OUTTAKE13 – Single Review: “Warrior”

Outtake13

Outtake13 is a recently-formed alternative rock band based in Wilmington, North Carolina. The three-piece is comprised of identical twin sisters Michaela and Annabelle Sanchez, and Calen Barbour. Michaela plays acoustic guitar and bass, Annabelle plays electric guitar, and Calen plays drums. Both sisters sing the lovely vocal harmonies.

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Michaela and Annabelle began writing and singing songs when they were only eight years old. While in their early teens, they formed their own two-piece act Entangled Dreams, and went on to release two studio albums, an EP, and multiple singles. They earned awards for their music and played over 200 shows, all before the age of 17! After continually being asked “where’s your drummer?”, they decided to bring Calen into their act, which they rechristened Outtake13. On November 4th, they released their first single “Warrior“, an uplifting song of inspiration. The track was produced by Will Baker, front man of Wilmington band Hollow Intent, who I featured on this blog this past September.

About “Warrior”, the band explains “It’s meant to inspire the notion that nobody is alone in their troubles. This song discusses the power of art. How writing, composing, or just simply creating can give you purpose. With every bad moment, a fire is brought to the surface with the purpose to fight negativity. ‘Warrior’ portrays many messages but with one meaning: you can bring purpose to your life through a craft of your choosing, to take you from a dark place to a space with inspiration and drive. You can do anything, because YOU are a Warrior.”

The song starts off with Michaela’s strummed acoustic guitar, giving it a folk vibe, but soon Calen’s snappy drums and Annabelle’s resonant electric guitar enter the mix, taking things toward a heavier rock sound. It’s clear the sisters are both fine guitarists, and the interplay between their acoustic and electric instruments is really wonderful. Toss in their skill for writing an arresting melody, and Calen’s tight drumming, and the result is a powerful, uplifting backdrop for their vibrant harmonies. It’s a terrific debut for Outtake13.

Look into these eyes and tell me you don’t see a warrior
Don’t forget, I’m really no different than you dear
Overcome what you’ve yet to face and you’ll feel it too
Together let’s stand and become something beautiful and new

A blank space
That’s where it all begins
We’ve turned something meaningless
Into something colorful

Follow Outtake13:  Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream/purchase:  Spotify / Apple Music / Bandcamp

ANDREW NEIL – Album Review: “Freak”

Andrew Neil Freak art

Of the hundreds of artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog over the past four years, perhaps the most uniquely compelling life story would have to be that of Andrew Neil. The Virginia-based singer-songwriter is considered an “outsider” music artist along the lines of Daniel Johnston, and in fact, he now ranks as the #1 Best Outside Artist on Ranker, just above the late Johnston. The 31-year old has faced a number of daunting life challenges that would have crushed many of us, but his strength and resilience, as well as the incredible love and support of his family and friends, have enabled Andrew to flourish as an artist.

After growing up as a fairly typical kid and a high school athlete, Andrew suffered a life-altering event in Spring 2009 when he sustained a serious head injury in a car accident. The injury resulted in two significant changes for Andrew: 1) he began having a series of psychotic episodes, and 2) he started writing songs, despite the fact he’d never had any prior music training of any kind. During a psychotic episode in 2013, he stabbed his younger brother in the arm, which landed him in jail for seven months until his family and attorney convinced the prosecutor that Andrew needed help, rather than being incarcerated. 

His sentence was changed to not guilty by reason of insanity, whereupon he was released from jail and sent to a state mental hospital, where he received excellent treatment and learned to manage his illness. During the three years there, he wrote and recorded around 70 songs, on top of the 250+ songs he’d already written prior to his hospitalization. Andrew writes songs entirely by ear, creating the melodies on his rhythm guitar. He would record songs on a battery powered Tascam recorder, which his father Ray would then upload to the home computer. To date, he’s written over 400 songs!

Andrew Neil

Andrew was conditionally released from the hospital in May 2017, and moved into a group home in Charlottesville, where he still resides. Upon his release, he decided to produce an album of some of his songs, many of which were melancholy yet optimistic. Andrew hoped that perhaps his songs might help others struggling with similar mental health issues. The result was his debut album Code Purple – Andrew Neil, featuring 11 of the 70 songs he’d written while in the hospital. The songs were mastered by Vlado Meller, otherwise they were left pretty much in the raw, lo-fi condition as Andrew had recorded them. The art work for the album cover was done by his brother Kyle (the one he stabbed in the arm).

In 2018, he entered a studio to record his second album Merry Go Round, this time working with a number of accomplished musicians to help give his songs a more polished, fuller sound, as well as a more alt-rock vibe than his folk-oriented first album. Some of those musicians included Andy Waldeck, who also produced the album, on bass & guitar, Nathan Brown on drums, Gina Sobel on flute, and  and Jack Sheehan on sax for one track.

While it would seem that Andrew had already faced more than his fair share of challenges in his young life, in June 2019, while wrapping up the recording of his third album Freak, he was hit with yet another health crisis when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He underwent a grueling round of chemotherapy while the album was being mixed and mastered, and he and his family started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for album production and marketing, garnering even greater support than expected.

