Category Archives: Reviews

a blaze of feathers

Album Review: A Blaze of Feather – EP 1

A Blaze of Feather’s EP 1 feels like overcast, like Irish winter, like the wind. A cloud of mystery surrounds this experimental dark-folk project lead by Mickey Smith. Information about the band still remains quite sparse, and only recently did Smith reveal himself as one of the main producers and members, while also confirming the involvement of indie-rock’s big name Ben Howard (Every Kingdom, I Forget Where We Were) in the project.  
 
Instrumentally, the sounds of the electric guitars drenched in various reverb, delay, and octave generator effects are the most striking element of the EP – consistently and definitively pushing the limits of a guitar’s imagined potential. Their presence is so all-encompassing and elongated, I often confused them with the synths also at work in most of the songs. A shimmering acoustic guitar also appears in a few of the tracks on the EP, and creates an interesting contrast when paired alongside the immense atmosphere created by the synths and electric guitars. 
 
Th EP’s single, “Carousel,” showcases this contrast best through its excellent arrangement of verb-ed out guitars and droning synths in combination with a strummed acoustic guitar that pops in and out of the mix. Like almost every track on the EP, the ambient sounds fade into the left side and dynamically drip into the right, forming a strong stereo soundscape for the vocals to complete the melodic sphere. Howard is featured in this track, where he sings, “With my last breath / I comfort you,” right before light sawing synths reclaim the musical arrangement for a few bars. A steady rock beat is then re-introduced alongside them, and drives the song until its end. 
 
Folk elements culminate most in the last song of the EP, “Freagh.” The track, named after a municipality in Ireland, is the only song on the EP that begins almost immediately with the clear melodic instrumentation, where the center focus is on a finger-picked acoustic riff paired with two voices.  It is notably the EP’s most vocally driven song and ends it with a strong, optimistic tone, as Smith sings: “Come hell or heavy weather, evening dances in the gold.”
 
Ultimately I found the standout track on EP 1 to be “Death.” It begins like the others on the EP, with a long, droning intro. At the one-minute mark, layers of voices suddenly appear, and their blend is so full that they sound like a synths themselves. This makeshift synth-choir ends with the most powerful line of the EP: “There is no shelter from the sound of the end.” The track then converges into a Schoenberg-esque string accompaniment with octave jumps and tones that interchange between being melodic and dissonant. This instrumentation suggestively (and intentionally, I believe) creates what “the end” may sound like: a composition of isolated yet serene tones that mesh together to construct an uncertain but grand and distinct whole. 
 

Each song on A Blaze of Feather’s EP 1 is a mini soft-world, like a separate cloud of sound in a wider atmospheric space that contains the six songs of the release. The low-volume distortion that carries over into every song connects each piece as if they were overlapping like smoke. Perhaps this is what the album attempts to capture in its cover: a giant cloud of music that characterizes white and dark and gray weather through poetry and melody.

– Review by Francesca Pastore

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Concert Review: Slowdive & Japanese Breakfast @ Olympia

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It had been a long week, grey and rainy. I’d come down with a cold on Tuesday and spent the following 72 hours in a clogged funk. How providential, then, for the clouds to part late Saturday afternoon, low sun bursting through to the wet and shining city, hours before Slowdive took the stage at Olympia. Bolstered by the promising weather, I popped my meds and headed down to the show.

Japanese Breakfast kicked things off, the room already nearing capacity. The Brooklyn quartet lined the front of the stage and dutifully powered through their upbeat indie rock setlist, frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s peppy banter linking one song to the next. They seemed a little stiff, with their songs failing to really pop and fill the room. It was difficult to determine whether the fault lied with the arrangement and instrumentation or with the venue’s sound techs: guitar and bass blurred together and backup vocals remained buried in the mix. In the end Michelle’s powerful vocals stood out as the only clearly distinguishable element, and it felt more like we were hearing the idea of the songs than the complete package. Despite these sound issues the audience was forgiving, sending the band off with a roar as they closed with their strongest number, the driving “Machinist.”

After a wait filled with steadily rising hype and a strikingly good playlist (krautrock, Abba, and a Rihanna cover), the lights dimmed. The immediately familiar, comforting swells of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” filled the room and Slowdive ambled onstage, greeted us politely, and began.

