Tash Sultana Flow State

Album Review: Tash Sultana – Flow State

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.

 

Joseph James

Listener Au NZ tour poster

Live Review & Photos: Listener at Valhalla, Wellington

Listener

w/ Yor Cronies and New Age Leper

Valhalla, Wellington

Wednesday 3 October 2018

In typical fashion, I missed the opening set tonight because I was ordering food [burgers that took an hour to come after we’d ordered, and were disappointingly inadequate – thanks Bristol!] So I cannot report on Yor Cronies’ set. I can, however comment on New Age Leper.

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In short, they were great. Hard rocking, drawing on a mix of styles, they impressed with their intense, wah-heavy jams. They collectively picked on Bjorn the singer, making jokes at his expense. All four members were fun to watch, but the best was seeing the lanky tumbleweed on guitar and synths, whose ‘fro bobbed up and down with his every movement. If they tighten up their set a bit by rehearsing more and cutting down on the time spent tuning between songs, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Listener at Valhalla

Pre-show huddle

Listener precluded their set with a small pre-show ritual, the four of them gathering in front of the drums for a pep-talk to get into the right frame of mind. I’ve heard that on their rider, they request a personalised note of encouragement from each venue, which is so endearingly wholesome. It shows how much they value positivity.

They started off the set strong, with two of the heavier songs from recent album Being Empty: Being FilledNow I am a fan of Listeners early work, but this recent album really upped the ante, bringing the music to the forefront to match frontman Dan Smith’s impassioned vocals.

The quartet were firing on all cylinders, bringing such visceral energy to the foray that I was surprised at how big of an impact they made.

Listener at Valhalla

Dan Smith

Smith stood front and centre, barefoot and playing bass guitar. I see his poetic lyricism as one of the major factors that draw you into Listener’s music, and thankfully the mix was clear enough that we could hear most of his vocals. He stood half a foot back from the microphone, eyes closed and passionately swaying his head side to side as he sang.

Smith’s equally mustache-blessed partner Kris Rochelle injected life into the music from the drums. He was a wonder to watch, reaching up to hit cymbals set so high that they threatened to tip with every strike against them. I noticed that many songs featured steady continued beats on the bass drum, giving a throbbing urgency to the music that I hadn’t picked up on before. Apparently Rochelle recorded all the music of the recent album himself, so hats off to him not only for his drumming performance, but for his multi-talented musical abilities.

Tim Stickrod and Jon Terrey stood on either side, both on guitar. They helped to fill out the sound, be it frenzied, intense rock, or more sombre numbers.

Listener at Valhalla

Jon (L) and Kris (R)

After a few songs Smith stopped to thank us for the applause, before opening the floor for a Q&A sessions. Turns out Smith’s favourite colour is black – yes it is a colour – (I thought October was his favourite colour?), but no-one had decent questions worth addressing so the band delved back into their set.

Valhalla is traditionally Wellington’s venue for metal music, so it seemed like an odd choice for Listener to play. But on the night it seemed ideal. Size wise, it felt intimate for the 60-odd people present. The sound mix was great. And Listener rocked out more than I had anticipated, making them feel more suited to this heavy venue.

I was loving it. And looking around the crowd, others were gaining something special from the night as well. I noticed a few people mouthing along to Smiths busy dialogue for Wooden Heart era songs, clearly feeling a connection.

The set drew from new and old, heavy and mellow. I was certainly moving along to some of the more rocky songs, and completely immersed in the stories of the more solemn songs. Songs like “Seatbelt Hands” are real tearjerkers, but “It Will All Happen the Way It Should” took the pain and rawness to the next level . And when Smith brought his trumpet out for a few songs it felt so perfect.

Listener at Valhalla

Fantastic music, riveting performance, immersive showmanship. You can tell that these guys have paid their dues gaining experience on the road. There were no encores; Listener are not a band of pretense. But they were extremely gracious, and happily gave their time to all who chose to linger around to chat to the band after the show. I had a total blast and feel more enriched for having attended.

Listener at ValhallaListener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla

 

Words and photos by Joseph James

Estere Meow Wellington

Live Review and Photos: The Adults at Meow, Wellington

The Adults Wellington Meow banner

The Adults’ second album, Haja, is one of the better albums to come out in recent months. Vivacious and upbeat, it combines energetic Sudanese percussion with emerging New Zealand pop and hip-hop talent.

I was wondering how they would pull it off in a live context, purely because the album featured a lot of contributors from around New Zealand and Sudan. Many songs on the record revolve around Sudanese Aghani-Al-Banat music, and the women who laid down those beats were unlikely to come all the way to Aotearoa for a few Adults shows. I also wondered what material they would play, seeing as there are two Adults records to draw material from.

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

Raiza Biza opened the night with some smooth hip-hop. He looked familiar, and then I realised that I recognised him from one of David Dallas’ Hood Country Club album release shows last year. He had a great chilled out style, and his backing music was musical – as opposed to just beats – with horns and all.

After a handful of songs Biza looked over to the door to the green room. “Jon, are you ready? Should I do another song?” he enquired, unsure of how long he should play.

“Keep playing, we want more!” a lady behind me yelled. Biza shrugged, signaled the DJ to start another song, and played a few more

Raiza Biza Meow Wellington

The rest of the band came on after Biza’s set. Trinity Root’s Ben Lemi on drums, Steve Bremner on percussion, Emily Browning on guitar and vocals, Estere on roto toms, percussion, vocals and synth, and the main man himself, Jon Toogood on bass and vocals. A fairly star-studded line-up.