Freak was released digitally for streaming on October 15th. It’s also now available on CD, and will soon be available for download, as well as a limited number of vinyl pressings. For the recording of Freak, Andrew was joined once again by Andy Waldeck on bass and Nathan Brown on drums, with additional musicians Matty Metcalfe on lead guitar, baritone electric guitar and marxophone, Nick Berkin on piano, and Andrew’s dad Ray on acoustic guitar and backing vocals on two tracks. His brother Kyle also did the arresting painting for the album cover, which was designed by Daniel Benayun.

The album is an ambitious work, with 14 unique tracks that address topics of love, faith, mental illness and self-identity. It opens with the marvelous title track “Freak“, and the first thing that struck me is its strong Red Hot Chili Peppers vibe. In fact, Andrew’s unusual, quirky vocals at times sound a lot like Anthony Kiedis. The intricate guitar work is terrific, and I love the track’s funky psychedelic grooves. Andrew’s simple lyrics speak of being a ‘freak’ as a badge of honor, something that sets him apart as a unique individual, rather than simply strange: “In every way, every day of the week, I’m a freak, freak, freak. I got a feeling, like a ceiling leak. And if I could, I probably would grow a beak, beak, beak./ What can I say? I’m so unique, I’m a freak, freak, freak.”

Next up is “Kentucky Whiskey“, a languid and lovely song about throwing caution to the wind and giving into temptation and vices. With a wistful tone in his voice, Andrew croons “Goodbye teacher, goodbye teacher, gonna learn rock’n’roll. Goodbye preacher, goodbye preacher, I’ve already sold my soul. Killing myself, killing myself, with a cigarette. Girl I know, yes I know that we just met. But I’m gonna, yeah I’m gonna make you miss me. Killing myself, killing myself, Kentucky whiskey.” He’s written a captivating melody here, and Matty Metcalfe’s marxophone lends an enchanting addition to the gorgeous guitar work. “Hope” is a pleasing ballad about a girl named Hope who lifts him up with her love and support. The interplay between the guitars and Nick Berkin’s tinkling piano keys is delightful.

By the time we get to the fourth track “Overdose“, it’s clear that Andrew has a real knack for creating compelling and memorable melodies. Each of the songs sound completely different, with an eclectic mix of styles that keeps his music fresh and surprising. This song has a wickedly seductive melody with fuzz-soaked driving riffs, and Nathan Brown’s sexy drumbeats that nicely complement Andrew’s lyrics about submitting to love’s ardor:  “Cause I’m about to overdose. Let my spirit soar. Become a ghost. Walk through your heaven’s door. Overdose.” It’s a great song, one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Help” sees Andrew crying out for support and understanding: “If you only knew all of the bullshit I’ve been through. Then you could give me no blame when I give the blunt a flame.” The jangly guitars and piano keys are sublime. “All Over” is a pleasant love song that starts off with Andrew rapping to a hip hop beat, then 20 seconds in it transitions to an upbeat pop-rock duet, with guest vocalist Savannah Weaver singing with Andrew. Their vocal harmonies are delightful. Here’s a snippet of lyric that provides a great example of his honest, straightforward songwriting that’s so relatable: “Because of you my heart beats. Because of you I got to wash my sheets.”

Awesome bluesy guitars are a highlight of the poignant “Put Me Back Together“, a plea for love and support to heal his broken soul. Andrew references nursery rhymes to make his case: “Mary had a little lamb. So will you love me as I am? / I’m a bloody humpty dumpty. And babe I need your company. Or else.” Another favorite track of mine, mainly due to the lyrics, is “American Dream“, a candid critique of the rat race. Andrew laments “I’m living the American dream, but things aren’t what they seem. I’m living the American dream, and it makes me want to scream. Wake up and go to work. Thank god my boss isn’t a jerk. People really aren’t so bad. But every now and then I get sad. So my doctor gives me pills They make me happy so I pay my bills. What would I do without my wine?

The optimistic “Drum Song” has an Americana vibe, with rousing folk-rock guitars, lively piano keys, and Appalachian dulcimer played by guest musician Roxanne McDaniel. Andrew sings of how the world would be a better place if people were more kind and loving to each other: “Love is in your heart, so find it and play your part./ This life would never be such a bummer, if we collectively loved one another.” Those wonderful bluesy guitars make a welcome return on “Beautiful Dancer“, a song about a woman who could be his savior or his undoing (romance can often be like that): “The birds are flying, or maybe they’re spying, or maybe they’re trying to let me know. That you are my answer, or maybe a cancer. Beautiful dancer. I’m at your show.” I really like the song’s rather sensuous melody, and Andrew’s vocals sound particularly good here.

