“Precious, the look upon your face, I wish I could frame it, you watch me dancing in the crowd, laughing way too loud, but you’re too sweet to ever call me out.” -Ali Angel, “Loving You Lately”
EXT: SUBURBAN HOME – DAY
Bubbles drift toward the clear blue sky above a circle of parents and toddlers. The gathering claps and sings along to a female guitarist strumming away on her acoustic, swaying back and forth while sitting cross-legged on plush green grass. The adults move the children’s arms like puppets as giggles and smiles fill a fenced backyard in the confines of suburbia.
EXT: BEACH – NIGHT
The slow climb of the tide pushes against the sand before sliding back into the Pacific. Sparks float slowly yet uncontrollably to join the endless dots that speckle the black blanket above. The same guitarist, shifting her tone, plays a tune as folks pause their casual conversations and toast their drinks as they enjoy a pseudo concert around a bonfire.
Ali Angel is that versatile performer from both scenes. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter is a fresh talent and brings along a soulful perspective. Her voice is pure and comforting and her sound blends generational roots.
“There’s always something new, there’s always something changing, I’m always evolving. … I want to be as real as I can always,” Angel said. “I’m on the side of looking at the glass half-full and getting the vibe out.”
From Al Green to Sheryl Crow to Sturgill Simpson, Angel’s influences are apparent in her music. The folksy rhythms combined with the use of brass and solid structure provide listeners with not only a great sound but an undeniably groovy vibe.
Angel’s journey is spelled out for the audience through her notes and her words.
Angel is a product of her surroundings and luckily for her, she grew up and lived in some of the best American music scenes. New Orleans provided her with a history of jazz and brass; Nashville gave her a course on twang and rhythm, and Los Angeles brought everything together through experimentation, ambiance and attitude.
After working a life in retail, Angel found a chance opportunity to headline “mommy and me” music classes, which she has continued doing so for two years and counting. The strums, drums and sing-a-longs, the parachutes and bubbles all tend to become a part of the artist as a whole. She’s capable of transposing her outlook on life between age groups and genres to make each listener have a good time.
Being able to play music during the day and also have the flexibility to work on her original material has been perfect for crafting her sound and what genre she satisfies.
“It’s like the retro-soul-pop world … I love all of that music and I try to get my sound to fit in with that world,” she said.
Outside of retro-soul-pop, there is also some country twang present along with indie and classic rock and Americana. She’s able to display her versatility vocally and musically with seemingly no effort or straying from distinction. She’s taking the ’60s and ’70s and blending that generation’s sound with the strong female voice of the ‘90s, combining revolutions in a time when everything is coming back full circle – as is the case with music every 30 years (give or take).
“I love the ‘70s, the liberation … just like taking independence and singing about topics that weren’t necessarily in the mainstream but doing it in creative ways and empowering ways. I love all of that. I also love the style, the aesthetics … I’m a huge vintage fan.”
Angel admitted her mother and father served as great musical influences with the songs they introduced her to as a child, and her vast knowledge and exposure to music guides her abilities. From The Dip to Spoon to Margo Price to Elton John to The Beatles to The Eagles to The Chicks to No Doubt to Jack Johnson and on and on, she has a plethora of inspirations. Yet, it always comes back to the scene.
Los Angeles is a melting pot of musicians and other artists. It has always been a place to try and make it, or at least fake it until opportunities present themselves. Angel doesn’t view it as oversaturated competition, but rather a community, which serves as a benefit.
“Being from LA, it’s super lucky and helpful because you just know so many people who know so many people,” she explained. “Just putting myself out there and getting different contacts and writing with different people and just saying yes to everything.”
She was able to connect with 606 Studio engineer Oliver Roman through a family friend. After an instant bond of musical tastes, Roman offered the support of his band Jaw Talk, and then an act was formed and has blossomed since.
“I am most impressed by her dedication to learning and perfecting her skills as a writer, artist and musician,” Roman said. “Some artists are very private about their creative process, but Ali is always excited to hear something.”
He added, “Ali always comes in with new and fresh ideas. … I like the music we make together and I think other people will too.”
Though the pandemic has presented obstacles, as it has for all artists, Angel and Roman were able to overcome uncontrollable communication issues and keep recording until the music was finished.
Using life situations, Angel tries to record every chance she gets when the idea is fresh, but also sometimes writes without intention. With good lyrics and great rhythm, there’s a solid balance of which holds more weight from song to song. The passion shifts depending on the emotional tone or tendencies, creating a full catalog, which is vital for any artist.
Angel released her debut single “Play Pretend” last year and the track defined her music right from the beginning. It not only captures her sound but her general outlook and vibe as well.
