Chris Nole – Toyland

The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In today’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we return our gaze to Chris Nole, a seasoned pianist and composer who has been featured several times here on the site. (Including once on the Jukebox Podcast discussing Nole’s music and work with the late John Denver.) A master interpreter and instrumentalist, Nole offers some of his finest work when he reimagines classics through his unique style. Thus, it seems only natural that his next release is a particularly lovely Christmas record, ‘Toyland.’

As I’ve previously remarked in regard to Nole’s music, it’s quite difficult to maintain a listener’s interest across the span of an entire instrumental record. Too often, instrumental albums waltz into ostentatious, meandering territory. Tact and brevity are sometimes necessary to maintain a sharp, consistent sound across a collection of instrumental songs. Nole is a master at this; there isn’t a song on ‘Toyland’ that doesn’t exude the performer’s signature attention to detail.

Holiday music is an even more complicated landscape, one could argue, with Christmas albums often getting inundated by predictable renditions of well-traveled classics bordering on the cliche. From the onset of ‘Toyland,’ both Nole’s execution and song selection allow his record to avoid that entirely. While some of the hallmarks of the holiday are on display, their new arrangements are fascinating, providing intriguing glimpses at beloved songs through a fresh lens.

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman’ opens the record, a wonderful 18th century hymn that isn’t as immediately recognizable as some of its counterparts on the record. Nole’s soft, delicate performance is as stunning as ever. This time, however, Nole is backed by a full band: percussion, bright synthesizers, and much more swirl around his piano. For the purposes of ‘Toyland,’ this switch from Nole’s otherwise very solitary style is welcome.

The album’s titular song, a track Doris Day popularized in the early 60s, is a shimmery, surreal soundscape that evokes imagery of a snowy Christmas Eve. It harnesses just the right amount of jazz influence to capture the majesty of the Victor Herbert-penned track. In some ways, though, it’s eclipsed by ‘Joy to the World,’ a remarkable take on the famous carol. Nole has rearranged the song into a lower key, making it feel more subdued and natural. It’s one of the most captivating ‘Joy to the World’ recordings I’ve ever heard.

Similarly, Nole ushers ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ into a more soft-spoken space. Instead of being a bombastic hymn, it’s a finely tuned piano-led lullaby of sorts. It marks one of the most emotional moments on the album. Nole’s production work highlights his performance exactly as it should, letting the piano share space with the other instrumentation, but still have commanding power over the sound.

Embed for Toyland

One of the strengths of ‘Toyland’ this season will be its versatility. These songs, even the traditionally more biblical ones like ‘We Three Kings,’ will easily fit into any holiday setting. The collection is especially easy-listening and gets rid of the over-the-top choruses and bright, bubbly production that, frankly, makes some Christmas insufferable. Plus, a few lesser known pieces made the cut, like ‘In the Bleak of Midwinter,’ a melancholy, but hauntingly beautiful holiday selection well worth hearing.

‘Go Tell It on the Mountain’ makes an appearance as the most stripped down recording on the record. It serves Nole well, especially given the creative license he takes with the song’s arrangement. Conversely, ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ is one of the most layered productions on ‘Toyland,’ packed with several intense synthesizer sections. It’s a tad eerie and foreboding, as the composition can often be. Nole plays with some gorgeous voicings on the recording, easily making it one of the album’s most memorable moments.

The final two songs on ‘Toyland’ perfectly embody what is so excellent about the album that precedes them. ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘O Holy Night’ are simply exquisite, both remaining fairly unchanged from their traditional structure. The voice Nole has provided, though, gives an entirely new outlook and tone to these classic hymns. Ultimately, that’s what is so good about ‘Toyland’ – it doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to Christmas music, but it does make it fun to drive again.

Pick up ‘Toyland’ to spin this Christmas season. It’s well worth your time and Nole has, as expected, delivered in spades.

https://chrisnole.com/toyland

Charles Luck – ‘Taste Bud’ & ‘We Are The Astronauts’

The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on two new releases from Charles Luck, the leader of the Black Astronaut hip hop collective. The performer released two pop-oriented singles in the last month: ‘Taste Bud’ featuring S-Class and ‘We Are The Astronauts,’ co-written by and featuring Tino Red. Let’s explore the two new tunes and see if they’re worth including in one’s ever-expanding library of Black Astronaut releases.

When Luck delves into pop stylings, he often cascades into either low-brow humor or surprisingly insightful commentary considering the sound he’s utilizing. In the case of ‘Taste Bud,’ the former is most certainly the case. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how to properly ‘review’ ‘Taste Bud.’ It’s the most infectious, catchy, likely-offensive ballad to oral sex I’ve ever heard.

You may bop your head back and forth as S-Class sings the chorus, “I should trade up when you go down, my smile lights up when you can’t frown. I feel great because of your mouth, I hope your taste buds hear this sound.” Then, of course, you realize it’s an incredibly misogynistic look at women and surely Luck’s most low-brow effort to date. It’s catchy, yes, but I can’t imagine women would appreciate the tune. ‘Taste Bud’ is one of those songs that’s catchy enough until you listen to its lyrics. 