Andrew takes a bit of an experimental turn on the trippy “Thirty-Two“, with more of those great bluesy grooves, accompanied by Andy Waldeck’s throbbing bass and some fine drumming by Nathan Brown. I love the lyrics “Take a shower, I feel dirty. In an hour, I’ll turn thirty. Life’s so fast and rough. I think I’ve had enough. Then I saw her walk back, and I knew I could make it to thirty-two.” The final track “Disappear” is a bluesy foot-stomper with an infectious country-rock vibe. I’m not sure, but the lyrics seem to speak of the mind-controlling aspects of blind faith: “Fork in the road. Choice is clear, do what you’re told, have no fear./We are free, when we do what it is that gods do. Disappear.

Freak is a wonderful album, made all the more special given Andrew’s remarkable talents, despite the many adversities he’s had to face throughout his adult life. His intriguing melodies, simple, honest lyrics, beautiful instrumentals and endearing vocal style have a way of burrowing into our brain and capturing our soul. I’m genuinely impressed by his imaginative songwriting and sincere musicality, and he’s a true inspiration for all who have experienced challenges, both large and small.

Follow Andrew:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Reverbnation
Purchase:  Bandcamp / cdbaby / Google Play

LAGPASS – EP Review: “Ostrich Approach”

Lagpass EP art

Lagpass is the new music project of a singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chicago who’s previously recorded under the name Draft Evader. I’ve featured Draft Evader’s music a number of times on this blog over the past two years, and have always been impressed by his deeply personal lyrics addressing his struggles with depression and self-doubt, then set to aggressive guitar-driven melodies, and backed with bass and drums. I’ve also enjoyed watching him grow and mature as a songwriter, musician and vocalist. Now, wanting his songs to feel even more honest and raw, he’s opting for an essentially guitar-only sound, recording under the new moniker Lagpass. When I asked how he came up with that name, he explained “Lagpass is a term my brother and I used to say when we would play National Hockey League video games. It’s basically just a missed pass after you hold down the pass button too long. It’s bound to happen at least once or twice a game and I catch myself saying “lagpass” all the time.”

He’s just released his first recording as Lagpass, a new EP titled Ostrich Approach, featuring four relatively short tracks that get right to the point with only his guitar and vocals providing the sounds we hear. First up is the title track, which seems to speak to solving your problems by eliminating the shit that’s complicating your life. His resonant, jangly guitar notes provide all the music needed to create a dramatic backdrop for his earnest, almost raspy vocals as he sings:

you can take your numbers
divide them by your clutter
then you should burn that old ski mask
you can take that platform
& add it to your ant farm
then you should dump it in the grass

so sick of hamsters, ghosts, zombies and vampires
I think it’s time that I light a match
but I’m allergic to sulfur
no need to sulk & suffer
here’s a lighter, it’s time to detach

On “Reassurance“, he ponders conflicted feelings of wondering if he’s going crazy, or just going through some difficult times, that everything’s basically okay, and you just got to deal with it. Musically, the track has a folk-rock sound, with fuzz-covered strummed electric guitars.

this constant stress and voices in my head
always talking questioning my sanity
something’s wrong with me
nothing’s wrong with me

replaced eating with dry heaving
two little devils resting on my shoulder blades
reacquainted with high maintenance
you gave your two cents
but you’ve still got hell to pay

i’m exhausted, still nauseous
just looking for a way to enjoy the day
reassurance is just a burden
can’t change nothin’ cept the way you handle fate

Old Ashes” speaks to the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, of the compromises we must often make to keep it alive, worrying about whether it can survive, and struggling with constant doubts. His clear, heavily-strummed electric guitar work here is wonderful.

I take up smoking again
just so I can be with you
I’m overthinking this mess
seems to be all I can do

do you love me?
she said prove that you love me

she got a new address
moved into her granny’s house
on an air mattress
with John Prine and Houdmouth
she said: “prove that you love me
do you love me?”

She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” addresses the sad reality that she’s moved out, leaving you to contemplate what went wrong, and realizing that perhaps it was doomed from the start, given each of your troubled pasts. Man, these lyrics are heavy, and so packed with meaning!

she doesn’t live here anymore
opened my mouth and held the door
scattered across the kitchen floor
she doesn’t live here anymore

don’t wanna live here anymore
too paranoid for close quarters
there’s silence down the corridor
she doesn’t live here anymore

two children both from broken homes
borrowing tape to mend their own

Once again, I’m really impressed by his intelligent and thoughtful songwriting and great guitar work, and look forward to following him on his latest musical journey as Lagpass.

SHIPS HAVE SAILED – Single Review: “Skin”

Ships Have Sailed 2

I’ve been revisiting a lot of artists and bands I’ve featured earlier this year, as so many are dropping great new music. Another such band is Los Angeles-based duo Ships Have Sailed, whose beautiful and moving single “Escape” I reviewed this past February. I loved that song so much it went all the way to #1 on my Weekly Top 30! They’ve just dropped a lovely new single “Skin“, which I’m thrilled to introduce to my readers today.

Formed in 2012 by songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Will Carpenter, Ships Have Sailed has included a number of musicians over the years, but now consists of Will and drummer Art Andranikyan. They play a pleasing style of alternative pop-rock characterized by beautiful melodies, thoughtful, uplifting lyrics, and sublime arrangements and instrumentation. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Will twice now, including just last Friday, and his kindness and warmth shines through in his engaging vocals.

