Category Archives: Reviews

The welcoming sign to Rouyn-Noranda, birthplace of FME

CKUT @ FME 2017: Post-Fest Field Journal

This past weekend I made the 9-hour trek to represent CKUT at Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FME). I spent two nights in the pine-rimmed rural city of Rouyn-Noranda, hopping from venue to venue in an attempt to escape the unseasonal chill that descended on Quebec this Labour Day weekend. Despite the slightly disappointing “summer” weather, the festival-goers and locals alike came through on a collective promise to make the fifteenth FME a fête to remember.

While I was only able to experience half the festival – it ran from Thursday, August 31 to Sunday, August 3 – I was able to compile a comprehensive “field journal” of sorts for this truly unique festival experience. Hopefully, along with some visual aids, it will serve to successfully capture the essence of FME 2017. Bonne lecture! Continue reading

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Concert Review: Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas @ Corona Theatre

The cacophony in Montreal’s old Corona Theatre rose steadily this past Wednesday, as the crowd eagerly waited for Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas to take the stage. This was going to be my third time seeing Cult Of Luna, but the first with Christmas, who was added as a featured member for the band’s new album, Mariner. This Montreal show was the third in a series of just five North American tour dates for Cult of Luna, where, with Christmas’ help, they’ve been performing Mariner in its entirety.

The group took the stage in almost complete darkness. Four spotlights were aimed into the crowd and then instantly replaced with heavy backlights, shrouding all the members in darkness and leaving only their silhouettes visible. In all the Cult of Luna shows I’ve been to, I’ve never seen their faces – I wouldn’t be able to recognize them if I had to (but I’m sure they’re all beautiful; they are Swedish, after all).

They began with album-opener “A Greater Call,” starting off with steady post-rockish layers of keyboard, guitar, and drums, and then crescendoing alongside Johannes Persson’s unique growl. Julie Christmas responded to Persson with melodic lines that claimed “we are not conquerors/we float with the tide,” hypnotically repeating the phrases. Her ethereal voice was a welcome contrast to Persson’s, as was her eerie and magnificent presence on stage – Christmas pulled off pieces of her dress over the course of the set, twirling them as she howled before throwing them into the crowd. During “Chevron,” the heaviest song on the album, her demonic lyrics and entrancing headbanging captivated the crowd, Christmas’ hair becoming a rhythmic display against the backlit stage.

Christmas clearly established herself as a tough collaborator to match, but, as always, Cult of Luna did not disappoint. Their intense playing and visuals made the space-themed Mariner into a true journey. “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” best evoked the other-worldly subject matter, with its ominous keyboards and sinister lyrics, ending with Christmas’s enchanting request to “put me down, where I can see you run.” During album-closer “Cygnus,” strobe lights pulsed to the beat of the snare like a high powered camera flash, momentarily disrupting the crowd’s optical receptors; every time my vision returned to normal, it was just as quickly jolted by the next hit, leaving me completely spellbound. This part of the record was heavily influenced by the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, an inspiration that certainly translated live: it felt like the whole theatre was crossing the outer-limits of the universe, about to finally progress into the darkness of the unknown cosmos and disappear, bringing the performance to a satisfying close.

The band exited the stage while Christmas stayed back, shaking hands with the whole front row, creating a connection with the audience that was very un-Cult Of Luna. Leaving the venue, I heard people express how mind-blown they were by the evening, particularly by Christmas’s incredible voice and immaculate stage performance. I had a hard time disagreeing. My only wish was that it had been even louder, but that might just be my ears fading from going to so many shows – a small price to pay for nights like this.

– review by Nadège Radioskid

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Album Review: Vivid – Daniel Arthur Trio

As the title of their debut full-length album would suggest, the music that flows from the Daniel Arthur Trio can only be described as vivid. Vibrant. Vivacious. I could go on. The fact of the matter is, it would be impossible to mistake these recent Schulich Music School graduates for sophomoric amateurs, not to mention their expanding resumé. In 2016, while still at McGill University, the trio performed at the internationally-renowned Montreal Jazz Festival, and this year have taken third place at the Conad Jazz Fest (Perugia) and a semifinalist title at the Bucharest International Jazz Competition.  Daniel Arthur, a pianist by trade and the trio’s “frontman,” was performing with the Seattle Opera while still in high school, and has played classical piano since the age of seven.