On ‘We Are The Astronauts,’ Tino Red joins Luck for a song that sounds quite a bit like their previous collaborations. Heavy pop influence is at play instrumentally, with Red’s performance being scored by bright, bubbly synthesizers that mimic flutes with tinges of EDM influence. Lyrically, the piece falls victim to the same lyrical faux pas of ‘Taste Buds.’ It’s not terribly romantic to be asking women to pole-dance, and it’s even more awkward when that notion is wedged in between a set of lyrics about a romantic getaway in France.

I love a good deal of Charles Luck’s work. These two singles, however, are a bit tasteless. Both of these tracks, ‘Taste Bud’ in particular, could have had their melodies recycled into meaningful content – or even just pop content that isn’t intensely sexist. I know Luck has a tendency to write in characters and play with comedic scenarios, but these songs don’t fall well into either category. They’re cheap, and Luck’s work isn’t cheap. He shouldn’t demote himself to that.

Press Release – The Pretty Fingers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS RELEASE – SEPTEMBER 14, 2017

The Pretty Fingers to Release Scorching New Single, ‘Best of Me’

On Friday, September 15, the independent Australian alternative rock outfit The Pretty Fingers will debut the next track in their series of continued single releases. The new song, entitled ‘Best of Me,’ boasts sonic elements that the band has become increasingly well-known for: passionate lead vocals, fiery, explosive instrumentation, and hard-hitting, memorable performances. The single is set to debut on all major digital music platforms for streaming and download alongside an official music video.

In December of 2016, The Pretty Fingers came together at Airlock Studios in Samford Queensland with producer Konstantin Kersting to record ‘Best of Me.’ The track, which was penned by Mick Bristow, Stav Tsolakides, and Bevan Bancroft, is the eighth official release in The Pretty Fingers’ ever-expanding catalog. The lyrics and video for ‘Best of Me’ loosely homage Lemmy, the iconic Motorhead frontman who died in 2015.

“The song is about believing in who you are and blazing your own trail regardless of outside negative opinions,” the band remarked about the new song. “That pretty much sums up Lemmy’s attitude to music and his life – it’s also our attitude to The Pretty Fingers’ existence as a musical entity.”

On Saturday, October 21, The Pretty Fingers will perform at the New Globe Theatre in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane in support of their new release. As a live act, the group have supported Brisbane’s top bands and the likes of Tex Perkins, Mick Blood, and others. These performances, alongside their prolific studio releases, have resulted in the band receiving significant airplay in both the United States and Australia.

‘Best of Me’ will be available tomorrow, September 15. Connect with The Pretty Fingers below to stay updated on new releases, announcements, and more!

ThePrettyFingers.Bandcamp.com | Soundcloud.com/ThePrettyFingers

Reverbnation.com/ThePrettyFingers | Facebook.com/ThePrettyFingers

Press Release & Interview: David Vaters

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS RELEASE – SEPTEMBER 14, 2017

David Vaters To Release Highly Anticipated Sophomore Record

On Friday, September 22, the independent singer-songwriter David Vaters will release his latest studio endeavor. Entitled ‘Volume 2,’ the record comes on the heels of Vater’s first volume of solo work which was released to critical acclaim in February. Infusing Americana music with elements of alternative country, folk rock, and contemporary Christian music, Vater has quickly defined himself as a wholly unique talent quite unlike any other act in the music industry.

Despite these two recent collections of music marking Vaters’ solo debut, he’s anything but green. The veteran performer and songwriter honed his skills for many years performing on both sides of the Atlantic and lending his sound to a slew of musicians and producers’ work. Now on his own, Vaters has called upon colleagues from throughout his career to help his creative vision unfold. Some of the industry’s finest talent is on display on these albums, including musicians who have worked with the likes of Vince Gill, Peter Frampton, Kenny Loggins, Amy Grant, and others.

The upcoming ‘Volume 2’ boasts the same impressive line-up as its predecessor, a collaboration that had critics calling ‘Volume 1’ “nothing if not mature, deftly crafted and powerful.” Like that album, ‘Volume 2’ will be part of Vaters’ ‘A Voice in the Wilderness’ collection of volumed records. “If this is the first album of his out of the starting blocks, at least in a titular sense, imagine what gems are likely to follow,” raved Dave Franklin of Los Angeles’ The Plug.

Many independent artists that enjoy substantial critical acclaim are met with a less enthusiastic, niche audience. Vaters defies the norm in this regard, as his genre-spanning style has landed him on a number of notable charts. From his #1 worldwide Christian music position on Reverb Nation to charting on iTunes rock charts in Australia and Mexico, Vaters has proved his relevance as a up and coming talent to take note of.