“Skin” is about pulling down our barriers and allowing ourselves to become vulnerable in order to more fully connect with others in deeper, more meaningful ways. Being vulnerable to uncomfortable emotions and pain in turn enables us to feel empathy and sympathy toward others. About the song, Will explains: “Has anyone ever told you that you need to grow a thicker skin? I can’t even count how many times people have told me that. But they’re essentially telling you to numb your feelings, and I think that our feelings and emotions are the essence of our humanity. The music I create wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t lean into my emotions when I’m writing, and so ‘Skin’ is my way of expressing that I’m content with feeling as much as I do…even if it hurts sometimes.”

Musically, “Skin” is more stripped down from their typical sound, with an incredibly pleasing folk/Americana vibe. The instrumentals consist primarily of lovely strummed guitars, including acoustic guitar by guest musician Steve Stout, accompanied by delicate, crystalline synths and Art’s gentle percussion. Will’s smooth, heartfelt vocals exude a tender vulnerability expressed by the poignant lyrics:

It may be thin, but I love it,
feel the pain, rise above it

We don’t have to wound each other,
you’re my sister, I’m your brother

Open heart, open eyes
let them in…this skin so thin

The beautiful, heartwarming video shows scenes of Will and Art walking various streets in Los Angeles, as well as Will getting a ship tattooed on his back at Golden Daggers tattoo studio, and several people in a range of emotional states posing for pictures at The Spot photo studio on Sunset Boulevard. It was directed and produced by Michael Easterling and Jaala Ruffman of Talkboy TV and filmed by David Parks.

Connect with Ships Have Sailed on  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on iTunes  / Google Play / Amazon

PAUL RENNA – Single Review: “All My Life”

Paul Renna

This lovely piece is by guest reviewer David Thurling, whose son James Thurling was until recently frontman of the British alt-rock band Revolvers, and now a member of Bitter Lime. I previously featured Paul Renna this past February, when I reviewed his beautiful single “Bound to Love”.

Paul Renna has long established himself as a genuinely talented singer/songwriter with his roots firmly embedded in the Lone Star state.  While not venturing too far into either the heavier blues sound often associated with Texas rock nor the well-worn path of Country blues or Americana folk, his music seems to straddle all three with a joyous charm.  He has the unique ability to explore often poignant and melancholic themes with a gentle and genuine sincerity so wonderfully captured by his deft vocal talent. There is an edge to his voice that when coupled with often painful lyrics brings out a truly emotional response,  In his new single, “All My Life”, Paul continues with themes of love and reconciliation albeit in an entirely up tempo, toe tapping rocker that is overflowing with hope, passion and the promise of a wonderful life to come.  This is a song that is undeniably commercial with first-class production qualities and catchy, jangly guitar hooks.

“All My Life” kicks off with a “Springsteenesque” count in and in some ways, delivers its humble narrative in a manner that would no doubt sit comfortably with The Boss.  Country influenced guitar licks weave in and out of a driving drum and bass pattern – not too heavy, not too light.

Lyrically Paul is not treading any new ground here but as is often the case, when it’s personal, the simple yet heartfelt pleas of forgiveness take on a universal appeal.  Apart from anything, it’s a damn catchy melody that demands to be sung along with while breezing along the highway with the top down.

Lay me down, and get my feet off the ground
I’ve been running for so long, running for so long.
Watch over me, make a wish and try to believe
You’ve been helping me this far, helping me this far

All my life, it’s been you
Please give a little bit of your heart,
Give it to me, give it to me
Please can’t we go back to the start
I’m on my knees, I’m on my knees for you

With several forthcoming shows in and around Dallas, it would be well worth the effort to spend a night with a genuine troubadour who’s infectious songwriting will certainly beguile you.  In “All My Life”, Paul has knocked out a fantastic dance floor filler.

Connect with Paul on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / YouTube / Reverbnation
Purchase on iTunes

 

HOLLY REES – Single Review: “Getting By”

Holly Rees single art

The music industry is as alive and well as it’s ever been, with so many artists and bands continuing to put out great music, and it seems many of them are releasing new music today, Friday the 6th of September! One such artist dropping a new single today is Holly Rees, a delightful indie folk singer-songwriter based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England. Her thoughtful, relatable lyrics, infectious melodies, skillful guitar-playing and lovely, heartfelt vocals have earned her critical acclaim and a loyal following, with flattering comparisons to the likes of Laura Marling and Courtney Barnett.

Holly launched her career with her debut EP Ilex in 2017, receiving airplay on BBC 6 Music and a feature on Tom Robinson’s BBC Introducing Mixtape. In 2018, she performed at the Hit The North and Evolution Emerging music festivals, and followed up with her excellent second EP Slow Down. She released “Text Me When You Get There”: The Live EP in May 2019, and is now back with a wonderful new single “Getting By“.