All arrangements on Vivid are of his own composition, and it’s clear from the get-go that he has an ear for the ebb and flow of the tracks. The album moves as a river might: at times still and quiet, at others roaring along, almost unhinged. Arthur’s piano may wander, but it is always brought back by Ethan Cohn’s steady bass and Eric Maillet’s clever drums. The trio members have all been formally trained as musicians, and it shines in their performances; everything is precise, even when the intricate harmonies present as hectic or loose.

The three instruments will expertly play games of tag and tug-of-war, yielding for solos and dramatic effect, but not once do they fall completely silent. When one instrument shines, the other two provide a support system to buoy it along. Their style evokes 20th century composers such as Stravinsky and Messiaen, as well as contemporary jazz musicians; a hint of Brubeck can be heard from time to time as well. 

Vivid begins with “Prelude,” a kind of amuse-bouche that does a good job of introducing the trio’s sound, letting them stretch their musical muscles. Arthur demonstrates his penchant for syncopation and time signature shifts early on in this short track, which features a hypnotic piano melody. On “DSFCA,” a frantic piano shoots out of the gate before the drums and bass kick in to send the track into a frenzy. Constantly shifting intervals, dynamics, and tempo keep the listener on their toes before the track cools down, the dynamics becoming subdued and steady rhythms taking hold.

Rolling chords introduce “Joy,” blossoming nicely with the addition of the bass being played with a bow, instead of Cohn’s usual plucking style. Maillet’s drums are added slowly, entering the flow of the rhythm seamlessly to provide a nice contrast with Cohn’s bass. Arthur’s piano then takes over, with the bass and drums now only acting as accents. While the melodies are rather repetitive, the differences in tempo and call-and-response pattern that emerges keep the track pleasant and the listener engaged. Arthur arranges the track to fall into dissonance before inserting a neat, circular resolution: the return of the initial piano melody, now a little more harried.

On “Mars Text,” bass and a higher piano melody take the spotlight, supplemented by drums and a faster piano melody, played at a lower register. The track has a bittersweet quality to it, with each instrument alternately fading in and out, each in its own world. As the track picks up, the melodies of piano, bass, and drum become intertwined, building on one another; this cyclical track is one of Arthur’s most involved compositions, and the trio perform it expertly.

The Daniel Arthur Trio also cover the greats on Vivid, paying homage to Shostakovich and Messiaen in additional tracks. While their overall performance style still has an air of youthful formality, the raw talent exhibited by these musicians cannot be denied, and this author can only hope they will continue to showcase their prowess as they carve a name for themselves in the jazz world.

Album released: July 7, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

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Album Review: Japanese Breakfast – Soft Sounds From Another Planet

“I want it all,” Michelle Zauner coos on “Diving Woman,” the opening track from her new album as Japanese Breakfast. The breathy vocals turn what could be a bold opening statement into a kind of aspirational mantra, something to reach toward.

Six and a half minutes long, “Diving Woman” is an enticing, meandering track that immediately differentiates Soft Sounds From Another Planet from Japanese Breakfast’s last release, 2016’s Psychopomp. That record was short, sweet, and immediate. Zauner put it together right after her mother passed away from cancer, and though most of its songs weren’t explicitly about her mother’s death, the album had a sense of working through fear and pain as they’re happening. That rawness was what made Psychopomp stand out, despite the fact that some of its two-minute tracks slid pleasantly in one ear and back out the other.

Soft Sounds, on the other hand, takes the time to brood, and is stronger for it. Zauner’s guitar is still at the forefront but now shares the spotlight with flitting synths and bells. Her vocals, meanwhile, are lighter than they’ve ever been, creating space for the songs to swell underneath. Soft Sounds is an indie rock album, but the tracks aren’t interested in catchy hooks so much as settling into a good groove and seeing where it goes. This isn’t a departure for Zauner, then, but an expansion.