‘A Voice in the Wilderness: Volume 2’ is available to pre-order now. The record is due out on September 22 for streaming and download on all major digital music platforms. Connect with David Vaters below to stay updated on his newest releases, announcements, and more!

DavidVaters.com | Facebook | @DavidVatersNow


An Independent Spotlight Interview with David Vaters:


Your upcoming record is ‘Volume 2,’ an album that comes on the heels of your successful release, ‘A Voice In The Wilderness: Vol 1.’ What about this collection of songs made you feel it was best classified as a second volume of a larger project rather than a new record unto itself? Will there be further volumes? What are the elements that tie them together?

You know, I really like albums with a title that reflects the project over all, and even if it doesn’t, I think it’s just really great to have an album with a cool, interesting title. Usually it’s one of the titles of one of the songs or just one line or word out of one of the songs that the band or label thought would be cool and great to market! I guess once I decided to title the album ‘A Voice in the Wilderness,’ that was it. I didn’t initially intend to actually do another album.

However, at that time I was just writing new songs every week… and as we were recording we were trying to decide which songs to cut. These things are like my children, and it just turned out the natural thing to do to just keep recording. I must say the writing just had a natural progression to where it was evolving in such an interesting way. ‘Volume 2’ has the Americana, southern rock/folk feel, but then it has also a very familiar, reminiscent sound that back in the 80s would be considered pop. I’m not sure what you call it now but suffice to say it’s part of my sound and style which is pretty broad. Actually, I never think ‘oh, I’m going to write a country song or a rock or roots song.’ It comes out in such a natural way I just go with it. Hopefully people like it and get something out of the music and lyrics.”

Your music is loaded with a bevy of sonic influence: Americana, folk rock, alternative country, amongst other genres are jam-packed into your sound. Most uniquely, you draw upon Christian influence while maintaining a fan-base of secular music fans, too. How do you walk that line? Do you ever worry about becoming too preachy, or are the themes you’re exploring ones that transcend faith? To that end, if a listener isn’t religious, what do you hope they get out of your music?

“First off, this is who I am. The songs are all drawn from life experiences, just like any other artist. Take rappers for example: they rap about how they grew up and where, the pain, things they experienced and what happened to them, etc. I am no different. It’s just part of being a true artist. Nothing fake, contrived, frivolous, or invented. I write and record in a raw, soulful, truthful way, and like truth always does, it pierces straight to the heart without apology. So that’s the bottom line. 

I recently did some work with Andre Wahl, a producer/engineer friend of mine, in Canada. Maybe ‘Volume 3,’ stay tuned! Anyway, Andre has worked with the best of the best from Sarah McLachlan to Duran Duran, and he calls it “mojo.” He says, some have it and some just don’t have the real, authentic, believable “mojo.” So to answer the question, I grew up in a Christian home, went to church, traveled around the world, worked on some pretty interesting projects, messed up many times and made some wrong turns, and then figured out, man God is pretty cool to bring me through all this and bless me with a great life, wife, and family. So that’s what I guess comes out in my music.

So I don’t walk any line, I just tell it the way it is from my life perspective. Keeping it real and asking questions, and the ones I can answer I do, and the ones I can’t or haven’t figured out yet, I leave it for the listener to maybe figure out. Maybe they will get some of these answers from above and share it with us! So, I am not religious. God did not create religion. I just have a relationship with God in the same way I do with my wife, friends, and family. Religion is man-made. I don’t like it and I don’t think this world needs any more religion. It need more relationship with our maker and creator! If that’s too preachy, hey, it’s me and what the good Lord gives me to write.”

While inquiring about influences is often a surface-level question for most artists, one can’t help but feel intrigued as to where you derive your diverse sound from. Not many artists can walk the line between secular and nonsecular audiences and do so in an effective manner. Johnny Cash comes to mind. Bob Dylan does, too, to an extent. Are there other artists you admire that accomplished what you’re striving to?

“I always am humbled when I am compared to other greats like who you mentioned and others… I had a lot of influences like Cash, Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, Lennon and Harrison, etc. So, again, I’m a product of all of these guys. I’m a little younger than these guys so I like to think that I am writing and recording a “new renaissance” of these great artists and hopefully doing it justice – no auto-tune and sequencing… just real and authentic. I like the deep. I like deep thought – bringing to light things people don’t talk about much. But I think every human being has things they need and want to hear and acknowledge from others and from artists that sometimes don’t reach down deep enough to meet people’s needs!

Bottom line, secular/nonsecular, I look at this, like I said before – it’s just who I am and I’m not going to change or be anything I’m not. The trials of life, the love of friends, family and having faith in something greater than ourselves… if that is nonsecular or whatever, it is what it is.”

You’ve worked with many musicians over the years in Canada, the United States, and in the United Kingdom. Your new releases, however, signify your debut as a solo artist. You’ve mentioned these songs are some of your more recent songwriting. Are there songs sitting in the vault from over the course of your career? Also, what was the catalyst to strike out on your own as a solo recording artist?