The song was written and performed by Holly, who played guitar on the track, with assistance from Rhys Melhuish on drums, Ryan Peebles on bass, and Olivia Ord on keyboards. It was recorded at Loft Music Studios, and mixed and mastered by Matt Dunbar. About “Getting By”, Holly explains  “This is a song about struggling with mental health – how things can be really good and really bad at once, and ultimately how sometimes just getting through it is all you can do, and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay to just survive. The tide will always come back in.”

The song has a bouncy, upbeat tempo that contrasts with, yet complements, the more serious lyrics. Holly’s pleasing strummed guitar takes center stage, and her supporting musicians do a fine job keeping the rhythm and adding texture and depth to the track. I really like her vibrant vocals that beautifully convey both resolute strength and a vulnerable world-weariness as she sings her honest, poetic lyrics:

Oh we’re just like everyone we know
Far too young to be this old

I’m doing great, I’m doing fine, I’m doing terribly
I’m confident, intelligent, I’m scared of what you think of me
Crossing oceans of emotion for the notion of some dopamine
There’s no lesson in depression, it’s just a question of getting by

Holly’s been touring Canada since mid-April, and has another six weeks left of her tour, so those of you in Eastern Canada still have an opportunity to catch one of her shows:

Holly Rees tour dates

The sweet cover art for the single was created by Dale Glenister, who has her own music blog Peanut Mixtape (which is currently on hiatus).

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

CULANN – Album Review: “The Great Ecumene”

Culann album

Culann is a band from Irvine, in North Ayrshire, Scotland. Comprised of PJ Kelly (Vocals, Guitar), his brother Sean Kelly (Drums), Greg Irish (Guitar), Ross McCluskie (Keyboards) and Calum Davis (Bass), they blend folk, Celtic-rock, alt-rock, prog rock and even a bit of reggae to create their uniquely colorful and dynamic sound. Largely ignoring the norms of conventional song writing, they employ complex melodies, time changes and a perfect fusion of traditional Scottish music with a contemporary lyrical approach, resulting in a deeply satisfying and distinct sound. Since forming in 2008, they’ve performed the length and breadth of their homeland, gathering adoring fans along the way.

They released their self-titled debut album Culann in 2012, and after dropping a few singles now and then, they returned this past April (2019) with their second album The Great Ecumene, which I’m reviewing today. Curious as to what ‘Ecumene’ means, I checked Wikipedia and learned that it’s an ancient Greek term now used by geographers to mean inhabited land. It generally refers to lands where people have made their permanent home. Accordingly, many of the album tracks touch on various aspects of Scottish life and its history, and its strong connection to the sea.

The album opens with “Evonium“, a jubilant, monumental song with symphonic rock overtones that call to mind the great 70s bands Yes and Boston, with a bit of a nod to Dream Theater. The song was first released as a single more than two years ago, in May 2017. Once again, I was compelled to Google ‘Evonium’, and found the following:

Evonium is a purported lost city in Scotland that was first described by Hector Boece in his 16th-century Scotorum Historiae. According to Boece, it hosted the coronation of forty kings and was located in the Lochaber area.” Writer A.J. Morton has suggested that if Evonium actually existed, it could have been located at the band’s home of Irvine, Ayrshire. Culann assembles a rich mix of roiling guitars, exuberant piano and organ, and lots of percussion to create a powerful song befitting of the epic saga of Evonium. Lead vocalist PJ Kelly passionately sings of how the historic legacy of Evonium has shaped the lives of all who are born there:

Blood of this town, the place where I was born
A strength that’s driven in across the sea
Cut from the coast, we wake with price each morn
For all that’s past, it’s richest history
We owe our lives to our western home
Where kings and rulers stole their destiny
Shaped their lives and carved them into stone
With all that’s seen and all were yet to be, all were yet to be 

Now I understand
It’s all because I’m from Evonium
Now it’s in my hands
The greatness past fuels greatness not yet done that’s still to come

The beautiful video shows scenes of the band performing the song in historic Dundonald Castle, interspersed with scenes filmed in the Scottish countryside and Duncarron Medieval Village, a replica of an early Medieval fortified village. The album version of the track includes a somber but beautiful synth instrumental beginning at 4:15 that continues through to the end.

Next up is “Event Without Experience“, a rousing, melodically complex extravaganza of Celtic prog-rock brilliance. The intricate guitar work is fantastic, and nicely complemented by some fine keyboards, humming bass, and aggressive thumping drumbeats. I really like how PJ’s Scottish brogue shines through in his fervent vocals. Culann deliver more Celtic folk-rock grooves with the philosophical drinking song “Brewing of Ale“, and once again, the guitars, keyboards and rhythm section are perfection. The just-released video was directed & edited by Stuart Breadner, and filmed on location in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Galloway Forest Park.

Century Box” is a stomper of a tune that took a couple of listens to grab me, but once it did, I couldn’t get enough of that wonderful melody. The lively guitars are killer and I love how they perfectly meld with the piano keys, something this band does so beautifully in many of their songs. The terrific organ riff and guitar solo in the bridge are real treats.