Because of this calmer tone, Soft Sounds feels simultaneously in-depth and distant, the lyrics often expressing a sense of disconnection and isolation, as if sung by someone looking in on her life. In “Road Head,” Zauner recalls a failed relationship while remaining separate from it, her voice floating as she sings, “‘dream on, baby,’ were his last words to me” – a reference to an ex who told Zauner she wasn’t good enough for a career in music. The airy vocals and synths don’t create a sense of emptiness, but possibility, like the narrator is dreaming herself right past this shitty dude.

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Concert Review: Thurston Moore Group and Jessica Moss @ La Sala Rossa

On Tuesday, July 18 Montrealers lined up eagerly outside La Sala Rossa for the long awaited Thurston Moore Group and Jessica Moss show. For those who don’t know, Thurston Moore is a singer, songwriter and guitarist for Sonic Youth, one of the most influential rock bands of our time, thanks to their unconventional guitar tunings and experimental use of objects like screwdrivers and drum sticks to alter tone quality. The audience that night was full of Sonic Youth lovers who had come to see a living legend.

Starting the night off was Jessica Moss, a local violinist who also plays in Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Black Ox Orkestar. Moss played a single 25 minute piece which told the story of a refugee traveling from danger to safety, her presence majestic as she manipulated an array of pedals with her bare feet and hands. Stacks of echoing loops and distortion on her violin and voice created an intensely entrancing experience for the ears, while Moss’ melancholic repetitions of the words “entire populations” served as a stark and heart-wrenching reminder of the piece’s subject matter. As the layers and signal-bending folded and unfolded, I felt a sense of relief, like one may feel when they finally see land after a long time at sea. With one piece, Moss took the audience on a beautifully haunting sonic and emotional journey.

Thurston Moore Group took the stage next. Seeing Moore live for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I knew he had a unique way of playing guitar, but watching it in real time was breathtaking. Moore used his guitar fully, from the output jack to the bridge and all the way up to the headstock, gently and rhythmically tapping it with his fingers to further distort the timbre of the sound. He wasn’t the only living legend on stage that night, though – My Bloody Valentine’s Debbie Googe was shredding and delivering heavy bass lines in sync with part-time Sonic Youth and current Sun Kil Moon drummer Steve Shelley.

The group played tracks off their new album Rock N Roll Consciousness, a record that very pleasantly sounds like something Sonic Youth could have released. Beyond his astonishing guitar-work, Moore was also as political as ever. On “Cease Fire,” a song off the new album, he denounced guns and empowered love to rule. While introducing the song, Moore revealed that he first played Sala Rossa years ago for an anti-Bush show. “Is there a difference between a corporate take-over and a political take-over?” he wondered aloud. “I don’t think so. Well, we’re here for a free love take-over.”

At the end of the show, the merch table was surrounded by a large mass of fans while Moore signed records. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the last albums and exchanged a few words with Moore about the rise of extremist right wing groups and the need for organized actions, offering him one of my ‘FCK NZS’ stickers. “Yeah I’ll take that!” he responded, “I’ve seen the t-shirts around!” I would be lying if I said I’m not hoping he puts it on one of his guitars. I left the venue that night sonically satisfied, feeling an after-buzz that stuck with me for several days – a free-love takeover, indeed.

– Review by Nadège Radioskid

Beep Test at Casa del Popolo.

Concert Review: Institute @ Casa del Popolo

The July 16 Institute show at Casa del Popolo was solid proof that punk rock is alive and well in our fair city. When I arrived that night, punk lovers from all over Montreal were pouring into the intimate venue, until the show sold out and the sweat started dripping. The excitement and energy of audience and musicians alike was palpable, a comforting sense of camaraderie in the air as friends reunited and encouraging words and hugs were exchanged.

Montreal’s Beep Test started the night off with a short set of synthy no-frills punk. They got the crowd warmed up for Faze, another local group who hit the ground running with their in-your-face-in-a-good-way moshpit pleasers. Faze’s vocalist had a seemingly endless supply of energy, making it hard to look away as he elegantly squatted across the stage, his eyes rolling to the back of his head after a body-shuddering growl. The guitarist’s riveting tweaking of effect pedal knobs only added to the raw beautiful chaos. Next in the line-up was Grosser, a group of Calgary emigrants and Montrealers who addressed local issues on tracks like “Bylaw Compliance” and “Condo Board.” The frontman’s enthusiasm was contagious as he busted out into the crowd, triggering a pulsating moshpit around him. Unfortunately, this was Grosser’s last show before the members move on to new projects.

