Reviews

Russell Miller

Russell Miller

Russell Miller is the front-of-house/monitor engineer for Red Gate Sound & contributes reviews and an occasional snarky op-ed here at UNDERGROUND PRESS. If the music has a strong melody, a drive, or ambition chances are that it’ll have my attention. Knowledge. Follow Russell on Twitter and InstagramCheck out his tunes at SoundCloud

 RED GATE SOUND: Our Facebook | Writer/Contributor: Underground Press | Engineer/Producer: Arkayem Productions

Monday, 14 August 2017 10:23

Album Review: Jay-Z '4:44'

jayz 444

Since his debut the mid-nineties with the iconic ‘Reasonable Doubt’, JAY-Z has built and maintained an illustrious hip hop career. Throughout that time, the Brooklyn native has made few apologies for the way he carries himself and seldom revealed any vulnerability his rivals haven’t exposed already. Only a man comfortable as he is can nickname himself J-Hova (a play on Jehovah, the Hebrew word for God), and refer to his rapping skill as “religious”. His latest effort '4:44', is in many ways the antithesis of what the rapper’s legend fed off of and yet also will prove to cement it.

JAY-Z has penned tracks with his heart on his sleeve in the past; his ode ‘Song Cry’ off of his 2001 effort Blueprint I being one of the most memorable. Few of them approach the self-deprecation that grounds tracks like album opener ‘Kill Jay Z’ in which he addresses a much-publicised incident with his wife’s sister or, title track ‘4:44’ he pens a heartfelt confession and apology to wife, Beyoncé. Each track is gritty and at times unpolished, but the mainstay is the emotion evident in lyrics and JAY-Z’s vocal performance underneath chopped samples vinyl noise that dance at the edge of listener’s reach.

In order to listen to '4:44' one has to be ready to navigate a labyrinth of self-debasement, chest thumping, and a display of awareness that separated this album from the rest of JAY-Z’s catalogue.

When '4:44' is not spending its time canonising personal trials and tribulations, it raises issues that are at the forefront of society at-large such as the beleaguered O.J Simpson in the aptly named ‘The Story of OJ’. JAY-Z also covers the stigmatising of the LGBT community in ‘Smile’ in which the rapper briefly addresses his mother coming out in the lines where he raps, "Cried tears of joy when you fell in love/Doesn't matter to me if it's him or her." Within the same song, he touches his conversations with pop icon PRINCE before his death as well as taking shots at competitors of JAY-Z’s streaming platform TIDAL.

Sonically 4:44 sounds earthy, and less tamed than hip hop records that populate the Billboard charts. Album producer NO I.D leans heavily on samples from influential Motown, jazz and blues artists. The mix is gritty at times and throws caution to wind in order to allow the lyrics to carry the day. There is a cacophony laying the foundation behind the vocals as JAY-Z becomes the focal point but with enough headroom to draw back if need be. This is a risk that can be taken only an artist with as accomplish a career as JAY-Z has. The album also occasionally notes JAY-Z as a producer. Usually, in those instances the rapper suggests a song to sample or a vintage instrument to chop up and sprinkle across a track.

JAY-Z’s now trademark flow remains intact for the most part. He does take chances in tracks like 'adnis' a letter to his late father. His flow there is lethargic and solemn, all the while dipping in and out of rhythm while 'Marcy Me' sees JAY-Z revert somewhat to his 90s bounce. JAY-Z’s willingness to emote through his lines is one of this album’s crown jewels.

Long gone are the days of the materialistic champagne drenched Mafioso rap, JAY-Z. The JAY-Z presented in 4:44 more vulnerable, wiser and less-so a prisoner of pretentiousness. There is an outpouring of authenticity and relatability on this album that has seen a resurgence with the rise of rappers like KENDRICK LLAMAR, J. COLE, and the like. With that said, this is not an album for casual fans of rap and hip hop. While NO I.D does well to provide instrumentals that will be blasting out of cars driving down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, there is a lacking of what would be considered a “club banger”. This is an album for hard-core fans of hip hop that may or may not be students of the genre, ardent followers of JAY-Z…and TIDAL subscribers.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017 09:28

Dragoons Bring Forth 'Anomaly'

dragoons anomaly album coverThere is a new player in a populated South African rock-&-roll scene in the form of DRAGOONS and their debut record, 'Anomaly'. As with any market that appears oversaturated, the best way to attract ears and eyes is to offer something different enough to be unique, but familiar enough to be easily assessable. This album offers a delicate blend of different flavours of rock in an effort to do just that.