The title track “The Great Ecumene” is a near-epic six-minute-long ode to Scotland. This is true progressive rock, with a meandering (in a good way) melody, highlighted by a smooth organ riff and accompanied by delicate piano, measured drums and a wondrous mix of guitar textures that pull you deeply into the song. PJ croons about the complexities and contradictions of his homeland: “My country is bitter. My country is cold. My country is beautiful. My country is bold. My people are bitter. My people are cold. My soul it is sacred. My spirit is sold./ Join the great ecumene, see what you find. A road never ending, stretching through time.” Everything ramps up to a crescendo in the chorus, with impassioned vocal harmonies and a cascade of crashing cymbals for a dramatic finish.

Culann keep the energy flowing on “All Reverie” with rolling guitars, galloping drumbeats and passionate vocals. “Sunken Ships” appropriately opens with underwater sounds, then launches into a glorious mix of jangly guitars, sparkling piano keys, pummeling drumbeats and a deep, humming bassline. “Aegis” is perhaps the most high-energy track on the album (and also the shortest, though still running 3:51 minutes). Frantic riffs, pounding drums and exuberant piano keys make for a real banger of a track. PJ earnestly sings the lyrics to someone who’s been his aegis, or shield, helping him to overcome some of his self doubts and fears: “Closely, look at where I have come from. You made me, you taught me to be strong and lead the way. I can’t face the outside on my own. I can’t understand them. I can’t bear the inside, my unknown. Please don’t make me stand there alone.”

The guys really show us what they’re capable of on “Man Alive“, one of the standouts on an album filled with standouts. Running over seven minutes, this song has it all: melodic change-ups that hold our attention, complex and intricate guitar work, enchanting keyboards, a marvelous funky bassline, and some of the most impeccable drumming I’ve heard in a while, not to mention PJ’s always-great vocals. As I’ve mentioned on previous tracks, the interplay between the guitars and keyboards here is so freaking good. Finally, despite it’s length, “Man Alive” seems much shorter, always a sign of a great song (unlike some songs that seem to go on forever, with me wishing they’d come to a quicker end).

The lyrics speak to the resilience of the Scottish people: “Come gather ’round, meet the gladdest man alive. You see him everyday. Come gather’ round, meet the saddest man alive. He’ll never tell you so. A blackened sense of pride. No man alive could meet the broken soul of mine.”

The song immediately segues into the closing track “Queen Street“, a poignant ballad about life on the streets of Glasgow. The song has a more stripped-back sound than their other tracks, with mainly acoustic guitar, delicate piano and gentle percussion providing a somber backdrop for PJ’s heartrending vocals. With a strong sense of despair and pain, PJ laments: “I never needed a human being more. Sat down in the street, with a cup down by my feet. Oh but nobody seen me and the traffic arrow moving ’em on. And if I needed something, and I could reach out to you and I’d ask. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it. And if I needed someone, but I’ve turned my back on everyone that I had. I would beg of you one thing. Don’t make me beg for it.

Like a lot of progressive rock, it took me a couple of listens to fully appreciate all the nuance and complexity of the songs on The Great Ecumene, but once I totally immersed myself in the music, it really came alive for me. It’s a beautiful album, and Culann’s songwriting, lyrics and musicianship are all quite impressive. These guys are masters of their respective instruments, and operate as an incredibly tight unit to create music that’s flawless, exciting and a joy to hear.

Connect with Culann: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream their music: SpotifyApple MusicSoundcloud
Purchase: Bandcamp / Big Cartel

A BLUE FLAME – 3-Track Single Review: “Blueprints For Time Machines”

A Blue Flame EP art

I’m not quite sure what’s behind the current flood of creative energy, but it seems that nearly everyone is putting out new music in 2019. At least that’s the case for a large percentage of the artists and bands I’ve featured on this blog over the past three and a half years. Another one of them is A Blue Flame, the music project of British singer/songwriter Richard Stone, who’s just released a new three-track single “Blueprints for Time Machines“, the first of four releases that will comprise his upcoming album due out this summer.

A Blue Flame’s songs tell compelling stories about life, love, faith, loss and heartbreak through poetic, heartfelt lyrics and sublime melodies. The passage of time and the challenge of keeping the faith – both in God and yourself – are recurring themes in his songs. Musically, his songs feature an eclectic range of styles from doo-wop and old-school pop to easy listening ballads, folk and rock, delivered with his smooth, pleasing vocal style. I first featured him on this blog in October 2016, when I reviewed his beautiful album What We’ve Become is All That Now Remains. In January 2018, I reviewed his equally stellar follow-up album When Your Whole World Turns to Dust, which dropped in September 2017. (You can read those reviews by clicking on the “Related” links at the bottom of this page.)

A Blue Flame

Stone writes all his songs and plays guitar on all the tracks. He arranges them with assistance from Adam Ellis, who co-produces and also plays guitar.  Other session musicians add their skills to the mix as needed, including Damon Claridge on drums, Andy Robertson on bass and keyboards, and Tony Robinson on keyboards and horns. About these new singles, Stone explains: “Blueprints has the interesting concept that if you went back in time to improve what you’d done, you’d make the past better than the present you have already created through mistakes made in the past!