“Yes, I have worked with great musicians in two continents, but not on a regular basis. I would say I’ve been on the fringes of the music world. I was always in the business world, so the times I have worked in the music business I have been fortunate to only work with some of the best in the world… I have written over 500 songs – about 100 in the last three years. However, I must confess, [they’re] not all are great songs. I will say that the last three years I feel I have written the best I’ve ever written. So, yes, there are songs in the vault and I am recording some of them and it might just turn into ‘Volume 3’ Who knows! 

What caused me to do these solo albums? I simply have my wife for encouraging me to do it, so much credit goes to her. I guess the other thing was that the writing just kept coming and coming, and it was just the natural thing to do. I had to do it.”

Purchase and stream David Vaters’ music below on the following platforms:

Spotify | Amazon | Google Play | iTunes | Reverb Nation | Official Store

Suburban Vermin – ‘TV Head Nation #2’

The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we return our gaze to Suburban Vermin, a punk trio we’ve featured semi-regularly here on the site considering their prolific 2017 release schedule. These rapid releases, though, can be attributed to a time of political strife and unrest. The band’s new music tells the continuing story of King TV Head, a fictional character in a dystopian future that is, frankly, eerie similar to President Donald Trump.

On October 20, Suburban Vermin will release the next issue of these recordings, ‘TV Head Nation #2.’ Like the releases that preceded it, it’s short and sweet, clocking in with two songs. The EP, however, is a much meatier endeavor than it may appear, with the band also releasing a 22-page comic book to accompany it amongst other items like trading cards, papercraft figures, and a board game.

As always, I’d highly recommend reading the comic issue before digging into the music. The beauty of these releases, and a quality that persists through this latest edition, is that they’re multi-medium efforts. Like a good set of liner notes, the comic enhances one’s perspective of the music beautifully. It’s also chock-full of fantastic moments, such as the story’s protagonist telling King TV Head she, “voted for her… y’know, the non-warlord.”

‘Different Note’ is one of the most musically cohesive singles Suburban Vermin has ever released with the lead vocalist in fine, aggressively angst-filled form. That is complemented by the band’s best instrumentation to date with ‘Different Note’ boasting absolutely thunderous electric guitar and percussion performances. The mix and master of the track is notably stronger than previous releases in the ‘TV Head Nation’ series, too.

One thing worth noting is that ‘TV Head Nation #2’ is the least outwardly political of Suburban Vermin’s releases. ‘Beat Before The Breakdown,’ a Clash-esque, highly punchy punk piece, offers some intriguing social commentary about Suburban Vermin’s frustration with modern America. Their protests feel more exasperated, and I suspect their commentary of the Trump presidency will continue to cascade into further disappointment and confusion as Trump becomes a more divisive figure by the day.

While it doesn’t take as aggressive shots across the bow at Trump like its predecessors, ‘TV Head Nation #2’ offers some of the highest quality music Suburban Vermin has released. The comic is one of their best, too, finally introducing King TV Head in person and ending on a dramatic cliffhanger. Check it out October 20, it’s a wonderful entry in this little continuing series of EP’s that has me looking forward to the finale near the end of the year.

https://suburbanvermin.com

Press Release – ICESQUAD – August 30, 2017

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PRESS RELEASE – AUGUST 30, 2017

ICESQUAD Debuts Anthemic New Single, ‘Go Live’

ICESQUAD, one of the hip hop community’s most dynamic collaborations, has released their highly anticipated new single. Entitled ‘Go Live,’ the hard-hitting, explosive new track highlights the trio in fine form following their successful 2016 debut album, ‘Metamorphosis.’ The single is available now on all major digital music platforms to stream and download.

Consisting of Popp Da Rippa, Blaze The Lion, and Rommel Tha Youngsta, ICESQUAD represents three vital characteristics the music industry is in dire need of: integrity, character, and excellence. I.C.E. Popp Da Rippa, the founder of I.C.E Squad Entertainment, draws upon his experience as an industry veteran and a man of faith to help bring inspiring, substantial music to the label.

‘Go Live’ was produced by Maestro, mixed and mastered by Red Spyda, and executive produced by Lamont Popp Nanton himself, making the new single a powerhouse, all-star effort. The social media-influenced song is an anthemic, unforgettably infectious track that perfectly captures what is so superb about ICESQUAD: quality production and fantastic performances.

Fans can connect with ICESQUAD on all social media and ‘Go Live’ is available on all platforms now. Stream the single above on Soundcloud, and see relevant information below for booking and appearances.

http://www.icesquadent.com

http://www.facebook.com/icesquadtherapgroup

http://www.instagram.com/icesquadrap

https://twitter.com/ICESQUADRAP

Publicist: Laurell Battiste | 786-475-7035 | laurell.icesquadent@gmail.com

Anton Cullen – ‘Warfare’

The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Anton Cullen, a multi-instrumentalist and producer hailing from Dublin. The veteran musician has experience in a bevy of genres, but most recently, he’s turned his focus toward EDM. Cullen has a full record in the works due out before the end of the year, but leading up to that record he’s been unveiling a series of intriguing new singles. The first of which, ‘Breaking Through,’ is already out. The second, ‘Warfare,’ was just released. Let’s delve into it and see if it’s worth including in one’s indie music collection.

