1i2c – Album Review: “Lockdown Made Me Do It!”

1i2c

Electronic music seems to be a genre that’s alive and flourishing, as there are lots of artists around the world still making it in all its myriad forms. I’ve featured a fair number of them on this blog, and one of the more interesting – and eccentric – is British composer and producer 1i2c (one eye to see). Based in Stevenage, a mid-size town north of London, 1i2c is the music project of John Whitaker.

Heavily influenced by the music of some of his favorite artists like Jean-Michel Jarre, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Depeche Mode, The Prodigy and Royksopp, he’s an imaginative and innovative composer whose music spans across a wide range of styles within the electronica genre. He’s also quite prolific, having produced a tremendous output of music over the past five years, beginning with the release in January 2016 of his debut album The Great Distraction. Since then, he’s released an astonishing 11 albums, as well as numerous singles and EPs. I reviewed his December 2018 album Winter, (which you can read here), and am now pleased to feature his latest release Lockdown Made Me Do It!, which dropped July 27th. It’s a concept album obviously inspired by the COVID-19 lockdown that’s upended just about everyone’s life over the past five months.

All of his releases have essentially been concept albums based on an overriding theme, with the sounds and titles of each track reflecting an element of the album title. For example, Power Struggle contains industrial techno songs with titles like “Electron”, “Incandescent” and “High Tension”, Horror Show features songs with more of a psychedelic goth and darkwave vibe, titled “Monster”, “Lunatic Waltz” and “Doorway to Hell”, and Winter includes appropriately-named tracks like “Cold Season”, “Chill” and “Deep Freeze”. So too with the tracks on Lockdown Made Me Do It!, with titles like “Confusion”, “Virus” and “Keep Your Distance”. 1i2c states that he wants his album themes to paint visual pictures in our minds, further adding “My journey will continue until I run out of ideas.”

The album opens with “Spirit“, a rather enchanting yet mysterious composition with a galloping EDM beat overlain by lush, spacey synths that call to mind some of the late 70s music of European composers Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone. The song is really pretty in the beginning, but turns darker as the synths take on a harsher, more industrial tone, as if to indicate that something is amiss. The next track “Confusion” confirms that something is indeed amiss, as the melody becomes more urgent, with gnarly industrial synths and an almost chaotic percussive beat that give the song an ominous vibe. Still, there are bits of beauty to be found in the delicate piano keys as well as the almost cheerful sounding xylophone notes at the end.

Trauma” is an interesting track, as it starts off scary and harsh, but soon settles into a mesmerizing dance beat, accompanied by a mix of sharp industrial sounds combined with some lovely synths that make for a darkly beautiful song. As our journey through the extended lockdown continues, we find ourselves immersed in “A Dark Place“. To a repetitive whiplash beat and harsh psychedelic synths, a woman’s haunting voice repeatedly asks “Sometimes I wonder why?“, a question I suppose we’d all like some answers to.

Reality” sets in with a hypnotic EDM beat overlain by pulsating industrial synths that convey a continual state of ennui brought on by endless days of lockdown. Is this the new reality? By now, we’re left feeling like were “Sleepwalking” through life, unable to participate in the many activities involving social interaction that we once took for granted. Musically, the track has more of a rock feel, thanks to electric guitars and more aggressive percussion. The intense, buzzing synths are harsher as well, giving off a decidedly menacing vibe.

1i2c has produced a brilliant video for the song that’s at once funny and disturbing. The video starts off with scenes of bright blue sky with fluffy clouds, then transitions to black and white as he’s shown sitting in the middle of a country road, blindfolded with his hands tied and wearing a bad wig and a shirt on backwards like an improvised straightjacket. He then gets up and stumbles down the road in a sort of macabre dance, as if he’s losing his mind. Didn’t I say earlier that he’s eccentric? He eventually makes his way back to his car, gets in, and drives off. As he drives through the village in the rain, the color returns at the end, as if to possibly signify that all is not hopeless and brighter days lie ahead.

And speaking of disturbing and eccentric, 1i2c delivers both in a big way on “Virus“, coughing and hacking his way through the track, sirens wailing in the background. As to be expected, the instrumentals are deliciously dark, harsh and menacing. To try and avoid catching the virus, one must do our best to “Keep Your Distance“, and the message is delivered by a volley of cacophonous industrial synths and dark, skittering percussive beats, accompanied by creepy sounds of buzzing flies.

