Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Sault ‎– Untitled (Rise) (2020)

Genre: Rock, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl, FLAC
Label: Forever Living Originals

01.   Strong
02.   Fearless
03.   Rise
04.   I Just Want To Dance
05.   Street Fighter
06.   Son Shine
07.   Rise Intently
08.   The Beginning & The End
09.   Free
10.   You Know It Ain't
11.   Uncomfortable
12.   No Black Violins In London
13.   Scary Times
14.   The Black & Gold
15.   Little Boy
Over the last two years, Sault’s music has arrived out of the blue: no interviews, no photos, no videos, no live appearances, no Wikipedia entry, a perfunctory and entirely non-interactive social media presence. Physical copies of their three previous albums have credited Inflo as producer – otherwise best-known as the producer of Little Simz’ Grey Area and co-writer of Michael Kiwanuka’s Black Man in a White World, each of which won him an Ivor Novello award. Kiwanuka got a guest artist credit on their last album, Untitled (Black Is), released in June. So did Laurette Josiah, the founder of a north London children’s charity, who it turns out is Leona Lewis’s aunt. The only other available fact is that proceeds from the album “will be going to charitable funds”. Speculation about the collective’s other members has neither been confirmed nor denied, nor has anyone claimed responsibility for music that’s thus far been rapturously received on both sides of the Atlantic.

You could decry this approach as counterproductive. Perhaps a higher profile, a modicum of desire to play the game, might have helped turn Wildfires, the exquisite and excoriating standout from Untitled (Black Is), into the hit it deserved to be. Yet Sault seem to use the time they save by not promoting their albums or engaging with the public profitably. Untitled (Rise) is not only their fourth album in 18 months, it’s their second double album in just over 12 weeks. It’s a work rate that would seem remarkable at any point in pop history, but feels positively astonishing today, compounded by the fact that its predecessor gave the impression of having been largely written and recorded in response to the murder of George Floyd, less than a month before it was released. Pop history is littered with swiftly released singles reacting to events in the news – two of them made No 1 during the Covid-19 lockdown – but you struggle to think of an entire album doing so, let alone one as good as Untitled (Black Is).

Its successor matches those high standards. It’s more obviously dancefloor-focused – its influences shifting from house to disco, from the perspiration-soaked post-punk funk of The Beginning & the End to Son Shine’s smooth 80s boogie, without ever sounding like a knowingly retro homage – and the overall mood has turned from sorrow and soothing to empowerment and resistance. There are tracks with names such as Street Fighter and Rise Intently (the latter an interlude based on an army drill chant); lyrics that urge “we are survivors, we are the titans” and “don’t ever stop for nothing”. Even the apprehensive-sounding Scary Times, where electric piano and luscious orchestration is undercut by a weirdly ominous rhythm that appears to be constructed from the echo-drenched sound of a plectrum hitting bass guitar strings, ends on a defiant call: “Don’t let them make you lose yourself.”

Straight away you realise you’re in the presence of something special. The first three songs function as brilliantly constructed dance tracks and keep messing with the listener’s emotions. Strong features beats spiked with explosions of dubby echo, an intricate mesh of Nile Rodgers-ish guitar and a terrific breakdown inspired by Brazilian batucada percussion. You could take its lyrics as straightforward paeans to dancefloor transcendence – “we’re moving forward tonight … we want better tonight” – but, as a later, noticeably more caustic track puts it, you know they ain’t, particularly in the light of what follows. Fearless is supremely funky, but the flurries of disco strings don’t communicate excitement so much as anxiety, the words shifting from defiance to something more troubled: “And it hurts on the inside.”

I Just Want to Dance, meanwhile, really is a paean to dancefloor transcendence, but it never allows you to forget what the song’s protagonist might be attempting to escape: the sound is claustrophobic and clattering, the words demanding “why do my people always die?”. There’s a great, jarring moment where the whole thing skids to a halt – like someone hitting the stop button on a turntable – before grinding back to life, the beat temporarily, disorientatingly out of time.

From its fierce opening salvo to its deceptively mellow conclusion – the sweetness of Little Boy’s piano-led melody, vocal delivery and children’s choir countered by the righteous anger in its lyrics – Untitled (Rise) hardly yields highlights because the quality never wavers: whoever’s involved, it feels like they’ve been galvanised to the top of their game. It manages to be as lyrically unflinching as the music is compelling – not the easiest balance to achieve, as acres of terrible protest songs historically attest. You’d call it the album of the year if its predecessor wasn’t just as good.
Alex Petridis / The Guardian

Sault ‎– Untitled (Black Is) (2020)

Genre: Rock, Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Forever Living Originals

01.   Out The Lies
02.   Stop Dem
03.   Hard Life
04.   Don't Shoot Guns Down
05.   Wildfires
06.   X
07.   Sorry Ain't Enough
08.   Black Is
09.   Bow
10.   This Generation
11.   Why We Cry When We Die
12.   Black
13.   Us
14.   Eternal Life
15.   Only Synth In Church
16.   Monsters
17.   June Child
18.   Miracles
19.   Hold Me
20.   Pray Up Stay Up

Producer – Inflo

Stop the clocks. This is the album of the year. This is the zeitgeist.