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At first, I was concerned. The opening run of songs seemed initially to be suffering from the same issues as the previous set: things felt a little muddy and underwhelming. Easing us in with a couple new songs and a few cuts off their older but lesser-known albums, the anticipation continued to swell, as if they hadn’t yet fully arrived.

As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Twenty minutes in, they dropped “Machine Gun” and everything locked into place. The difference was immediate. My body shook with peals of thundering guitar and pounding drums as psychedelic vistas opened up behind my closed eyelids, spurred by the strobing screensaver visuals onstage. The song  hit harder, much heavier than the ones before. Maybe it was the crowd responding to an old favourite, maybe the techs finally nailed the mix, maybe the song was just written that way; whatever the case, from that point forward, they were in their groove.

The remainder of the set proved to be a pleasant exercise in dynamics. All the older tracks, such as “Alison” and the outstanding “When the Sun Hits,” served as the anchors, the ballast around which we could comfortably tether. Peppered between, the newer tracks all seemed lighter by comparison, more spacious and synth-heavy, marking an interesting new direction from more mature songwriters. The oscillation between gritty ’90s shoegaze and polished contemporary alt-rock was pleasant, and – with the aid of a truly outstanding light show – hypnotic. When the encore finished and the lights came on, I wandered out, dazed, with a newfound respect for an iconic group that has flourished for decades and turned out to be a lot more versatile than I once assumed.

 

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Concert Review: Mac DeMarco & Tonstartssbandht @ Metropolis

On May 10th and 11th, Mac DeMarco returned to his old Montreal stomping grounds for two sold-out shows at Metropolis. Less than a week before the shows DeMarco released a new LP titled This Old Dog, yet the May 10th set balanced tracks from DeMarco’s previous albums with his new material fairly evenly. Despite DeMarco’s soft, lo-fi sound and relaxed style, his live performances tend to be quite high-energy. The first of his two Montreal dates was no exception: the concert was fun, exciting, and entertaining enough to live up to the hype.

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Fellow Montreal expats Tonstartssbandht opened for both Metropolis shows. The band is made up of brothers Edwin and Andy White, who also plays in DeMarco’s touring band. Tonstartssbandht played a show in Montreal a couple months ago for their latest album Sorceror, which I also had the pleasure of attending. The February concert was at Bar le Ritz PDB and although Metropolis is much larger, Tonstartssbandht had no trouble filling the whole venue with their dreamy, experimental rock aesthetic. Their set featured energetic percussion and pleasantly slow, psychedelic melodies that harmonized to deliver a chill, groove-driven performance.

When DeMarco took the stage, I felt like I was witnessing the presence of a phenomenon. After all I’d heard and seen of DeMarco’s aesthetic and behavior, including the trends he’s inspired, it was hard to remember that he is, first and foremost, a musician. However, once he launched into “Salad Days,” the title track from his second LP, I immediately recalled the appeal of DeMarco’s sunny melodies and warm vocals. While it was hard at the concert not to think of the countless people I’ve met who remind me of DeMarco, his friendly hipster shtick appears original and authentic when performed by the man himself. Tracks from This Old Dog, like “Moonlight on the River,” “For the First Time,” and “One More Love Song” featured stronger acoustic leanings and a hazy, romantic pop sound. These tracks complimented DeMarco’s popular upbeat songs like “Cooking Up Something Good,” “Freaking Out the Neighborhood,” and “The Stars Keep on Calling my Name,” all of which initiated wild dancing and moshing from the crowd.

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Many fans climbed up on stage during the concert with the intention of giving DeMarco a high-five, taking a selfie, or jumping into the crowd to surf; however, despite these interjections the band seemed set on giving Montreal a true performance. By the end of the show, DeMarco had started refusing high-fives, swatting away cameras, and even pushing fans onstage back into the crowd. As an audience member sitting in the balcony section, I greatly appreciated this dedication to performing, even if it did seem to contradict DeMarco’s lazy style. My personal favorite quote of the evening came from Andy White during DeMarco’s set, who told everyone, “Put your phones away kids; enjoy the show.” It was a valuable reminder for such a raucous, enjoyable night.