Cullen describes ‘Warfare’ as a piece “inspired by the mental, emotional, and spiritual battles that often take place in one’s mind, as opposed to an external, physical war.” Entirely instrumental, ‘Warfare’ is a bombastic piece that clocks in at three minutes. There’s a fiery, intense nature to the track, something that’s accented by understanding the song is a journey through chaos and one’s own internal strife.

More often than not, EDM that comes across my desk is lackluster and particularly boring: the rises and falls are predictable, the music feels void of emotional context, and it’s all fine and good for the dance floor, but missing some key elements of worthwhile artistry. This, of course, is due to the indie community for the genre being absolutely inundated – singer songwriters and hip hop artists suffer similar issues. Cullen breaks the mold of his counterparts, I’d argue, with ‘Warfare’ having several layers of depth.

The beats on ‘Warfare’ are fantastically original, beautifully complemented by the driving, aggressive nature of the synthesizers that cascade around the soundscape of the track. Cullen doesn’t get bogged down in ostentatious over-production; the snappy run-time of the track suites it, and Cullen’s composition feels sharp and consistent because of it. One can’t help but notice that Cullen clearly has a vision for his music. That’s immensely vital and will serve him well as he moves forward. Too often, indie EDM is aimless. This isn’t.

‘Warfare’ is a strong indicator of Cullen being an EDM producer to keep tabs on in the independent scene. Frankly, there aren’t enough of them. The production quality of ‘Warfare’ is incredible, even down to the promotional materials like the simple, but elegant visualizer video linked below. Give it a spin, EDM fans. You have an album to look forward to later this year.

https://facebook.com/antoncullenmusic
https://soundcloud.com/antoncullenmusic
https://twitter.com/anton_cullen

https://youtu.be/TaH7cSnU3Vo

Alien Skin: Exploring ‘1980 Redux’ (Exclusive Review + Interview)

The Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

Review

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we dive deep into the fascinatingly beautiful sonic world of Alien Skin, the moniker of George Pappas. Pappas, who came to fame in the 1980s with the Australian band Real Life, now spends his days crafting synth-heavy music inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk and David Bowie. His last album, ‘European Electronic Cinema,’ was a hit here on the Spotlight, and thus, we’re back to dig into his newest creation: ‘1980 Redux.’

‘1980 Redux,’ as described by Alien Skin, is “besotted with 1970s Berlin-era Bowie, enchanted by pre-Victorian Mary Shelley, while contorting and shape shifting into the geometric world of 1980.” Pappas’ immense desire to capture and preserve the kind of music that inspired him early in his career is admirable, especially since he digs his heels deep into the experimental nature of that 80s synth-rock period.

The opening to the album, ‘1980 You Were a Boy,’ feels similar to the tracks on its predecessor, ‘European Electronic Cinema.’ Pappas’ soft, surreal crooning vocals are back, and they’re back with a familiar soundscape of bouncing, eccentric synthesizers and samples. ‘1980 You Were a Boy’ is lyrically sparse, moving its focus toward creating an enveloping, danceable atmosphere. An automated female voice is introduced as a piece of the instrumentation, too, a mainstay of the album moving forward.

That automated voice is actually incorporated much heavier on the more complex ‘I Am Adam,’ a track that seeps with Laurie Anderson influence – a parallel I drew last time I delved into Alien Skin’s music. “I am Adam of your labors,” Pappas sings in allusion to Mary Shelley’s original ‘Frankenstein.’ (The Frankenstein Monster argues in the novel that he should be treated as a biblical son of sorts rather than a fallen angel.) It’s a rather beautiful, if not somewhat inherently saddening piece from the perspective of the Monster.

The mood stays somber, too, with ‘Sad Ghost’ following, a tune that takes a look at the endless afterlife of a young girl from the Victorian era killed by her master. The track is spine-tingling with a heavy, quick-paced synthesizer beat that paints a sonic picture of impending dread and misfortune. It’s a mesmerizing sound, one that seems to capture the lonely life the “sad ghost” now lives.

  'Frankenstein,' or 'The Modern Prometheus,' is the original Mary Shelley novel that inspired Pappas.
‘Frankenstein,’ or ‘The Modern Prometheus,’ is the original Mary Shelley novel that inspired Pappas.