The exhilarating first track “Blueprints for Time Machines” is short, lasting barely over two minutes, but makes quite an impact with a thunderous mix of roiling riffs and hammering percussion, punctuated by staccato bursts of stabbing guitars and punchy drumbeats. Stone’s passionate vocals are commanding as he loudly proclaims “Blueprints for time machines. I need designs and plans and schemes. So I can make yesterday better than I made today.”

A Blue Flame keeps the energy flowing with “You Blink and it’s Gone”, an exuberant song with a wonderfully complex melody incorporating elements of rock’n’roll, Latin and pop music. The intricate layered guitars are fantastic, and I love the lively trumpet work and backing vocal harmonies. The lyrics speak to a relationship that’s lost the initial spark that drew them together in the beginning, and now looking back with sad resignation: “I wish that I’d known then what I know now. I would have held you high above the crowd. / Feels like forever, then you blink and it’s gone. You need to let go, but you’re still holding on. And you can’t even tell if you’ve lost or you’ve won. You blink and it’s gone.”

Things turn melancholy with the languid “Pull for the Shore”, a track that almost sounds like two songs melded together. It starts off slowly, with acoustic guitars and gentle snare drum, then a smooth organ riff enters as Stone sings in a rather sad tone: “You’re lost again. You feel like you’re running on the spot again. Reached inside and given all you’ve got again. You think you may be headed for the drop again. You’re down my friend.” Eventually, the pace of the music quickens and music builds as he urges self-preservation: “Hey ho, don’t take anymore. Pull for the Shore.” Two-thirds of the way through, the tempo abruptly transitions to a faster rock vibe, with heavier guitars, organ and drums. Stone repeats the affirming line “Hey ho, don’t take anymore”, ending the song on a positive note.

A Blue Flame continues to deliver music that’s meaningful, interesting and always a joy to hear. All three tracks are marvelous, and a great start to what will surely be another superb album.

Connect with A Blue Flame:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream his music:  Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase:  cdbaby / iTunes

RIVERSYSTEM – Single Review: “Hello Stranger”

RiverSystem Hello Stranger

RiverSystem is the artistic name for the music project of singer/songwriter Richard Willis, who hails from the beautiful South Wales valley of Cynon. He’s been writing and playing songs in the Folk-Americana style for around 15 years. His songs address themes of loves lost and found, coping with depression, or anything else he feel like writing about. Richard explains that the name RiverSystem came about 10 years ago when he was having a jam session with some college friends he’d formed a band with, and after struggling to find a name for themselves, they finally settled on RiverSystem. The band has long since gone their separate ways, but he decided to keep the name.

RiverSystem has been working on a song of great importance to him and his wife called “Hello Stranger“, which he’s officially releasing as a single today, along with a video he created for the song. He explains that the song “was a labour of love that was co-written with my wife. It is about how depression or mental health issues can just creep up on you and potentially damage your perception of life.” He and his wife hope to raise mental health awareness through the song.

The song has a slow, mournful melody that sets a somber mood, perfectly befitting the subject matter. Starting off with an electric guitar riff and gentle percussion, the music gradually builds with added layers of guitar and melancholy synths. Though the song is sad, it has a haunting beauty thanks to RiverSystem’s fine guitar work. His earnest vocals are heartfelt as he addresses the ‘stranger’ of depression that’s returned to haunt him, bringing sadness and desolation, yet he refuses to allow it to conquer him.

Hello Stranger
Haven’t seen you awhile
So long in fact
I didn’t recognise you

Anxiety and depression
Is what you bring
I’m in this melancholy state
I can’t take this any more

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Hello stranger
If I knew you were coming
I would’ve closed all my doors
And held fast against the oncoming storm

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Now you’ve left me in pieces
With a trail of destruction in your wake
Now I feel dark and lonely
Drag myself out of what you’ve thrown me in

Oh stranger
On my shoulder
Don’t stay there too long
Oh stranger
I can’t take this anymore

Maybe next time you swing around
You could avoid me
I’ve had enough of you for now

The deeply moving video shows him playing the song in the lovely countryside interspersed with scenes of him being shadowed by the stranger, overcome with sadness and despair.

Connect with RiverSystem:  Facebook / Twitter / Instagram
Stream on Spotify / Reverbnation
Purchase on iTunes / Amazon

DARKSOFT – Album Review: “Brain”

Darksoft Brain

Darksoft is the music project of Bill Darksoft, a smart and creative young artist from Seattle, Washington who’s produced one of the most interesting and brilliant concept albums I’ve heard in some time. Brain, which dropped in November 2018, is named after the very first computer virus to attack the internet back in 1986, with each track named after infamous viruses that followed.