The room was packed by the time Institute came on, and the Austin, Texas band did not disappoint. They played mostly tracks from their new album Subordination, songs that stick to the band’s anarcho-punk roots but add more depth, distortion and overdrive, making them hard to label as a particular genre and all the more interesting to see live. Institute’s musical skill, smart politically infused lyrics, memorable stage presence, and endearing modesty definitely made for one of the best live punk acts I have seen in years. I spoke with guitarist Arak Avakian after the show and, when asked what he would like to say to the world, he responded that “hard work does not equal hard rock.” After witnessing Institute’s hard work in person, I left the show with the reassuring sense that, despite the state of the world, things might be ok as long as bands like Institute are still filling venues and challenging the status quo.

– Review by Nadège Radioskid

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Concert Review: (Sandy) Alex G & Japanese Breakfast @ Le Ritz PDB

I couldn’t have picked a better way to celebrate America’s birthday. Kicking things off was Cende: simple, no-nonsense pop music played at a deafaning volume. Bouyed by their youthful energy and unpolished style, they ripped through a short set of formulaic yet enjoyable tunes. Following up, Japanese Breakfast slowed it down a notch with their slinky psych jams, tasteful bass riffs and shiny synth bouncing around underneath the ever-yearning lead vocals.

When the hour was upon us, the chorus of ‘Life is a Highway’ rattled the Ritz soundsystem as Alex and his band rolled onstage. The music hit fast and hard, coursing through the audience and uniting the room within moments with an impressive sense of command, especially for such a relatively young group. The majority of the set was dedicated to his latest album Rocket, including the early standout track ‘Bobby’ and its welcome addition of fiddle to the band’s instrumentation. Though much gentler on the album, the live addition of a stomping drumbeat allowed the song to hit even harder than I thought possible, leaving the crowd torn between head-bobbing and slow-dancing.

The songs are chunky and essential, like semi-polished stones, always build around the core of Alex’s raw voice. He sings mostly through clenched teeth, every measured note spat out, hints of the reserved energy that’s being held back. Only once did the dam breach, during an incredible rendition of ‘Brick’ — an explosive track in which he suddenely erupts in a scream as the guitars howl and rage only to drop away after a minute, giving way to the next piano-driven ballad.

Being an avid listener for years and having followed the group for some time, I can vouch that the presence of 2017 (Sandy) Alex G is immediately undeniable. The band is at its most fluid, less buttoned-down than ever, and with a masterful command of Alex’s expansive discography. They closed out the set by spending near half an hour just taking requests from the audience, not once balking at a buried gem from the depths of his Bandcamp but rather dropping into it confidently at a moment’s notice. The generosity of this final act may have dragged on too long for those less invested in the music, but for the fans it was glorious.

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Concert Review: Alan Licht at Suoni Per Il Popolo

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Alan Licht is one of those extremely prolific avant-garde musicians who keeps re-emerging in different musical contexts. Since the beginning of his career, Licht has explored large tracts of musical territory with endless collaborators and a consistently refined yet elusive style, one that resists description – ephemeral might be the best word for it. Whether he’s atonally plucking a subdued guitar with Loren Connors on Two Nights, or diverging into drone remixes of disco anthems on Plays Well, all of his output is confident and fascinating. Given this diverse discography, I was quite curious to see what Licht would play when I arrived at La Vitrola on June 3rd for his Suoni Per Il Popolo show.

The evening began with two strong performances from two very different guitarists. The first was local solo guitarist Vicky Mettler, who I’d never seen before. Mettler got the crowd’s attention with her loud, distorted acoustic guitar; any other sound in the audience was barely audible amidst the heavy tones she produced. Playing an assortment of atonal chords, Mettler sung and wailed alongside the creeping tones of her instrument, harmonizing in a foreboding and ominous way – a promising start for the night.