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– Review and photos by Celia Robinovitch

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Concert Review: Catfish & The Bottlemen

 

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On a warm evening in early May, British rock outfit Catfish and the Bottlemen took to Montreal’s Corona Theatre. Lead singer Van McCan started the band in 2007, eventually adding members Benji Blakeway, Robert “Slideshow Bob” Hall, and Bondy to the lineup, and ultimately scoring a deal with Communion.

Wednesday’s crowd was invigorated, eagerly awaiting the Catfish’s arrival after energetic but generic openers The Worn Flints. Oldies played until the theatre went black, and the band appeared against green lights blazing across the stage while Bondy kicked off with a swift guitar rhythm. McCan’s vocals soared through the chorus, shouting “I’m only looking out for you/You say it’s obvious that’s a lie.”

Their lyrics ponder nothing but the triumphs and troubles of sex and romance, and the added difficulties that touring present for such areas of life. They raced through their setlist, performing The Balcony’s lead single “Kathleen” to the crowd’s enthusiastic response, followed by “Soundcheck” from their second album The Ride. The lights switched from green to red as Van welcomed Montreal fans to their show, encouraging the crowd to dance and keep the energy alive. “Anything” came in the middle of the set, combining a rhythmically slow but steady verse and a chorus that erupts with youthful fervor and devotion. Van sang, “I won’t smoke if you don’t know more/Cause I know you hate the taste of it/I don’t wanna picture our first born/If you stopped discussing names with me/But if it means that we’d get through/Then you know I’m up for anything.

Catfish’s next highlight was “Fallout,” a song with vigorous, danceable music but lyrics that convey a toxic, disappointing masculine subjectivity. McCan deflects responsibility in what sounds like a faltering relationship, reciting “I’m sorry if I drove your matches to my clothes/But you know how I can get sometimes/See I was a test-tube baby/That’s why nobody gets me.

The set slowed down for a moment before the encore as McCan appeared alone with a guitar to perform “Hourglass,” a sweet acoustic love song. Catfish usually does not include this number on their set list, so the crowd relished in the treat by singing along and rewarding McCan with loud rounds of applause afterwards.

Next came “7,” which begins with lyrics “Larry, call a lot of smoke in/I wanna lose a couple days.” The song resonated with the crowd: cheers emerged in moments of quiet, and people danced like they had not earlier in the set. Catfish finished their hour-long with “Tyrants,” a track from their debut album full of loud guitars and plenty of classic rock riffs.

Overall, Catfish and the Bottlemen brought immense energy and excitement with their performance. The songs were fun and upbeat, but usually followed a similar form that detracted from the band’s freshness and originality. Nevertheless, they brought an entertaining, cool set that harkened back to a traditional rock feel that left the crowd dancing and smiling throughout their performance.

– Review by Caroline Macari

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Concert Review: Dengue Fever & Tinariwen

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A pair just as unlikely as they were fantastic graced the stage at Place des Arts on April 13. Cambodian-psychedelic rock group Dengue Fever opened for the Saharan blues collective Tinariwen, creating an atmosphere that accomplished the feat of cultural synthesis beautifully.

Wandering into the venue a little late recalled memories of my dad stumbling upon Dengue Fever through Pandora, before free music streaming was sullied by all of the commercials. The khmer verses paired with warm guitar riffs that were both novel and reminiscent of Cambodian rock history. The Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is a far cry from my cramped living room, and it was jarring to join hundreds of seated people as they nodded along to the chorus of “Shave Your Beard.”

After sixteen years together, the groundbreaking band has amassed a dedicated and well-deserved following. Lead singer Chhom Nimol, along with her American bandmates, has heralded a resurgence of khmer pop music. Their own remarkable albums aside, the band has released compilations of music lost or destroyed during the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970s. Dengue Fever Presents: Electric Cambodia and Sleepwalking Through the Mekong have helped to bring visibility to the artistic ramifications of the Khmer Revolution while also honoring the vital role that Cambodian musicians played in the development of the rock genre half a century ago. The band’s monumental outro came through “One Thousand Tears of a Tarantula,” which offered a glimpse into the surf-rock allure of their latest album, Escape from Dragon House.

