Prezioso played strings.

Island” is a fairly simple, breezy track constructed with recurring cycles of loops, augmented with charming twangy guitars and lots of abstract sounds that convey a sunny, windswept sense of freedom. It’s a wonderful song that just makes me feel hopeful and happy. Next up is “Eha“, a beautiful, sweeping track that reminds me of some of the more atmospheric-sounding songs by Coldplay. The song title translates to “dusk” in English, and Pärnoja states it’s “a dreamy cinematic journey dedicated to a present-day soul. It is a story about the search for inner peace and belonging. It is also a wake-up call to one’s self to take a breath and look around.” He adds that “the occasionally atonal strings symbolise the dissonances we have within just before making a decision for a new direction.” His soft vocal croons are sublime, in perfect harmony with the gently soaring synths and strings as if they’re another component in his colorful instrumental palette.

Another standout track for me is the captivating “Soledad“, which is Spanish for “solitude”. The languid song has a slight Latin sensibility, though in no way does it sound like a Latin or Spanish song. The layered strummed guitars and sparkling keyboards are really marvelous, and this time, the lyrics are mostly in English, and sung by Pärnoja and Kaneelina’s enthralling vocal harmonies. Pärnoja explains the meaning behind the song: “The meaning of solitude has changed a lot for me. Once it used to have a negative meaning, but back then I must have mistaken it for loneliness or abandonment. Now in a time when society is seemingly social to the extreme, I came to re-evaluate the meaning of the word. There is a big contradiction to this, since hidden behind this big socially-connected world, there are a lot of people that are lonely, and not at peace with themselves. Loneliness makes them reach out to another world. ‘Soledad’ is a hymn to solitude – the only place where I personally can grow and make peace with myself.

The artful and compelling video for “Soledad” was produced and directed by  Kärt Hammer, and stars Edgar Vunš as the dancer who interprets the song through his passionate yet graceful movements.

The final track “Saudade” actually has a more pronounced Spanish guitar, which Pärnoja beautifully strums throughout the song. At first, all we hear is his guitar, then he begins to sing in a mournful yet beautiful chant, backed by what sound like his own vocal harmonies. The music gradually grows more animated and the vocals more impassioned as swirling synths are added to create a sparkling, cinematic soundscape. Parnoja states that this track sums up the album, and that the title is basically untranslatable, but represents “the presence of absence. It is a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly, but know you can never experience again.” I’ve experienced such human encounters and moments myself throughout my life, and their memories can elicit intense feelings of joy or sadness.

I feel I’ve used up all the superlatives I can think of to describe Leva, but folks, this is a magnificent work of musical art. With only seven tracks totaling 36 minutes of run time, it’s a bit on the short side for an album, however, each track is so exquisite and powerful that it feels almost monumental in scope. With an EP and three albums to his credit, Erki Pärnoja is without question one of the finest composers and producers of ambient instrumental music around today. I love his music and I love this album.

Catch Pärnoja at one of these upcoming shows:

Friday, April 3 – LEVA release show, Korjaamo, Helsinki, Finland
Saturday, April 11 – Südaöine, EELK Tallinna Jaani kogudus ja kirik, Tallinn, Estonia
Saturday, May 2 – Jazz.ee ja Saare KEK LIVE, SAARE KEK, Kuressaare, Estonia
Thursday, May 7 – Jazz.ee ja Rüki Galerii LIVE, Rüki galerii, Viljandi, Estonia
Friday, May 15 – Jazz.ee ja Haapsalu Jazziklubi LIVE, Haapsalu kultuurikeskus, Haapsalu, Estonia
July 3-4 – VÕNGE 2020. Rändav kultuurifestival, Mulgi elamuskeskus, Sooglemäe, Tõrva vald, Valgamaa, Latvia

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