The second opener was an Icelandic guitarist by the name of Kristin Haraldsdottir. Her music, in direct contrast with Mettler’s, was hushed and lingering; Haraldsdottir let her instrument breathe in between notes, the guitar exhaling over empty air or a backing track of oceans, rivers, and various other hydrologic manifestations. Unfortunately, some of the effect was lost due to (in Licht’s words) a particularly noisy ‘polka-disco’ party underway downstairs. But despite the potential distractions, Haraldsdottir’s performance was captivating, and I hope she makes her way back to North America sometime soon.

By the time Licht went on, the room was quiet, the music from downstairs finally having subsided. Licht entered the stage quite unceremoniously, acoustic guitar in hand, and without skipping a beat he sat down on a chair centre-stage and began playing.

Licht’s guitar tone was clean and bright; you could hear each note reverberate as if it was a bell chime. He strummed his guitar, up and down, in a straightforward rhythm, and kept fingerpicking techniques to a minimum. There was no dissonance, no distortion – Licht was simply playing his guitar in the same way someone might play in their room at home, strumming chord after chord, thinking that maybe this progression would hypothetically sound good in a band someday.

Despite these rudimentary tools and straight ahead style, Licht did not fail to deeply impress. Throughout the show, he continuously convinced me that he knew exactly what he was doing, and that he was doing it well. Early on in the set Licht confided that, after reading Keith Richards’ biography, he was inspired to write a lot of these songs in open G. The tuning allowed him to hit all six strings of his guitar with every stroke of his hand, creating a real fullness and depth to the sound.

The songs themselves were like hurried meditations on hypothetical childhood memories, not nostalgic, but rather invoking in me the same sense of solipsistic optimism that I used to feel when I was a kid. Rather than leaving me with the chills, Licht’s gave me a warm feeling, like the one you get in your stomach when seeing a friend after many months apart. In a way, it felt as if Licht had turned La Vitrola into his own living room, and the audience members were his welcomed guests as we sat there and watched him play.

Licht didn’t linger on stage once he finished, instead hurrying over to the merch table, leaving his audience to find our way back to reality. The concert had been an exclusive peek into another world, Licht’s performances like bedroom renditions of the best rock songs never written. Eventually, I begrudgingly got on my feet to leave, feeling as though I was arriving home from a vacation, the sound of Licht’s guitar still repeating over and over in my head.

– Review by Rudy Quinn

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Album Review: Rocket – (Sandy) Alex G

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(Sandy) Alex G is more a storyteller than an autobiographer. Philadelphia’s Alex Giannascoli has released his much-anticipated sixth full-length release, Rocket, and it is as murky and expansive as ever. A lo-fi prodigy, Giannascoli has taken this opportunity to stray from terra firma and embark on an exploratory foray into the “country et al.” genre. His incorporation of banjos, sleepy swing rhythms, and Molly Bermer’s wistful violin have brought him into a new territory entirely. Accordingly, he takes his time to explore, meandering from Americana (“Bobby”) to noise (“Brick”), auto-tuned grunge-pop (“Sportstar”) to the cocktail free-form jazz (“Guilty”).

In Giannascoli’s opinion, the more esoteric a lyric, the more powerful the song. He’s of the mindset that once lyrics are explained, they are stripped of power and meaning; in his eyes, it is better for the listener to develop their own individual interpretation of his music. In addition, Giannascoli cheekily refrains from admitting which tracks are autobiographical in interviews, though he has admitted that he is prone to write multiple character narratives (cf: “Bobby”) that span multiple albums.

To the untrained eye, Rocket may seem cobbled together, a hasty amalgamation of different genres. Below the surface, however, Giannascoli has subtly created a tryptic of genres: his foray into country, experimentation in grunge and noise, and development of a more rounded lo-fi sound. Rocket acts as a foggy window into his writing process, helping his fans to understand that often, the musician’s process involves the willingness to transcend traditional genre labels. On this album, Giannascoli delights in keeping listeners on their toes as he moves among a myriad of sounds and genres.

Rocket begins with a classic Americana track, “Poison Root.” Here Giannascoli incorporates the Sufjan effect, with muffled, nearly incoherent vocals over a pleasantly twangy banjo and quick-paced, layered instrumentals. A gorgeous crescendo signals a build in intensity, with the addition of a hurried violin, before the track ends abruptly. On “Country,” he cleverly masks dark lyrics with the use of a drum brush, smooth jazz instrumentals, and sing-song vocals.