There is an “a little bit of this and that” drenching aesthetic theme of this album.  That is to say, from song to song the listener is treated to flavourings of different subsets of the rock genre.

Album opener ‘My Name Is Nothing’ ushers in the album with a desert rock feel and sets the sonic tone that flows seamlessly into arena-rock anthem ‘Questions’. The shift between the two tracks is subtle enough as to not be off-putting but it’s apparent after a few listens. The first curveball is thrown into the mix with ‘Words Are Weapons’ that opens with an elegant piano run that would lead one to believe that an obligatory piano rock ballad was on the horizon…but such is not the case. The track breaks into an upbeat ska-esque trot that saunters into a bombastic chorus. Anomaly features these types of stylistic shifts throughout the album that are noticeable to an attentive ear but don’t distract from the overall listening experience.

The musicianship is solid from start to finish. Drummer Jean Marais benefits from an upfront and punchy sound that accentuates the sharp grooves of the band’s rhythm section. There is, of course, no shortage of solos that band members take full advantage of like the acrobatic harmonica featured in ‘In the Machine’ and the soulful guitar licks in ‘Trouble’.

One of the gems of Anomaly comes in the form of the work Talíta Beyl did on piano. At times it dances, at other times it’s just a bed on which the rest of the band rests. Album closer ‘Told You So’ is a show stopper from that perspective and features a piano solo that just works.

Christiaan Rossouw’s vocals are steady, balanced and never sounds strained. He clearly feels comfortable with the material and cuts through crisply. The lyrics aren’t anything spectacular but don’t betray the agency of each song. Themes cover introspection, spirituality and various other topics typically found within the genre.

One of the few drawbacks of Anomaly lies in the rhythm guitars. Certain riffs dictate heaviness at times when the power just isn’t there sonically. That lack of meat in the guitar tone tends to contribute to some sections not landing to their full potential. At other points, the tones just do not match as well as they should. Other than that the mix is balanced and lends itself to being put on repeat for a few hours.

'Anomaly' is what its name suggests. DRAGOONS packed a lot into their debut, but nothing that can’t be handled. At 8 tracks the album is ripe for a straight shot listen, and the songwriting makes it easy to just sit back and enjoy the journey.


 

four king ace never aim to pleaseFOUR KING ACE have released their first full-length album 'Never Aim To Please'. The South African four-piece lays claim to a heavy late eighties to early nineties rock influence and has attempted to drench this collection with it. There are some hits and there are more misses, but with a few beers, a dimly lit room that smells like cigarettes and a card game that’s gotten way too serious, you might overlook anything too off-putting.

Making a splash with a debut record is an accomplishment difficult to achieve, and when the contents are as on-the-nose as it is in this case, one can only hope for ripples.

The album opens with little fanfare with ‘Fooled Again’ and a track in ‘Better The Devil’ that leads with a riff that is way too close to something you’d hear coming from BLONDIE. From there it is much of the same upbeat guitar driven music heard way too many times already. Each track is comprised of the standard four piece rock set up with an occasional female vocal. There is a very slight reprieve from the straight ahead monotony with the sombre ‘Goodbye Hollywood’, a track that still feels too familiar. The songs are catchy if you leave them on long enough, however. It’ll be difficult to not be humming the chorus of ‘So Hard To Tell’ that features some of the best harmonies of all the tracks.

This album is held back by exactly the same thing that should propel it forward, familiarity. Each song reminds of something one would listen to with more eagerness than these songs can muster. 'Never Aim To Please' is primed for a live performance at a pub doubling as a music venue or a Spotify playlist at a party with too much alcohol and not so much for any type of active and engaged listening.  