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After a brief intermission, guests began to rise from seats both isolating and plush. Ululations rang out from every section of a crowd that had seemed so docile minutes before. We snuck toward the stage to get a good look at the six-piece comprised of Tinariwen’s third generation. The Tuareg musicians sang together, clad in cheches and thick veils of exquisite cloth. One member danced throughout the performance, becoming a crowd favorite as he retired a crimson electric guitar to lead a wake of flowing garments across the stage. In a strange progression of events, the entire room began to howl and lurch toward the front row during “Tamiditin Tan Ufrawan,” throwing all former reticence to the wayside.

Tinariwen came to share Elwan, a new album that reflects a range of deeply emotional responses to political turmoil and displacement, with a room full of Montreal residents beginning to thaw their bones after a long winter. In the process, they engaged individuals in a two-hour celebration of music from a Saharan region that felt close for only one night. Recorded in Joshua Tree, California, due to the political volatility that has afflicted their people for decades, the album bares the harsh realities of the group’s rebellion to listeners.

That evening, we all danced together – we all lay in wait for the rotating panel of singers and percussionists to build off of the stories that came before. As the show ended with “Chaghaybou,” we knew how lucky were to be invited to participate in a moment so fun and profound.

– Review by Maddie Jennings

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Concert Review: PJ Harvey @ Metropolis

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I’m not sure PJ Harvey has set foot in Montreal since she opened for U2 in the early 2000s — a show I would have loved to see if it weren’t for the fact that U2 was on the bill. At the time I’m sure U2 was trying to give her somewhat stalled career a boost, but this time she returned at a level where many people who’ve barely heard her work since her early ‘90s breakout feel obliged not to miss her. It sold out fast and a second show was added; I heard great things about both, and was quite moved by what I saw at the first of her two Montreal dates.

However, this praise doesn’t mean it was a show for the ages, or even Polly Jean at her peak. While she and her band played an undeniably great set, the lush arrangements didn’t always serve the songs and I was left still craving a song just by PJ at the piano or guitar after the encore.

Yet – it was an important show, sure to make many year-end best-of lists even though we’re not even halfway through 2017. PJ Harvey doesn’t exactly breeze through town each year. Montreal was lucky to be a stop on her 1993 tour, when she played to 100 people or so at Club Soda when it was on Park Ave. Her next visit was a much more expensive ticket at the Olympia in 1995. Although it was just two years later, those were two very different shows. 1993’s raw power trio driven by her outsized wail was replaced with a larger, more composed band and a blues-based set of songs that was surprising after Dry and Rid Of Me.

I was reminded of those shows Friday, not least because Polly Jean moved to a large band format and went back to the blues after forging a more goth-influenced sound. Her latest offering, Hope Six Demolition Project, includes actual samples of blues songs and civil rights march chants. She’s back to mostly singing with the booming voice of her first few albums, though she did (thankfully) play songs from White Chalk and Let England Shake. The new album’s songs, which made up most of the first half of the 90-minute show, include some undeniable gems mixed with some songs that don’t ever seem to quite find themselves. But overall, she’s been on a roll over the past few years and the audience reacted enthusiastically each time a newer song began.

I got the sense that she’s an honest songwriter and performer who put the new prestige and success she’s had in the past few years, including winning the Mercury Prize in Britain, straight back into her music; however, the oversize band cloaked her at times like an ill-fitting suit, a little too clumsy and unwieldy. Some songs, like the unexpected throwback 50 foot Queenie and To Bring You My Love, benefited from a somewhat stripped down arrangement, but I’d have preferred to have just Jon Parish, Mick Harvey and one drummer all through those. But I’m being picky – she actually played 50-foot Queenie and To Bring You My Love!

In the end Polly Jean seemed to be enjoying herself, smiling broadly every time the audience cheered when she spoke a few words in French, enthusiastically introducing her many band members and working the stage like a pro. Hopefully she’ll keep on enjoying it enough to tour a little more often — it’s clear she could sell out Montreal like this every year.