The unique synthesizers on ‘This Fantastic Voyage’ sound like a culmination of bright synths, an organ, and perhaps, bagpipes. That’s arguably the beauty of Pappas as a composer: yes, everything is synthesized, but the palette he paints with is surprisingly versatile. ‘This Fantastic Voyage’ is uplifting, scoring the beginning of an adventure. ‘I Need Voltage,’ however, follows with a dark, eerie composition that thrives on its peculiar nature.

Much like the trilogy and artist that inspired it, ‘The Berlin Trilogy’ is highly experimental in nature, perhaps even more so than anything else on ‘1980 Redux.’ With the snappy percussion and hap-hazard piano and brass-esque sessions, Pappas’ vocal delivery sounds more like spoken poetry in beat form that singing. The track tells the story of three “artisans” working in the studio in Berlin, alluding heavily to those pasty, white figures being David Bowie, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti. It’s one of Alien Skin’s most memorable songs, perfectly capturing the ethereal, unworldly nature of the Berlin Trilogy and its creation.

‘Atoms Dangling Endlessly’ is another high point for the record, proving that Alien Skin’s most long-form musings prove to be capable of being completely enthralling. The world that ‘Atoms Dangling Endlessly’ creates is stunning, slowly growing and building around the listener as Pappas’ synthesizers continually expand. On tracks like ‘Atoms Dangling Endlessly,’ Pappas’ Eno inspiration is abundantly obvious.

  One of those long Berlin Trilogy era evenings with David Bowie and his collaborators.
One of those long Berlin Trilogy era evenings with David Bowie and his collaborators.

Unexpectedly, a ballad enters the fray, too, with ‘Walk on Water’ highlighting Alien Skin’s most accessible piece of music on ‘1980 Redux.’ One may not necessarily go down the street humming ‘1980 You Were a Boy’ or ‘The Berlin Trilogy,’ but you will be doing that with ‘Walk on Water.’ It’s one of the most emotional moments of the record, noticeably avoiding too much cliche and finding the perfect amount of authenticity within its stargazing sound.

Avant garde inspiration flows through ‘In a Film,’ making it a less accessible jaunt than its predecessor, but no less rewarding. In fact, the final three tracks are similar in this regard. ‘The Playground of Syd Barrett,’ like its inspiration, is a weird, off-kilter journey through surreal lyricism and ‘Dark Star’ has a dark, celestial feel that evokes the final scenes of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ more than anything.

‘1980 Redux’ is a departure from Alien Skin’s last record, perhaps, in the sense that the songs are more cohesive than they’ve ever been. Pappas has perfected his sound, and it shows. The amount of creativity and experimentation Pappas infuses in that sound is frankly, incredible, and it makes his records a must-listen for fans of 1970s and 80s synthesizer music. It’s inspired, somewhat nostalgic music that still has a very valid place in the contemporary independent music scene. ‘1980 Redux’ is a remarkably good LP in the scope of Alien Skin’s impressive catalog.


Interview

Your new album, ‘1980 Redux,’ is inspired largely by Berlin-era David Bowie, which by way of his influence, connects you to other electronic musicians of the era like Kraftwerk. Much of that music was political at the time; even Bowie was fascinated by the unstable nature of German politics at the time. A quick look at your album art shows some potential political influence. Can you can expound upon that?

The Berlin era Bowie-Eno period is one that has fascinated me for much of my life. It is a period that permanently resides in the back of my mind, always cast in shadow, narrow, dark, damp alleyways and grey foreboding skies. The West Berlin of the late 1970s was brimming with the aroma of street vendors selling kebabs and the stench of coal briquettes, the chief heating fuel of the day. This grimey area of West Berlin with the ever present Wall, was the one experienced by Bowie, Iggy Pop and perhaps other contemporary artistic ‘misfits.’

  Pappas as the Thames, circa 1990.
Pappas as the Thames, circa 1990.

David Bowie in particular was turned on to Teutonic electronic music while he lived there after a disastrous, deleterious lifestyle in LA circa 1975. He breathed in his new home city’s vibrant street life, not clad in glamour but ordinary garb and daily habits. He had no car, rode a bicycle unnoticed, he dressed down and had a tiny selection of attire in his wardrobe, one pair of jeans, and roomed with Iggy Pop. He was very far removed from his Ziggy, Aladdin,White Duke, etc… alter-egos of previous years. He dropped the personas and engaged himself in the most musically experimental period of his life with the Berlin Trilogy albums: ‘Low,’ ‘Heroes’ & ‘Lodger.’ All amongst my favorite of his.

He helped usher in electronic music firstly by his very public support and declaration of love for Kraftwerk and for allowing their cold, voltage controlled spirit to enter his own work, together, for the most part, with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. This in turn dovetailed with and helped fuel the confidence of other synthesizer focused alternative British bands of that nascent period, acts such as the original pre female Human League, Ultravox with John Foxx, Cabaret Voltare, Gary Numan etc. These were exciting times.

  David Bowie in Berlin, 1977.
David Bowie in Berlin, 1977.