 

Lucy Kruger Summers NotThat SimpleLucy Kruger and The Lost Boys unite again to present Summer’s Not That Simple, the first full-length offering from the group. The pairing of Kruger and company flow together seamlessly and feed into a unified musical force like tributaries to a mighty river.

Listening to each track as one would listen to a partner in conversation opens up a unique experience.

Thematically and lyrically, Summer’s Not That Simple functions as a monologue at times, and a narrative at others. Kruger’s lyrics are seldom wasted on wild melismatic runs, but instead, work to convey emotion with purpose from line to line over. In the opener ‘Empty Hands’ the instrumentation punctuates the vocal performance and also acts as an extension of the melody as heard in the refrain of ‘Blue Leaves’.  

The harmony between the band and Kruger’s vocals is what really makes this album shine. Lead single ‘Winter’ illustrates how guitars wash the background with a full complement of distance and atmosphere while Kruger holds close to the ear with an immensely soothing drawl. It is a motif that can be found in abundance throughout the album.

Dave Langemann and Digital Forest Studios worked magic with a sonic presentation. Along with a well-rounded bass guitar sound, Kruger’s vocals have enough body help to anchor each song. There is also plenty of detail to capture the breathy nature of her voice, remain intelligible and accentuate emotion. Drums are not much of a focus in this record, but as evidenced in tracks like ’My Love’ they have weight and depth without stepping on or cluttering the mix. Guitars and various other instruments provide a perfect bed while retaining their intelligibility and are kept well out of the way of the vocals.

One overeager strum from an acoustic guitar or strayed vocal melody could easily upset the balance that gives this collection of tracks its dreamscape quality. From start to finish, however, the texture and consistency of Summer’s Not That Simple go unblemished. For the first foray into long play territory, Lucy Kruger and The Lost Boys seemed to have found their stride quite easily.  

 

Listen to 'Summer's Not That Simple below!


 

Monday, 08 May 2017 09:09

Duncan Park: The Hideous Blues EP

duncan park the hideous blues ep

What do you get when you trade enormous mixing consoles, thousand dollar microphones, and formulaic mainstream recording processes for a couple barely tuned instruments, a smartphone, and a tablet? The Hideous Blues EP is the answer you’re looking for. DUNCAN PARK is bucking every trend of modern mainstream music with his sophomore offering. Turn on the radio and you’ll be bombarded with perfectly tuned vocals, crisp percussion and instrumental performed with robotic precision, but not here.

From start to finish this extended play reaches for ears eager to test the limits of what they’re willing to bear. The album does have a gem in the mid-album epic ‘Stung’ that opens and closes with a blitz of scratchy Cajunesque acoustic riffs before dropping into some hypnotic droning. It is by far the best landing spot for the listener that is battling scepticism brought on by the tracks that precede it.

The background noise is audible (as evidenced by conveniently singing birds that usher out ‘Stung’), stringed instruments struggle finding their notes, the vocals are dry and scratchy, and it all works within the context with the dread that peppers the track list. For instance, album opener ‘Dirt Preacher’ and closer ‘The Sun Awakens’ both benefit from the chorused detuned nature of hybrid banjo-like instruments plucking away underneath the pastoral lyrics DUNCAN PARK puts forth.

The Hideous Blues EP has the potential to infiltrate and saturate even the most rarefied of musical taste. There is an air of intimacy that breathes life into each track. You are almost there giving audience to DUNCAN PARK first hand as he presents his often bleak and honest depiction of the world to you first-hand. In most other cases Hideous Blues would be a collection of aural blemishes and obvious sonic mishaps. DUNCAN PARK, however, reconciles artistic obscurity with a certain clarity and sense of uniformity that should endear it with indie music listeners and draw in the more open minded audiophile. Whether that is the case or not, the process and presentation of the Hideous Blues certainly places it in rarefied air and deserves a willing ear.