The terrific video for this song was actually conceived by Nicolai Kornum. He pitched the concept to Whitaker, then shot some footage for Whitaker to compose the music around. The video stars Whitaker and M. W. Daniels, and was filmed, edited & directed by Kornum. Shot in black and white, it opens with a masked man played by Daniels standing on the sidewalk next to what appears to be a bus shelter, reading the newspaper. An ad for Chiquita bananas on the back of the shelter states “we are bananas”, a cheeky little nod to our current societal state. Whitaker walks up to the man from behind and coughs heavily, then turns and walks away. Incensed, the masked man then follows Whitaker through the streets of London, temporarily losing sight of him in a park. He soon sees him walking and resumes following him to a bridge across the Thames, where Whitaker has stopped to take in the view. The man taps him on the shoulder, and as Whitaker turns around, the man pushes him over the railing and into the river. It’s an extreme measure to rid himself of another potential virus carrier!

Those pesky buzzing flies are back in full force on the album closer and title track “Lockdown“. Once again, 1i2c uses razor-sharp industrial synths and sets them to a pulsating electronic beat to create a sense of foreboding and losing one’s mind. It’s the perfect ending to a brilliant album that beautifully captures the stress and emotional trauma inflicted on society by the COVID-19 lock down. He’s a talented and incredibly creative artist, and I strongly urge my readers to check out more of his works.

Connect with 1i2c on Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Reverbnation
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes

New Song of the Week – US3R: “Oasis”

Us3r pic

US3R (pronounced ‘user’, and the artistic moniker of a very nice guy named Kristian Alexander) has been making a name for himself over the past year through his prolific output of great synthwave-inspired electronic pop music and dazzling live performances. Last year the Seattle-based singer-songwriter and composer dropped two albums, beginning in May 2019 with his debut 1985 (named for the year of his birth), then followed in December with INFLUENCE, a brilliant work addressing modern influencer culture and the loss of intimacy in the digital age. Both are outstanding, and I urge my readers to check them out on one of the music streaming platforms listed at the end of this review. So far this year, he’s released several new singles, some of them collaborations with other artists. In March, I featured his beautiful song “Forever Blue”, a collaboration with Minneapolis composer Jasper Mitchell (you can read that review here). Now US3R returns with a sunny new single “Oasis“, which I’ve chosen as my New Song of the Week.

A highly creative and talented guy, Kristian came up with the name US3R for his music project through his work in the IT industry. “In computer terminology/operating systems, there are references to “user” in a million different forms. It felt like an archetypal term that represented computer culture… and also in hacker culture, we have a tendency to talk in “leet speak” (where you swap numbers for letters), so, ‘US3R’ is a reference to the hacky nature of my music.“ There are a lot of artists and producers out there making various kinds of electronic music, and US3R seeks to fill a gap by creating his own style of what he calls “electronic grunge that borders on R&B”.

US3R was inspired to write “Oasis” while visiting his mom in Palm Springs earlier this summer. He grew up in the Coachella Valley, where I now live. He explains “I grew up in Palm Springs. Swimming pools, sand everywhere, burning hot sun, a thriving diverse community, and teenage romance. I’ve wanted to write a song that felt this way. During quarantine I flew home and wrote this. This song was FUN to record. I layered my voice like old 90s house tracks. I played my us3r-style vocoders, I threw down some brass synths. Its all of the stuff I love about writing synth music.

And what a great job he does on “Oasis”. Starting with an infectious dance beat that aims straight for the hips, he layers sparkling keyboards, thumping synth bass and those smooth brass synths that give the track a sultry, summery vibe. US3R has a silky-smooth vocal style that’s both pleasing and seductive, and he turns up the heat when he croons “You got me walking through the desert. You got my heart and soul. And I can’t go. Move through the desert, got me craving your oasis.” It’s the perfect song for summer romance and hot pool parties. Makes me wish I was 29 again!

Connect with Us3r:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Apple Music /  Soundcloud  / YouTube
Purchase:  Google Play / Bandcamp

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.

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

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.

Follow Agent Johnny Red on Instagram
Stream/purchase his music on BandcampSpotify / Google PlayApple Music

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

Follow Crossflow:  FacebookTwitterInstagram
Stream/Purchase his music:  SpotifyApple MusicGoogle Play

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.

Follow Han:  FacebookTwitterInstagram
Stream her music:  SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase:  BandcampGoogle Play

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.

Follow Soft Shelter on Instagram
Stream his music:  SpotifySoundcloudApple Music
Purchase:  BandcampGoogle 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.

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.

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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