Those times were also very politically turbulent, but aren’t they so today? I think we are in a far more precarious position today, internationally, than we ever were back in the 1970s. History has proven the world survived the 1970s, the cold war and onwards. As for today, history remains unwritten. The iconography I used in the artwork is simply imagery that, to me at least, has a connection with that era, including the IBM mainframe computer, the cold war and Reagan/Thatcher rightward scaremongering and sabre rattling. Have we improved much? Well, at least computers are now tiny!

If I had released the album in the early 2000s I may have had the 9/11 Twin Towers on the artwork. I just wanted something that I found confronting and connected the music with the times. For me that era climaxed circa 1980, musically, and hence the title of the album.

In 2016, the Independent Spotlight named your last record, ‘European Electronic Cinema,’ as one of the finest indie records of the year. How have you progressed your sound further to create sonic landscapes on ‘1980’ different than its predecessor? Furthermore, how as the Alien Skin evolved over the course of nine records?

It was an honour for anyone to put to print that an album I created was one of the finest indie records of the year. I take everything with a pinch of salt but I am nonetheless grateful someone committed that to print. ‘1980 Redux,’ whether a casual listener can detect or not, is worlds away, most of it anyway, to whatever I did previously as Alien Skin. I purposely worked with a different method. I won’t go into technical detail as it bores most people, but the way I produced the songs meant they were always going to end up sounding the way they did.

  Real Life in 1997, Pappas on the far left.
Real Life in 1997, Pappas on the far left.

I wanted to create an album that referenced my  electronic roots. I didn’t wish to produce a faux 80s album. That would have been pointless; it would probably have sounded lame and I would have failed. I simply wanted the spirit and memory of the era which I lived through (this is an important distinction as other people often try to do this but ironically weren’t even born at the time) to encourage and colour the songwriting, arrangements and sounds.

If I listen to my albums from 2008’s debut ‘Don’t Open Till Doomsday’ to ‘1980 Redux’ my music has evolved in a very perceivable way to me. Again, to a casual listener he/she may not always pick up on the developing approach found in successive albums. I have traveled from sci-fi, funereal, melancholy and many atmospheric moods and emotions to more upbeat, yet in my opinion at least, always somewhat left of center.

I find the unusual to be far more interesting and therefore some people find what I create difficult to categorize, assimilate and perhaps stay clear of it. Alien Skin is not electronic enough for the dance crowds, or sing-a-long enough for car rides or sedate enough to replace piano-only mood music while drinking a cocktail late at night. I can add another dozen things it isn’t, but for those that love it, it means everything, and to those fans I am always grateful and receptive.

  Syd Barrett, the original frontman of Pink Floyd and inspiration for Pappas.
Syd Barrett, the original frontman of Pink Floyd and inspiration for Pappas.

There are several allusions to your cited influences on the record, but perhaps most noticeably, ‘The Playground of Syd Barrett.’ What about Barrett captures you enough to homage him on the record? Was early Pink Floyd a definitive influence for you?

Syd Barrett was the reason I first found a love of Pink Floyd. It took me years to really appreciate the post Barrett Floyd, even glossing over ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ It’s okay because I do now love that album and all of Pink Floyd’s work and have for years and decades. They were such an innovative, brilliant band that I don’t need to add anymore than what’s already been written about them over the past 50 years. Love em!

But Syd, well Syd had such an extraordinary mind. His songs in those early years were and are a beautiful delight and I rejoice listening to them still. I love his imagination, an almost childlike demeanor in song. I loved his voice, a voice that instantly attracted me to The Legendary Pink Dots, as Edward Ka-spel often sounds like him. I called the song ‘The Playground of Syd Barrett’ because that’s how I perceive his imagination, like watching children imagining scenarios in a playground and playing them out. His mind was a playground of boundless, out of the box imagination, imagery, chaos and melody.

  '1980 Redux' is available everywhere to stream and download now.
‘1980 Redux’ is available everywhere to stream and download now.

You say that the new album is a “celebration of all things electronic and analog.” Does that mission extend to the actual production of the record? Did you utilize a mixture of both analog and digital equipment?

I purposely only used analog generated synthesizer sounds and beats but recorded digitally on computer as most of us do. If I wanted to go all analog, which is a big call and an expensive one, well, that would have seen me get nowhere as I couldn’t do it. Perhaps Depeche Mode or someone of that ilk could if they wanted to, but not me. I worked within my means, but all the sounds could have come from gear that was designed, played, sequenced and recorded back in 1980!

http://alienskinmusic.com

https://www.facebook.com/alienskinmusic

Charles Luck & Tino Red – ‘Pray’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Charles Luck of the Black Astronaut collective, a frequent recurring feature here on the site. Like much of his more recent work, Luck has partnered with another Black Astronaut talent, Tino Red, to write and release their newest single, ‘Pray.’ Dropped four days ago and written by both Luck and Red, the new single digs into some hefty subject matter.