 

Monday, 15 August 2016 03:56

A Dose of Medicine Boy

If their lead single E.V.I.L is any indication, MEDICINE BOY straddles the line that divides the boundaries of the mundane world and the obscure dreamscape of limitless imagination. This dream noise outfit is comprised of Lucy Kruger and Andre Leo who have been working toward releasing their debut full-length album ‘Kinda Like Electricity’. In regard to the single E.V.I.L, Kruger and Leo’s vocals drift effortlessly through a musical maelstrom that almost betrays itself by how simultaneously soothing it is. The video matches the intensity and intimacy with every scene and hits the theme on the head. This is a truly one of a kind act, and Underground Press is happy to have caught up with them to discuss their big release.

medicine boy on stage

Listen while you read!

Your lead single’s video, E.V.I.L revels in the obscurity of romance. Is this a theme that is common in your music?

I guess so, yeah. There are a few themes on this new album.

What was it like to shoot the video?

medicine boy 1Really fun for us. It was cool to watch the crew do their thing. We don’t usually get to work with a large scale of production. The snakes took a bit of getting used to.

Working as a duo must require a great deal of chemistry. Describe some of the processes behind creating themes and composing for MEDICINE BOY.

Being a duo means you have the limitations of fewer instruments, of course. That can lead to some interesting stuff. Songs have to be able to work in that format live.
We make songs that we enjoy playing. You gotta keep it fun for yourself.
We work easily together. We’re lucky like that.

Where exactly does the name MEDICINE BOY originate?

No real story. We were looking for a name and that just came up & stuck. We bounced some other ideas around but came back to that one. The same thing happened with the title of the album.

What inspired the story behind E.V.I.L?

Mark Leonard, the director, already had an idea for a video he wanted to make before he heard the song. The three of us then sat together and bounced ideas around until we felt we had something that represented the song well & also just looked good.

How long did it take to complete your debut LP Kinda Like Electricity?

We wrote most of it in the second half of last year. It took about 2 months to record, then a couple more for mastering, pressing etc. We started recording December 2015 & it’ll be out in August 2016.

Describe the atmosphere throughout the recording process.

It was mostly pretty relaxed and intimate. After we did the drums at Digital Forest Studio, we spent most of our days in Dave (our engineer’s) home studio. It was a really intimate process. Very hands-on. Very delicate at times. Very intense at others.

Have you sent advanced copies to friends or family? If so, how was the reception?

We have. It’s always so daunting sending stuff to family and friends. Most of them were very positive. Some didn’t really say much. We didn’t enquire.

For those who aren’t familiar with your style of music, what bands or artists sound similar?

We get some wild comparisons. Which we think is great. People haven’t been able to pin us to a certain band. You’ll have to listen for yourself.

Medicine Boy Cover


Photos by Stuart Scott.


Available at iTunes Now


 

Follow Medicine Boy: Facebook | Twitter | SoundCloud | BandCamp | Youtube


 

Hit singles, rigorous gigging, and various side projects often leave artists yearning for the opportunity to take a step back and re-centre. Between the release of their 2013 sophomore album Soldier On and now, The Graeme Watkins Project have taken advantage of their absence to do just that. They’re revitalised and brandish a level comfort with their signature pop sound not unlike their past efforts. Underground Press caught up with the 2-time SAMA nominated indie group to get a glimpse into the experience leading up to the release of their latest single ‘Love in Abundance’.

How does it feel to be releasing new material?

It's awesome! We are so proud of the new stuff we are dropping. Everything feels really good about the timing and sound.

Is ‘Love in Abundance’ a standalone single or is this a sign of an album to come?

We are going with releasing music as it is ready, removing the pressure of what people think it should sound like, and taking total responsibility for what we are putting out there.

What inspired the lyrics and theme of ‘Love in Abundance’?

We all went through a major “Growing up” process over the last three years. As you get older, you need to be reminded of the youth that exists when you’re young. Pure unadulterated LOVE keeps you youthful and reminds you of what is importance. 

Describe how Rick Joaquim’s direction helped bring the themes driving ‘Love in Abundance’ to life.

