I often wonder about why certain artists are household names, and why some of the best musicians I can think of are virtually unheard of. It’s not a case of talent equating to fame. Many major stars don’t even write their own music.
The reason I bring this up is because Tash Sultana is huge, but has only just released her first album. One of my American friends suggested that I look her up when I was travelling last year. So I did. I dug her sound – chilled out songs that utilize looping pedals. Next thing I know, I’m seeing her name everywhere. She’s headlining festivals, and even sold out a sizable show here in Wellington [which I sadly missed] a few months ago. How has she made such a name for herself without even having an album out?
Let’s be clear: Sultana deserves the attention. Flow State is a great album, and is all the more impressive when you consider that Sultana recorded every instrument herself. Much like Drax Project, Sultana’s story began with busking on the streets, and has arrived at the point of her ascending to stardom.
Solo multi-instrumentalist albums are nothing new. Mike Oldfield is one of the more classic examples. A more recent high-profile example is Dave Grohl’s Play. And Will Not Fade has covered countless more such projects. But Sultana’s work falls into a different category, partly because she sings, but also because her entire feel and approach stands out as separate from the post/prog rockers. “Blackbird” heads in a different direction (think Kaki King or Rodrigo y Gabriela) but on this album Sultana owns a distinctive sound.
Sultana sets the mood instantly with album opener “Seed”. She shows us that she’s no stranger to guitar as her fingers dance upon the fretboard, masterfully conjuring notes rich in reverb. Her voice is just as great as her playing, transferring from angelic coos to smokey singing.
Lazy campfire strumming lays the base for “Big Smoke”, while a shuffled drum beat extends the laid back feel. Bright finger picking and a contrasting solo allow Sultana to show off the breadth of her guitar playing chops.
I cannot tell you why “Cigarettes” isn’t one of the singles, but in my mind it is undeniably the pinnacle of Flow State. The laid-back groove is simply sublime, but it’s not until we reach bridge that things begin to stand out. A jangly riff and fast paced drums come into play, before Sultana lets loose with a scorching solo that simply rips for a few minutes.
In fact, this appears to be the template for many of the tracks. Mellow for the most part, with a searing solo that emerges during the bridge.
The soundtrack-esque “Seven” is also one of the more interesting tracks. An early violin melody adds Oriental flavours, which stall for a piano segment that transforms into a tense ostinato, with ominous Godspeed vibes. This is a track that takes you on a journey, through a variety of interesting terrains.
“Free Mind” feels a lot different to many of the other songs. It still retains groove, but with synthetic sounding drums it sounds like it has been produced differently to the other tracks, and the polished feel doesn’t sit well alongside the others.
One could argue that an hour is slightly too much. The mellow style works, but isn’t the most memorable – especially when many of the songs seem to follow the same formula. But Sultana does enough to mix it up if you listen carefully. “Salvation” has organ sounds, “Mystik” features horns and sweet, sweet bass lines. “Mellow Marmalade” takes the campfire feel to a new level with acoustic guitar, while “Harvest Love” gives Sultana a chance to show us how well she can wail.
Summer is fast approaching this part of the world, and I can see this being the perfect soundtrack to a carefree day in the sun. But likewise, Sultana’s smokey singing and smooth playing could be just what you need to warm you up in less desirable weather.
Tash Sultana is the whole package. Whether rocking you to sleep with smooth lullabies, or setting you ablaze with furious riffing, she plays with masterful ability. And her voice complements the playing brilliantly. Flow State is worth your attention. Do yourself a favour and give it a listen.