Biza stayed on for a few songs, taking on the rapping parts that he and Kings had laid down on Haja. Toogood was clearly stoked to have him on as part of the team.

The Adults Meow Wellington

I was pleased to hear the group faithfully recreate the Sudanese beats. Bremner and Lemi showed off their obvious proficiency on drums and percussion, with Estere adding roto toms, tambourine and maracas to the mix at times. Toogood complemented this by laying down thick bass, which came through loud and strong.

The mostly instrumental tracks “Haja” and “Like The Moon” were standout. They were able to mess around with the songs – due to the lack of verse/chorus structure – giving them the feel of fun extended jams.

The Adults Meow Wellington

Another highlight was lead single “Bloodlines”. “Oh, this is a good one!” a lady shouted as Toogood announced it.

“I hope so,” Toogood replied, “I thought it was good too. That’s why I’m here to play it.”

He appeared in a good mood – perhaps feeling slightly flustered and under-prepared for the first live performance of this material – but also clearly having fun, judging from his dancing as he immersed himself in the music. He joked along with the crowd as they shouted out, and made sure to direct positive attention to his colleagues.

The Adults is a supergroup, of sorts, and each member tonight proved themself a worthy addition to the band. Browning sounded great on guitar and could sing well, although could have used a volume boost. And Estere was the star of the night, spreading her talent across multiple instruments and leading most of the singing. She took on the parts written by Aaradhna and Ladi6 with ease.

Estere Meow Wellington

They played the all eight songs from Haja, followed by “Nothing To Lose”, the lead single from the original Adults record. This was a brilliant way to end, with everyone dancing along to the strong, bouncing bassline.

A short break was followed by one encore, “Short Change” – a b-side I didn’t recognise that Toogood had co-written with Shayne Carter. Bremner played drums this time, freeing Lemi to come up to play lead guitar.

All up it was a fantastic gig. Lots of talent, lots of energy, and plenty of opportunities to dance. It didn’t feel fully polished – being the first performance of new material – but it didn’t feel lacking either. I would have loved to hear more, but they did play the entire album, so I can’t exactly feel cheated. If you get the chance to see the Adults play any of the rest of the dates as they tour New Zealand of Australia then I recommend you head along and have some fun.

Words and photos by Joseph James

The Adults Meow Wellington  Ben Lemi Meow Wellington Steve Bremner Meow Wellington Emily Browning Meow WellingtonThe Adults Meow Wellington The Adults set list Meow Wellington

The Dark Third Even As The Light Grows

Album Review: The Dark Third – Even As The Light Grows

You’d be forgiven if Auckland act The Dark Third haven’t popped up on your radar yet, but that is soon to change. Formed in 2013, they underwent a number of changes, before gaining relative success in 2017 by playing support slots for both Tortoise and Alcest when each of those bands played in Auckland. On August 19 they will release début Even As The Light Grows.

The Dark Third have created a hazy brand of music that eludes easy description by drawing on a range of styles including shoegaze, post-rock, prog-rock and black-metal. Their style reminds me of other dark post-rock acts that offer similar moody output, like Coma Recovery, The Swan Thief and Blueneck.

They name check prog-rocker Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree fame) as an influence and I can see why. The progressive styling, long songs, and focus on intelligent song crafting over sheer heaviness all bear similarity to Wilson’s own work.

With opening track “The dreams of Lesser Men” a harsh discordant intro segues into hotel lobby piano playing, before transforming into guitar picking. Light floaty segments bookend distorted feedback, but somehow all the parts feel connected. Daniel Hay’s singing sounds weightless and ethereal, but still powerful and emotive.

To me, this strength of this album lies in the second track, “These Things Are Not Inherent”. Primal thumping drums and bass heavy piano chords ground the song, while hypnotic singing draws us in. It’s like Killing Joke minus the aggression. And I can’t get enough of it.

The album repeats itself a lot – not in an annoying way – but revisiting themes across the album through use of reprisals and motifs. Maybe it’s just because I’ve listened to it so much over the past few weeks, or maybe it’s because many of the songs are fairly long, but I keep hearing segments and getting a sense of déjà vu, that the same chord progressions and melodies keep cropping up again. It’s a good thing though, showing that cohesive elements thread through each song to make the album feel like a fully developed package.

Another neat aspect of this release is that the band includes a wide array of instruments that eschew the traditional rock four-piece expectations. Piano, violin and saxophone all offer different tones and textures that defy expectations. When I think saxophone, jazz comes to mind. Well here, it is used in a completely different context. There are 13 layers of sax in “These Things Are Not Inherent”, which all pile upon each other to create a unique drone effect. And speaking of interesting instrumentation, the end of “The Regressor” turns industrial, sounding like a factory in action, with reversed sound effects.

It’s hard to articulate why I like this album so much. I had the same problem reviewing Coma Recovery’s EP earlier in the year. It speaks to me emotionally, which is hard to convey with words. 

Even As The Light Grows is an album of polarities. Dark and light; heavy and soft; classic and fresh. The album art encapsulates their sound well: looking both serene and sharp at the same time. It’s like a good stout: dark, silky smooth and with layers of depth that stay with you long after your sip. Drink it all in and enjoy

Daniel Hay The Dark Third by Mandie Hailtree

Daniel Hay. Image: Hailtree

The Dark Third links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheDarkThird/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thedarkthird/
Bandcamp: https://thedarkthird.bandcamp.com/

 

Joseph James