He is just a powerhouse. He had this amazing idea and brought it to life in such a beautiful way. We are so stoked with the result.

How did balancing Electronic elements and Rock elements influence this track?

We follow our gut with writing now, we allow what we are listening to at the time to filter in and out of the music we write. This song settled in such a nice way, that it wasn’t a conscious decision, it all seemed to fall into place.

Where does ‘Love in Abundance’ rank among the band’s favourite tracks?

it's up there at the top, hey. It represents where we are in our lives and careers now! and so it's super relevant. it's also awesome having something new to jam at gigs, it brings a fresh energy to our set.

Is TGWP planning any future gigs featuring ‘Love in Abundance’? If so, when and where?

Yup, check out social media, tours are being planned for September.


Follow TGWP: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Sunday, 15 May 2016 08:56

Cultural Appropriate

When is appropriation appropriate?

Social justice warriors the world over have been fighting the good fight across a myriad of issues. With a mandate from no one, in particular, many of these valiant heroes police what aspects of culture can or cannot be represented elsewhere. As with many noble attempts at such tediously protracted endeavours, many invoke generalisations that do more harm than good. Make no mistake that cultural appropriation is as real an issue as it can get and nowhere is it more of a sensitive topic than music and the arts.

Make no mistake that cultural appropriation is as real an issue as it can get and nowhere is it more of a sensitive topic than music and the arts.

ELVIS PRESLEY, the king of rock-n-roll himself, is one of the most egregious examples of personally benefitting from the intellectual property of a culture not of your own and at the expense of said culture. Few know of Big Mama Thornton’s court case that centred on to who the credit for Presley’s hit single ‘Hound Dog’ was owed. Jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn made a similar –albeit friendly- claim against Presley but instead pointed toward the hip-swaying pelvic thrusting antics that mesmerised groupies the world over. Thornton and Newborn are deeply entrenched in the legacy of the African American culture that was then alienated from mainstream society.

Cultural appropriation has largely devolved into toxic slacktivism chest thumping with little to no actual focus or understanding of context. It has been enveloped entirely by a negative connotation that has come at the expense of cultural exchange.

 IGGY AZAEAL’s reliance on her “blaccent” is what contributes to the continued fire from her detractors. Had she not gone on racist rants, and not try to adopt the sound of southern American hip hop, she’d probably enjoy the same “pass” EMINEM does. KENDRICK LAMAR’s recent Grammy loss to MACKLEMORE is a clear slight to hip-hop as a whole. MACKLEMORE, to his credit, acknowledges the controversy, and EMINEM makes it a point to pay his respect to the legacy of hip hop with any chance he gets. K-pop is an emerging genre wholly dependent on appropriating western culture and its music. The emergent genre’s foundation is alien to the culture native to the Korean peninsula and the history of its people.

 We are careening dangerously toward a society more culturally segregated in an increasingly desegregating world. Globalisation begets cultural exchange, and overlap of intellectual property. The borrowing of the cultural aesthetic in music and by artists versus the cultural origins of the music itself is an interesting debate that very well should be held, but not at the expense of common sense.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016 19:00

Riaan Nieuwenhuis – Collaborator

riaan nieuwenhuis collaboratorIn today’s mainstream hard rock landscape, you’d be hard-pressed to find music absent a strong lead vocal driving the track.  RIAAN NIEUWENHUIS takes the normally arduous task of creating instrumental hard rock and puts on a songwriting clinic with ‘Collaborator’. This 2016 offering is a departure by Nieuwenhuis from his previous record ‘Instigator’. Where ‘Instigator’ is experimental and probes the boundaries of creativity, ‘Collaborator’ is raw and provides direct and unabated access to the simple but powerful musical landscape of what Nieuwenhuis dubs, ‘desert rock’.

 ‘Coordinates’ is the sandstorm grand opening this album would have otherwise needed and surely delivers. The track opens the album with a menacingly smooth steady drive draped in a liquid cool organ melody.  What makes this track a work of pure art is the interaction between the instruments as they exchange places as the featured solos. The guitars hold back but hold strong as the organ dances through its lead sections. Similarly, as the rhythm guitars syncopate a call-and-respond exchange, the organ moves to the background and provides the glue that holds the track steady.