The song builds up nicely in each verse with flowing production elements that fit the brief vocal breaks, and the addition of soft chimes and whistles transitioning out of the brass background and into the slightly fuller chorus is a good complement. The key to a song with a beat like this is to keep it in motion and Angel executes this exceptionally. The listener can easily get lost in the music and the trance is only broken when the track ends.
Her next release was a cover of Green’s “I’m A Ram.” Angel’s version dropped weeks ago. There are differences, however, so it’s not a straight cover which is refreshing. It’s also not a slower cover of a song that should never drastically lose tempo (in this specific case) for the sake of an artsy rendition – which has been trending for too long. Though releasing a cover early in a songwriter’s career can be risky, Angel didn’t offer a carbon copy like some artists do, and it worked because it fits her sound and her influences.
“It wasn’t really super intentional. I love Al Green and this is one of my favorite songs by him … and one day we kind of were just like you know what, it would be really fun and easy, we already have the whole thing down, to record a version of this. … It’s kind of a cool way to do a lesser known song from a legend and give it a new breath of fresh air.”
Green’s original has a more prominent brass presence, but Angel replaces those loud distinct notes found in the verses with slide guitar. Yet, the song doesn’t lose anything, and that is partially due to what fans have come to expect from her after her previous release. She obviously has no problem using brass but shows her versatility by not relying on it. The other difference is in the vocals. Green used his sharp vocal cuts and playful groans to jam with the long outro, but Angel takes the opportunity to showcase her range and ability to hit notes with ease.
“Extra Wild” was released on March 4. It’s clean, catchy, and all the small elements of the production blend together. The listener gets that great brass addition again, with a smooth and simple bass line that stands out, and there even – and this may be my ears playing tricks on me – seems to be a wave simulation subtly pulsing in the background. The highlight, however, is the sexy saxophone solo that emerges to keep the groove steady through the rest of the track.
Once again, Angel keeps the beat in motion, and the audience has no choice but to relax and enjoy the chill vibe.
“I’ve always wanted to do music that I Iove. … I feel like most successful artists in the past haven’t made music they thought people wanted to hear so they just wanted to make the music they wanted to make. I feel there is space for every kind of sound.”
Angel has certainly captured her own sound and the music translates to a broad audience. Her next release, “Middle Name,” will drop on April 8.
“And how do we stay here? Do we embrace all the things denied?” -Seether, “Tonight”
In last year’s College Football Playoff final, I couldn’t win no matter the outcome. This year, I was hoping for my first untarnished University of Alabama national championship to relish in as an alumnus. Once again, I fell short, and it was at the paws of a fresh bitter rival.
First and foremost, the University of Georgia deserves all the credit for constructing a near-flawless season and winning its first title since 1980. Their relentlessness on defense, scheming on offense and adaption to avenge their only blemish on their schedule was beyond impressive. They were the best team in college football in 2021-22 since the first snap. Congratulations to head coach Kirby Smart, his exceptional players and staff and the entire Bulldog nation.
I can reach that level of civility because I haven’t bled crimson (well, I guess everyone kind of does) my whole life, just of recent. I think it’s fair; I provided them with tens of thousands of dollars and they provided me with a great graduate program and a fancy piece of paper to frame and place on my wall. I can’t help to think this is my fault, though.
Since the (my) Beginning
I officially started my master’s program on Jan. 9, 2019, two days after the Crimson Tide lost to the University of Clemson in the national championship. Considering I had already decided to attend Alabama, I thought I would thank the admissions department for taking a chance on me by at least siding with the Tide over the Tigers. My support wasn’t enough as Clemson won 44-16, which is tied for the largest point differential in the playoff’s eight-year history.
Later that year during the 2019-20 season, I got to watch my first Alabama-Louisiana State University matchup with my friend who attended LSU. The Tigers (so many Tigers—I was also accepted into Memphis on that note), led by Joe Burrow in what may have been the best college football season by any team in history, went on to win the national championship.
Last year, Alabama was back in the title game, but it was against my first love, the Ohio State University Buckeyes. Hence, I couldn’t win. Some could claim I couldn’t lose, but the pint was half-empty that night. Both teams win most of the time, so seeing one of them lose has more of an emotional impact than watching another victory. I cheered for the Buckeyes. They lost 52-24, which is tied for the largest point differential in the playoff’s eight-year history (not to sound repetitive). Sorry, OSU.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t at least bittersweet, but the personal asterisk held back any sort of celebration. It felt wrong. However, I knew there would be another chance, and it came very soon. Monday night marked the sixth national championship game Alabama has been in (they’ve reached seven of the eight playoffs) since the playoff’s inception. Yes, it’s annoying for others, but it’s not like they lift the trophy every year. They’re 3-3.