Who is/are Sault? In this digital age, these times where nothing is private, how have their true identities been kept secret? Last year saw him/her/the band release two albums, 5 and 7, both of which were critically acclaimed. They have followed it up with Untitled (Black Is) and their identities remain a mystery.

We do know that it was produced by enigmatic London producer, Inflo, who has previously collaborated with Michael Kiwanuka (who features on this album) and Little Simz. Beyond that, we don’t know very much at all.

Does it matter? Does it make any difference if we know who is behind this project? When it comes to Untitled (Black Is)…no. It doesn’t matter. Not one jot. What is important is the fact that Sault have produced fifty-six minutes of sheer, unadulterated brilliance, hitting heights that no-one else has in 2020.

Moreover, they have done it by producing an album that speaks to the times like no other. Let’s put the pandemic to one side for a moment and deal with that other horrific open wound on society.

Since the unnecessary and brutal death of George Floyd on May 25th this year, right minded people, black and white, have been fighting back. After centuries of discrimination, Black people (and hopefully all of civil society), are not going to take it anymore.

Untitled (Black Is) is an album that is entirely concerned with putting things right. But unlike artists who have courageously tread this path before, like Public Enemy, this is a call-to-action, not a call-to-arms. It cries out for jaw-jaw, not war-war.

“Put the guns down”, it implores. It takes all of the rage and anger and frustration that has been welling up for generations and channels it more eloquently, constructively and thoughtfully, without diluting the impact, than anything that has come before.

Throughout, the message never wavers. It maintains its stance every step of the way. But it’s critically important to call out that this album is about more than just the words. It is a musical landmark and should be recognised for that just as much as it is as a piece of social commentary.

The music, which is like a rich compendium of the very best of black music through the decades, weaves a wonderful path through a diverse range of sub-genres. Untitled (Black Is) is a veritable melting pot, from the hip-hop of Hard Life through the hot buttered soul of Sorry Ain’t Enough to the afro-beats of Bow, featuring Michael Kiwanuka.

From several short but powerful spoken word pieces, through the Sly Stone like grooves of Black, from the gospel of Eternal Life to the doo-wop/Prince-esque soul ballad (yes, really) of Miracles, this is an album that has it all.

Untitled (Black Is) takes There’s A Riot Goin’ On, fuses it with Innervisions and blends in a chunk of Sign o’ the Times. All with the social commentary of What’s Going On. And I don’t say any of that lightly.

It all begins with what sounds like playground chanting on Out The Lies. The track shifts down a gear dramatically as a mournful piano takes over. A voice speaks and tells us that “Black is safety/Black is Benevolence/Black endures”.

This segues into the psych-soul of Stop Dem. The playground chants return, imploring “Even though we know that you fear us/That ain’t no reason to kill us”. It’s an incendiary opening and the dichotomy between the child-like voices and the brutal reality of the lyrics is quite stunning.

Following Hard Life, we have the chant-based Don’t Shoot Guns Down. “Don’t shoot/I’m innocent”, pleads the vocal, over a sparse percussive beat and an ominous police siren.

The message runs through the entire album, all fifty-six minutes of it. The contradiction we encounter at the beginning keeps returning. On the album’s two solid gold pop bangers – Wildfire and the absolutely delicious Monsters – you will not be able to stop yourself dancing with sheer elation as the beats take hold and force you to move your body. And you realise that you are grooving joyfully whilst the lyrics teach us that “Everyone’s scared to look ‘cause they fear/The monster under the bed”. We conclude that the message isn’t always in your face and at times it can be extremely subtle and wrapped in the most delicious melody.

Something else that it’s important to call out is the fact that the message isn’t always reflective and reactive. On several of the songs, Sault look to the future with incredible optimism. It’s positive, empowering and full of hope. It envisages a future where the world isn’t like this anymore and I found that aspect of the album incredibly inspiring.

It’s little things, like on Hard Life where the vocal sings “Things are gonna change” and “Finally we’ve reached the end” and “Everyday we shine for eternal life” on Eternal Life. Overall, Untitled (Black Is) takes a very sombre and serious issue and makes you believe that if people pay attention to it and act accordingly, the world can be a better place. It leaves you in no doubt that when it comes to equality, we’re in a bad place right now and have been for a long, long time. But it also makes you believe that it can be fixed and it does that without sounding like motherhood and apple pie.

I haven’t heard anything else with such clarity of message, topicality or musical brilliance this year.

In short, this is the zeitgeist. This is the album of the year. Stop the clocks.
Gordon Rutherford / Louther Than War