He operates his own label and website Look Up Records (for which he also writes some pretty awesome reviews), and in addition to his music project, has played with many Seattle acts over the years. About his inspiration behind the creation of Brain, he explains: “Distanced through haunted screens, we rely on spooky contact that we don’t fully understand. At times, dark forces lurk on the other end, with a motive to con. Always a silhouetted hooded presence, the hacker has become our modern portrayal of Death; captor to the mind and its web of memories. As we stare deeper and deeper into the glowing comfort of this synthetic deception, trust has become the challenge of our modern paradigm, and the cyberscape the new Great Unknown. At its core, Brain is a story not only of the brain, but of the heart, as both confront trust and deception, the real and the synthetic, the mind and the motherboard, and the dark web connecting it all where the matter of our endless identities can be created as quickly as it can be erased, infected, encrypted…or simply revealed for what it truly is, beneath the hood.”

Brain opens with “Mydoom” a pleasant track with gauzy riffs of jangly guitars, subtle bass and gentle percussion. The lyrics speak to the seemingly harmless but insidious virus that keeps a watchful eye on one’s internet dealings: “I’ll just pop up in your window to see how it’s going. From time to time I will drain your battery life… Track you close, I’ll watch your move. Mydoom A has put a bug on you to stayIt’s ok to be vulnerable if you’ve got nothing to lose.” Darksoft has a velvety smooth vocal style that’s incredibly pleasing, giving the track a rather dreamy vibe. On “Elk Cloner“, he first warns about a virus that works to take over our thoughts: “They will enter your world. They can infiltrate microchips. They will stick like glue. They will modify you.” But then it’s as if the virus itself tells us not to worry and just remain calm: “No cause. No cause for alarm. No harm. We just occupy thought. No cause for alarm. No cause, just be calm.” The track has a lovely, mesmerizing melody and his vocals are really soothing, belying the rather menacing message.

Darksoft quickens the pace on the bouncy “Conficker“, though it still has a somewhat moody undertone with a mix of fuzzy and jangly guitars, shimmery synths and a determined drumbeat. The lyrics allude to the algorithms that control what we’re fed on social media, shaping our world view in the process: “We choose what you feel. No view into reality. Your life is ours… permanently.

With gnarly guitars and spooky synths propelled by a strutting bass line, “Lamex” speaks to how easy it is to escape into an artificial online world: “If you want a lame existence. They will send you a virus or two. Lamerism is the name of the tool I use”, yet yearning to break free and think clearly and independently: “I need to get out…To free my mind…To quit this code and leave the app I knew behind. If you look away you’ll open your eyes.”

One of my favorite tracks is “Heartbleed“, with its enthralling melody, irresistible drumbeat and gentle psychedelic groove, thanks to deliciously eerie synths. The jangly guitars are marvelous, the bass line’s sublime, and I absolutely love Darksoft’s warm, captivating vocals. I honestly think I would be perfectly happy listening to him sing the yellow pages!  My take on the song’s meaning is it seems to compare the feelings of someone who’s emotionally dead inside to that of a computer – a machine who only does what it’s programmed and directed to do: “Matter is a thing. You focus it’ll bring you life and pleasure. Just wait and see. Let your lead heart bleed.  Silicon and hardware respond.  Nothing really matters when you’re a machine… You live to be used by others.”

Another favorite is “Cryptolocker“, a darkly gorgeous song with dreamy and sometimes eerie synths that create a lush atmospheric soundscape. The gently-strummed chiming guitars are exquisite, as are Darksoft’s ethereal vocals that are seductive, yet menacing, as he coldly warns another not to fuck with him: “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You don’t understand who you’re messing with. Lock me away and I will pull the plug from under you.”

I distinctly remember the virus for which “ILOVEYOU” is named. Darksoft uses it as an allegory for the emptiness and futility that can result from using online dating websites: “Every fuckin day is the same. Can’t look up from the screen. Crushes breakin over the phone. Guess that I’ll be alone. Til I see your message titled ‘love confession’. Feeling’ tempted by a lie; it’s a misdirection. You were nothing more than spam. My little love connection. Engineered to phish my soul. Been spoofed again by a false confession.” The song has an infectious drumbeat and some fine, intricate guitar work.

Code Red” is a beautiful, languid song featuring Darksoft’s resonant, pulsating guitars and sublime vocals, backed by his own harmonic choruses.  The lyrics seem to speak of clearing one’s mind of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors: “Everyone has a code. Some write them, others they follow a worm. Everyday, take a chance. Decrypt all the bullshit and break from the trance.” The final track “NightShade” is a mellow, anthemic rock song with jangly guitars and humming bass, accompanied by snappy drumbeats. NightShade seems to be a metaphor for drugs taken to numb the pains of life: “Where you’re from, how you came as I take it all away with NightShade. / If I can survive maybe then so can you. Aren’t we all playing role games? Infect the database with NightShade.”

Brain is a great album, and I love pretty much everything about it – Darksoft’s clever lyrics inspired by each of the computer viruses, his beautiful melodies, outstanding guitar work, first-rate production values, and stunning vocals. He’s an amazing talent, and I eagerly look forward to hearing what he comes up with for his next music project.

Connect with Darksoft on Facebook / TwitterInstagram
Stream his music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Google Play
Purchase on Bandcamp / iTunes / cdbaby