– Review by Louis Rastelli

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Concert Review: Bing & Ruth, Reves Sonores, and Evan Tighe @ Divan Orange

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Anyone harbouring reservations about seeing a delicate, often hushed instrumental show at a bar infamous for its noisy crowd might have approached Bing & Ruth at Divan Orange with some trepidation. I myself was not sure what to expect. Turns out there was nothing to worry about.

Local drummer and sound aritst Evan Tighe opened the night by debuting material from his upcoming LP “For The Rower It Was Work,” a real departure from his previous output. These rich yet fleeting tone poems fit squarely in the room, layer upon scintillating layer of synth hanging thick like gauze. At one point it was mentioned that he was still searching for a name for the currently-eponymous project, but despite this missing detail the music itself felt very complete, holding the usually raucous bar in reverent silence.

Filling the middle set was Reves Sonores, the duo composed of pianist Stefan Christoff and producer Nick Schofield and joined tonight by Ari Swan on violin. Each song started as a sparse loop, circling up into slowly-evolving patterns as the piano and violin crept and danced in the spaces between, building into deeply evocative meditations, all dimmed and tinged with blushes of doom, and of hope.

The crowd pressed close as headliners Bing & Ruth set up unhurriedly. With the tables filled and the bar at capacity, dozens sat on the floor, drawn up inches from the quintet’s feet. Composer David Moore hunched over the piano, took a pronounced breath, and delved deep into the set. With the rest of band weaving clarinet, double bass and tape echo throughout, David’s flickering keys anchored the uninterrupted, meandering run. While the muted songs covered a dynamic range of emotions, the core underpinning was sadness. These are dark songs, and they are beautiful. The spell over the room was held tight as the audience partook in the same unpronounceable grief, eventually being shepherded through to the other side.

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Concert Review: Paper Beat Scissors & Ambroise @ Sala Rosa

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The mood was cheery and upbeat as a crowd gathered and filled the room early in advance of Paper Beat Scissors’s orchestra-backed headlining show at Sala Rosa. The performers bypassed the stage in favour of the floor which, along with the limited seating, provided a suitably intimate atmosphere.

Up first was Ambroise, headed by songwriter Eugénie Jobin and rounded out by Gabriel Drolet, Frédérique Roy, and Simon Labbé, all mainstays of the local jazz scene. A hush immediately fell as the quartet spun a gorgeous web over the room, Jobin’s clear voice bouyed by tasteful guitar, bass, guitar, and accordion. Balancing between smooth drones and ambling rhythms, the mood was masterfully set with this relaxed set of simple songs.

Paper Beat Scissors, while also offering a lush and immersive sound, was by contrast considerably more upbeat. Tim Crabtree’s driving guitar and yearning voice, a simple but undeniably potent combination, was swaddled with layers of additional instrumentation provided by the seven-piece orchestra at his back, elevating but never overwhelming his presence. The songs crashed like waves and broke around me, highlighted by the bobbing strings and woodwinds, tugging and rocking and ultimately leaving me clean.

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Album Review: Swear I’m Good At This – Diet Cig

CS638275-01A-MEDAt the time of Diet Cig’s conception circa 2014, front-woman Alex Luciano had barely picked up a guitar. Now, the 21-year-old is rocking her way across the USA with her trusty drummer sidekick, Noah Bowman. The pair are an inseparable, insurmountable duo; it only took one meeting at a show of Bowman’s in New Paltz, New York to bind them in a friendship and partnership that has only grown since.

Bowman sets the fast, frenetic pace of these pure pop-punk tracks, while Luciano’s jagged guitar serves as an incendiary device as her voice ricochets from softly sweet to emotionally unhindered. She is at once an open book, wearing her heart on her sleeve, and a firecracker poised to go off at anyone (namely, any boy) who gets in her way. Lyrically, Luciano has a no-tolerance policy for BS and spares no feelings. She has a knack for wry, tongue-in-cheek observation, and does not shy from singing her inner demons away. With this attitude and an EP under their belt, Diet Cig has created their first LP Swear I’m Good At This.