Take a Listen While You Read!

                The pace picks up with ‘Deep Dust’ and ‘Burnside’. The former is accompanied a sense of urgency held in place by heavy guitars and a very direct groove worthy of a Mad-Max desert car chase. ‘Burnside’ plateaus the urgency while ushering in a lighter aesthetic with a flying harmonica lead that often sings in chorus with the guitars behind it. 

                NIEUWENHUIS showcases an ability to change altitude with the aptly named ‘Reflection’. The track provides a rest with a soft opening before returning effortlessly to the full throttle hard-rock drive that opened the album.

                The trend continues from there with the 11-minute mammoth, ‘Discourse’ and the petite ‘Prelude’. This is a Yin-Yang moment for ‘Collaborator’ in that the tracks constantly shifts terrains going from vast and open to upfront and thunderously chaotic to quiet and secluded. It is as if the listener travels through the album itself over the course of two tracks.

                ‘Fate’ and ‘Slipstream’ bring the album back to its core. It is a reintroduction of sorts that begins the final act of the album. The energy holds from there until the album closer ‘Solitude’. NIEUWENHUIS puts a perfect bow on ‘Collaborator’ by offering a musical summation of the entire album.

‘Collaborator’ is clear in its direction, steady with its pacing, and hits its marks accurately. NIEUWENHUIS juggles sonic and melodic focus across the album but it rarely feels chaotic and exudes purpose.  A lack of vocals is an obstacle not easily overcome over the course of a full-length album. The exchange between each instrument provides the emotion needed to propel the story from track to track and is a key to an enjoyable listen throughout. 


 

Monday, 23 November 2015 11:27

ADELE - '25'

adele 25 november 2015The release of '21' came 4 long years ago and brought with it a ferocious combination of musical substance and cross-cultural appeal. It was a more polished and more focused version of her debut that saw the singer cement her place in the annals of pop culture with her fiercely emotive vocal and vintage Motown aesthetic. '21' stripped off the glossy overcoat of fame and fortune to give glimpses of a woman facing and overcoming challenges that the average person relates to. It should go without saying that ADELE’s latest offering, '25', has huge shoes to fill, but if anyone can do it surely this Londoner’s soulful melodic musings are up to the task.

Lead single ‘Hello’ properly opens the album and, as if by design, prepares the listener for the vast sonic landscape. ADELE’s vocal travels over the course of the album. Here we see the track push forward and out with breathtaking energy and easily pull back in total lockstep with ADELE’s ballad-esque pacing.

Lyrical themes that are often the punchline of jokes may serve as a deterrent for those more inclined to enjoy happy-go-lucky musical rainbows, or simply enjoy poking fun at ADELE’s perennial state of melancholy, but it is their loss. ‘Send My Love’ is standout that would rival a Taylor Swift track in its portrayal of relationships gone awry. It is one of the few higher energy tracks on the record and hint’s at a musical direction that could have made for an interesting deviation.

Not many vocals can withstand the spotlight '25' shines on the performance from ADELE. The album splices in some intimate tunes like ‘Million Years Ago’. Longing, regret, remorse, mourning are among the litany of emotions conveyed in this captivating performance and reinforces by its simplicity. This is a recurring theme through the album as evidence in ‘Remedy’ and ‘All I ask’.

At no point of '25' does ADELE’s vocal seem to be buried by the liveness of instrumentation. Conversely, ADELE never over sells lines with endless melismatic vocal runs or other needless vocal acrobatics.

This is a tutorial on how an established and accomplished talent creates a pocket to work within consistently over the course of a record. It is a refreshing show of maturity of a woman who is still learning about the person she is. 25’s dullest moments are of little consequence when taken in the album’s full context. At times '25' may appear to linger between highest of highs and falling into a pit of lassitude, but mark this down as a solid effort and successful return to greatness for one of this generation’s greatest voices nonetheless.

Listen to ADELE's 'HELLO' below!


 

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