CLINT SLATE – Album Review: “Dragons”

Clint Slate is the music project of French singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Gregg Michel. Based in Paris, the versatile musician has been involved in numerous projects over the years, and wanting to further explore and experiment with his art, Michel created Clint Slate in 2015. The moniker is a variation of ‘clean slate’. That same year, he released his debut solo album Before the Dark, a beguiling work featuring 12 tracks he described as “a trip between sonic landscapes and electro-organic sounds, a travel in my mind, a snapshot of life between light and darkness.” The album was an exploration of his feelings of grief and loss after the death of his father. He followed up in 2017 with his exquisite second album Woodn Bones, which he premiered in a live performance on the internet with a full band plus choir in a theatre. It was an album recorded live and in a single take.

At the start of 2020, Clint was preparing to release his third album, a progressive concept work titled The Last Man, but then the Covid-19 pandemic swept across Europe, resulting in a lockdown in France and many countries. He decided to postpone the album’s release until the time comes that he can give it a proper release in front of an audience. He had also been involved with several collaborative projects, including becoming a metal singer for the former drummer of Skakin’ Street, a crooner for Alexandre Azaria’s soundtracks, Bono for a U2 Tribute, and a rock’n’roll clown for the musical stage troupe Les Franglaises.

The coronavirus brought all these activities to a halt, which then led him to conceive of a new project based on the idea of a ‘cadavre exquis musical’ (or ‘exquisite musical corpse’), and that could be created virtually and remotely. Enlisting the help of two other musicians, bassist Francesco Arzani and drummer Louison Collet, Clint set to work on an album entitled Dragons, which dropped today, January 4th. He wrote the music and lyrics, sang vocals and played acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards, stylophone and percussion. He also produced, mixed and mastered the album. Louison also played glockenspiel on “Dark is Wire” and Clint played bass on “Obstacles”.

Dragons was inspired by Clint’s love of David Bowie’s album Earthling, which he explains “allows itself to digest Drum&Bass, Jungle and electro and to spit them out totally transfigured in a unique result. It’s thanks to this album that I realise the importance of breaking genres and codes, like listening to Mike Garson’s jazz out piano parts on the volcanic electro/rock “Dead Man Walking” or Reeves Gabrels’ string after string guitar solo with alien like sounds on “Looking For Satellites”. It also allowed me to discover William Burroughs and the Beat Generation, Bowie explaining that he applied the cut-up principle to several songs. But what is cut-up? It’s a process created by the surrealists where words written in the course of thought or newspaper clippings were mixed in a bowl and randomly drawn to create new phrases. It is a way to shake up inspiration, to renew oneself, to explore the unconscious and to play with meaning or nonsense.” Clint told me Dragons is a kind of love letter to artists and explorators he admires.

Work on Dragons took place between May and July 2020. Clint would compose the music, working as quickly as possible to keep from overthinking while he recorded melodies, riffs or suites of chords. He then sent them to Louison and Francesco without giving them any more information than an audio clip, chords and a BPM, which allowed them to add their own touches without knowing what the other did. The rules were simple: Be spontaneous and think as little as possible, record yourself three times maximum and get out of your playing habits. Once he received their tracks, Clint added them to the guitar parts and then distorted everything until the original idea had been transfigured or even supplanted by the new sounds. Each track was given a random name, which was then entered into a word generator to find the lyrics, flirting with nonsense, abstract and surrealism.

The result is a totally unique, fascinating and eclectic collection of songs that (in Clint’s words, as I couldn’t possibly say it better myself) “winds between styles, genres and atmospheres to propose a new journey through the unconscious and surf on the wave of the moment. The nine songs of the album are as many monsters and chimeras to discover and tame.” The album opens with “Sunset, Nova and Earth“, an interesting track that starts off with Clint rapping over an almost dubstep beat, accompanied by clicking sounds, then settles into a languid folk rock vibe with bluesy guitars. As promised, the lyrics are abstract and surreal: “You noisy capture birds to get the galaxies, the warm aurora of unseen specific lights. Recognize in us storytellers. Raw change might help sunset, Nova and Earth.”

David Bowie’s influence can be heard on “Reconciliation TV (The Love Tides)“, which to my ears also has a strong Pink Floyd vibe, thanks to its sweeping organ riff and colorful mix of jangly and distorted guitars, followed by relatively calm, introspective interludes. Clint’s knack for sounding like Bono is evident on the hauntingly beautiful “Ghost America“, a song that seems to allude to an America now past its glory “The rise of the greatest worldwide team. Theft beyond trading. The ghost of America, America.” “Dead Noise” has a somewhat cinematic feel as it builds to a dramatic crescendo, while the brooding “Dark is Wire” seems to channel Radiohead. With its combination of delicate synths, strummed guitars and Glockenspiel layered over Francesco’s moody bass line, the captivating song is one of my favorites on the album. And once again, the lyrics are obscure: “Nothing to die / dark is wire / shortcuts useless / a crisp stark pink interface.”

The Sixth Trip Plan” is a melodic and upbeat track based on a twenty seconds long riff on two very simple chords that Clint developed, and enhanced by a bass riff created by Francesco. I really like this video showing each of them performing independently, but sounding fantastic together. The lyrics are rather non-sensical, but make for a fun listen: “Fresh self-respect / Carbon exchange / Join the flowers of a hundred dictionaries / Double bread crown for twin Spanish horses / Challenge the last dance call that’s the sixth trip plan.”

The darkly beautiful “Obstacles” is another favorite, with stunning guitar work that Clint states was recorded in a single take shortly after he composed it. He adds that the song “mourns a world that has become as cold as steel“, as expressed in the lyrics “A wireless force / Dangerous events holding the web, focused / You offer everything / Stealth warranty / Candidates multiply instantly.” Though the lyrics are rather foreboding, his vocals are warmly comforting.

On the futuristic “Systems and Batteries“, Clint uses wobbly industrial synths, throbbing reverb and a skittering beat to create a harsh, yet dreamy otherworldly soundscape for his droning vocals, augmented by electronically-altered vocals speaking the lines “Imperial common unit / Imperial views / Theoretical tools and technology measure something here.” The final track “Smash” is an exhilarating guitar-driven progressive rock song that ends with the album title as the last word: “Update the leaders, compatible with riders / Commit together, contact the dragon.”

Dragons is an unusual but sonically satisfying album that I found immensely enjoyable. I applaud Clint for his imaginative approach in the creation of this unique work, proving that – even in isolation – musicians are capable of producing some really innovative and compelling work. If you like music that ventures outside the norms in terms of melodic structure, lyrics and sound design, you will enjoy this album.

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XENNON – Album Review: “MIAMI COP”

Xennon Miami Cop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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