Luck’s lyricism, in particular, often has two sides: intense levity or elegant poetic prose. More often than not, his work lands on one end of that spectrum or the other. On ‘Pray,’ Luck and Red explore a rather destitute landscape of hopelessness and societal strife. The two songwriters solemnly refer to areas like the South Side of Chicago as “barren gallows of pain” in a country where “hope was sold and us hopeless souls got roped and rolled into the hole again.”

Red’s performance is terrific, perfectly capturing his frustration with the social issues ‘Pray’ highlights. A faith, of some sort, seems to keep Red sane, because a solution to these problems is never addressed on the track. Truthfully, one can’t expect a solution. To draw lines back to Chicago, the city attempts to put endless bandaids on violence, crime, and impoverished communities with little opportunity – a bandaid just can’t mend a gaping wound.

“I swear I promise the fright when your rights aren’t right and the size of your pride starts shrinking,” Red sings on the song – a really profound, terrifying lyric. The rights of people living in communities like that depicted in this song aren’t right. Though ‘Pray’ uses religious themes to offer solace in a hectic world, it’s arguably a protest song above all.

The production is jammed with electronic-rock themes, akin to Imagine Dragons or the like. (As the RapPad page actually suggests.) It’s very explosive and immediately catchy, even if it’s not the most artfully memorable execution of music production in the Black Astronaut catalog. ‘Pray’ has a unique drive to its sound, though, energizing, if not angering the listener about the distressful circumstances it depicts.

I’ve gotten a lot of politically inclined music across my desk in the last week due to the (more) volatile nature of the United States recently. Even if it wasn’t intentional, Luck and Red’s new tune actually fits into that overarching narrative of fighting seemingly unending, wrongfully empowered forces of ill-will in the world. Check out the song above.

https://soundcloud.com/blackastronautx/pray

Dried Arrangement – ‘Sunset’

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this evening’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Dried Arrangement, the artistic moniker of Phil Cole, an Australian singer songwriter who has released a slew of records since his 2008 debut. One of his more recent efforts, ‘Sunset,’ is a fascinating excursion through dream pop musings quite unlike anything else in the independent scene right now. With a contemporary, yet classic quality, the seven song collection is one worth delving deep into. Thus, let’s do so!

‘Blip,’ the introductory track, calls to mind, perhaps, Oasis. Dried Arrangement boasts a very surreal, bubbly dream pop style that’s certainly evocative of some of Oasis’ biggest hits. The hints of soft, subtle synthesizers add a beautiful layer to ‘Blip’ and its sonic complexity. The song opens the album with a very strong, well mixed and mastered production, an element that is a mainstay on ‘Sunset.’

That ethereal style of Cole’s, however, doesn’t stagnate as one might expect. ‘Sunset’ brings an entirely new aural landscape into focus – a slightly-tinged funk riff highlights a song that embodies more wanderlust and experimentation than its predecessor. From the dynamic intro and outro to the superb instrumentation and lyricism, ‘Sunset’ is an immensely satisfying track.

‘She’s Like an Alien’ digs Dried Arrangement’s heels deeper into experimental territory. Quite truthfully, Cole’s vocal delivery and the song’s unique structure are both heavily reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock, a high compliment. ‘She’s Like an Alien’ could be a tune right off of ‘Element of Light’ or ‘Globe of Frogs.’

While most of the tracks on ‘Sunset’ are “love songs” in one way or another, one must laud Dried Arrangement’s ability to keep the ideas throughout the record consistently fresh. The melancholy ‘You’re so Blue’ reaches out to a lover to attempt to help them along, whereas Indian-influenced, ‘How’d the Wheels Fall Off’ explores the unpredictable nature of life and how it impacts relationships in strange ways. (Cole cites plenty of Beatles influence, so the spurts of sitar are clearly inspired by George Harrison’s similar musings.)

The quirky ‘She Breaks Things’ is surely the album’s strongest lyrical effort, recounting the youth of a feisty woman who leaves a trail of wreckage in her wake. Cole does a rather excellent job of combining sharp, witty lyricism with memorable, singer songwriter pop hooks. That’s a difficult task. The percussion on ‘She Breaks Things’ seems to often fall out of tempo with the rest of the instrumentation, however, a rare but noticeable misstep on the record.

While ‘She Breaks Things’ is the strongest lyrical endeavor on ‘Sunset,’ the finale, ‘Way Back Home to You,’ is the mightiest instrumental outing. Vocal harmonies, a harp, and the perfect mix of electric guitar and synthesizers all culminate into Cole’s most stunning soundscape. It’s an elegant finale, a worthy send-off to a terrific EP of tunes.

‘Sunset’ is one of the stronger pop-oriented singer songwriter EP’s we’ve dug into here on the Spotlight in recent memory. Dried Arrangement’s EP is consistently compelling, remarkably well written and performed, and well worth your time. Spin it below.

http://www.driedarrangement.com

https://soundcloud.com/phil-cole-songs