The album features old habits and new growth: while riotously fun tracks still abound, quieter, more contemplative tracks such as the short number “Apricot” have been introduced, and the production quality has veered slightly from the DIY-feel that accompanied Diet Cig’s EP, Over Easy. Never fear though, Luciano still maintains her blunt, in-your-face attitude, dancing all over your brain with the ferocity and precociousness of an angsty færie. She is all at once dismissive, self-conscious, confident, and confidential, running the full gamut of emotions felt by young women everywhere, at any time.

The opening lyrics of “Sixteen” are enough to convince anyone of that point. Luciano sings plainly of the awkward sex had with a boy who bears the same name; this opening track acts as a shock-and-awe confessional and grips you right from the get-go. “Link in Bio” is an upbeat banger, with Luciano holding up both middle fingers to her demons; “don’t tell me to calm down” is spoken slowly, pointedly, before the track rips open with a melée of drums and electric guitar. “Barf Day” demonstrates Luciano’s innate knack for lyrical honesty, and the bridge of “I know you’re sorry, I just don’t care” basically summarizes Diet Cig’s essence in a succinct, biting sentence. The echoing chorus towards the end of the track adds a nice, unexpected complexity to an otherwise musically-straightforward track.

On “Blob Zombie,” Bowman has his chance to shine, and he runs with it; his percussion sets a galloping, breathless pace, and Luciano matches it with strong lyrics: “I wanna be the best one at this / But I don’t wanna get out of bed” is the very mantra that runs through every girl’s mind. “Tummy Ache” sends a similar message, with Luciano discussing the trials and tribulations of being a girl on the punk scene. Towards the end of the track, the vocals split and dissolve into multiple lines, all echoing and looping over one another, as if mirroring the internal commentary that many women deal with in their daily lives. Luciano acts as a voice-piece for countless young girls, but the defining quality that makes her music so relatable is that she is also standing right beside them, shouting into that selfsame megaphone.

Album released: April 7, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam 

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Album Review: Field of Love – Mozart’s Sister

a4008694957_10Montreal has produced many a talented musician in its time, and an equally talented number have come seeking inspiration within the 514. Mozart’s Sister, the solo project of Caila Thompson-Hannant, is no exception. Thompson-Hannant has been on the Montreal music scene for quite a few years at this point, featuring in notable bands such as Shapes & Sizes, Miracle Fortress, and Think About Life before embarking on Mozart’s Sister with her 2011 Dear Fear release. Originally from British Columbia, Thompson-Hannant attributes the love for her musical style to her uncle, who by all accounts sounds like the coolest guy ever: her tutelage included the likes of Bjork, Air, and rave pop legends Vengaboys.

Field of Love is a vibrant jungle of synth and vocal harmonies with an overarching theme of wide-eyed, pleasurable love; the album comes just in time to usher in Montreal’s great thaw. The production is high quality, but don’t let the “pop” label deter you: Thompson-Hannant’s arrangements are saturated with an exploratory quality that drips with saccharine ingenuity. While the instrumentals pop and sizzle with an energy akin to rebirth, the real treasure lies in Thompson-Hannant’s voice. Whether a track simmers or soars, her voice rises above the melée with clarity and confidence.

Field of Love opens with “Eternally Girl,” which crackles with energy right from the beginning; it’s an easy, bright introduction to the album that delivers bold dance beats and stratospheric falsetto. “Angel” proves to be the most complex track on the album, mostly due to Thompson-Hannant’s chameleonic vocals; her voice is a swirling mix of whine, whisper, croon, and moan. The track begins with an a cappella seraphic chorus  before bare, syncopated synth trickles in, as if Thompson-Hannant is floating down on a giant musical soap bubble. Her use of crescendo and silence is captivating, drawing the listener in to the push-pull rhythm of the synth beats.

“Bump” follows next, a subtle rollercoaster of a track. Dissonant vocals add a lovely, funky fuzz to the dance-club beats, and the whole experience is at the very least guaranteed to get your feet tapping and your head bopping. “My Heart is Wild” is nicely layered, with handclaps interspersed with an almost tropical-house beat and looped vocals; the track literally unfolds around the listener and is certainly a journey worth undertaking.

Album released February 21, 2017

review by Juliana Van Amsterdam