“Brick” is a harsh contrast to the preceding tracks, providing an immediate sense of tension and urgency. Dissonant, competing guitars fight for melodic attention before the track explodes into heavy drums, distortion, and bass; Giannascoli’s droning shout fights to float over the melée. The track is violent, aggressive, and short, ending as abruptly as it begins, but is one of the most intriguing tracks on Rocket; if Giannascoli ever wanted to transition into noise rock, he has an in. In a delightful contrast, “Sportstar” begins with a wistful piano melody before heavily-produced guitars begin to fade in and out, with auto-tune providing an interesting contrast. When Giannascoli drops it, the lyrics are much more impactful: “I play how I wanna play, I say what I wanna say.” A subtle “Nikes” reference sends a wink towards Giannascoli’s involvement in Frank Ocean’s 2016 Blonde.

The titular track is the apex of the third theme of Rocket, and shines as the singular instrumental track on the album. A mix of Americana and lo-fi, the warm melodies of banjo and piano act as a bittersweet maypole. “Powerful Man” follows directly after, and signals a return to (Sandy) Alex G’s more classic sound. Giannascoli’s vocals enter at the forefront after an introduction of finger picking, but they are slowly and methodically overtaken by the building up of piano, violin, and drums until only the instrumentals remain; a signal that this carefully crafted story arc is coming to a close.

Album released: May 19, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam

 

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Album Review: Benjamin Booker – Witness

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Benjamin Booker is soulful garage-rock at its finest. His characteristic blues-meets-punk style, alongside his distinct husky voice, results in a unique, gritty sound that one might stumble upon in a New Orleans bar. On each track of Witness, Booker’s highly anticipated sophomore album, he croons on a number of subjects, from faithlessness to police brutality, resulting in a record that is emotional, raw, and highly intimate.

Production-wise, the album’s opener “Right on You” sets the tone for the record. Heavily panned right and left channels serve to isolate the instruments and Booker’s voice. This decision is consistent in every track on the album: there is no song on Witness where everything feels centred. The audience enters a unique kind of listening experience as the intricately balanced isolations allow for more instrumental clarity. One can hear the way each particular element adds to the song’s arrangement as a whole rather than focusing on how they all work together simultaneously in the track. Booker unabashedly introduces listeners to this novel sonic environment of Witness — he invites them to stay, yet remains nonchalantly uncaring if they don’t.

“Right on You” blends into “Motivation,” a track with a lo-fi vibe that begins with a tape-saturated acoustic guitar and a syncopated bass groove. In the chorus, slightly distorted violins swell in the left channel, offering an unconventional type of orchestration that brings an interesting contrast to the acoustic elements within the song. In “Believe,” the listener hears the soulful elements of Booker’s music: the background vocals are akin to a gospel choir, and they harmonize with Booker as he yearns to find a resolution in his search for faith: “I don’t care if right or wrong / I just want to believe in something / I cannot make it on my own.” The title track, “Witness,” is a commentary on police brutality and racial issues in America. Resonant lines such as “Thought we saw he had a gun / thought that it looked like he started a run” make this the album’s most poignant track by highlighting Booker’s strongest lyrics on the record.

Besides “Witness,” the most memorable songs on the record are the ones emphasizing Booker’s well-crafted guitar riffs. In “Truth is Heavy,” the guitar lick isolated on the right side and the bass riff isolated on the left create a unique melodic blend, exemplifying how the producer’s decision to include heavy pans augments the music’s emotive abilities.

Booker’s strength is his bluesy and garage-influenced guitar work, as it allows him to create groovy, head-bobbing rock tracks without being overly flashy. However, most tracks on the album offer only subtle dynamic changes; additionally, since the drum patterns tend to remain steady and simple, at times the songs on Witness seem to drag. Nonetheless, Booker delivers this static feel exceptionally well and this may have been his intention: he emphasizes movement and repetition so listeners can hone in on the pulse of the music in order to lose themselves within it.

– Review by Francesca Pastore