The Tide had defeated the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game back on Dec. 4, and in convincing fashion. Their 41-24 victory should have been the first sign that if a rematch happened, it wouldn’t be as welcomed by Alabama as it was Georgia. Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was surgical against the Bulldogs’ defense, which was one of the best in college football history, going 26 for 44 for 421 yards and three touchdowns. Monday was more of what fans probably expected would happen last month. Young went 35 for 57 for 369 yards and one touchdown and two interceptions.
For a while, it was looking like a kicker would be named the MVP of the game as the teams exchanged field goals and punts the entire first half. Will Reichard went 4 for 5 on the game for Alabama and Jack Podlesny went 2 for 2 for the Bulldogs. The Tide’s James Burnip averaged 37 yards on four punts and Georgia’s Jake Camarda averaged 44.6 on five—both had two land inside the 20-yard line.
I thought I would at least give the kickers some sort of recognition.
Now, for the things most football fans care about. The first touchdown of the game didn’t happen until Georgia’s Zamir White pounded in a run from the 1-yard line with 1:20 remaining in the third quarter. Alabama scored their first touchdown with 10:14 left in the game after Young found Cameron Latu for a 3-yard pass. This came after a strange and questionable fumble by Bulldog quarterback Stetson Bennett. The offensive MVP of the game didn’t make a mistake from that point on, finishing 17 for 26 for 224 yards and two touchdowns.
The next three scores were Georgia touchdowns in route to a 33-18 victory.
Sorry, Crimson family. Roll Tide!
I’m not cursed; Georgia was the better team in that game and that’s why they won. So I guess Alabama doesn’t “always” win after all.
Then again, I do question my power to take down even the strongest of empires in the sports world. I thought my sports frustrations and supernatural hindrances during various postseasons were consolidated into a package that only affected the teams I love the most. The last three years have proven that my weeds can spread across acres and acres of four-leaf clover patches.
For example, since I was born, back to my real beginning, my favorite major professional franchises have won five titles in 156 collective seasons. That still sounds nice, but reaching utter happiness for just 3% of my sports life doesn’t sound as good, and two of said titles I was too young to even process. Sorry, everybody.
Man, ’83 would have been a great year if I had more cognitive development. There’s always 2022. Maybe not, says the realist.
Before people start their annual complaining about how Alabama gets all the great players through recruiting and the transfer portal, seven Crimson Tide players have entered said transfer portal, so they also lose some, and if they got all the great players, wouldn’t they win the national championship every year? If you want more parity, point your proverbial finger at conference boards and the selection committee.
On that note, I would like to give a shout-out to the University of Cincinnati Bearcats for making the playoff. The committee had no excuse not to let a Group of Five school into the semifinals this season for the first time, and though they lost 27-6 to Alabama, it’s still a win.
Keep in mind that perennial Big-12 powerhouse University of Oklahoma is 0-4 in the playoff with an average point differential of 18. Notre Dame is 0-2 and has lost by an average of 22. Cincinnati competed with the top dogs just as well as other top dogs, as can other Group of Five schools, so this year’s semifinal result shouldn’t deter any future “surprise” invitations. Lastly, if we’re keeping track, Group of Five schools are 3-5 against Power Five programs in major bowl games, so it’s not as lopsided as one would think.
“My drunk and disorderly Avenue B, you feel cold and everlasting, I keep coming back on account of my head, on account of my bad design.” -Kate Vargas, “Mighty Fire”
The room should’ve had a haunting cloud of smoke resting heavily above the stage and crowd. The spotlight trapping the dust in the dimness would have to do. Kate Vargas smiled as she flicked her long colored nails against the strings of her acoustic, admiring the non-traditional clashes and brushes of her drummer’s small set of random extensions. Her sultry rasp bounced off the old concrete walls, echoing the darkness from within that she needed to share.
Kate Vargas has emerged as a major player in the alternative/singer-songwriter scene. With the support of a small ensemble of talented and established musicians such as Eric McFadden, the creativity behind her sound and the uniqueness of her vocals have fetched great accolades and some flattering comparisons to the likes of Tom Waits, Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey.
Yet, they are them and she is her. Vargas digs deep into her past to converse with demons and make her lyrics personal and emotional while maintaining relatability to her listeners. Her approach is pure, dabbling with and revitalizing instruments found in heaps of uselessness and fortifying the deep imagery of her past and present.
Vargas said, “What I really want to do is just write songs and survive, and I’m doing that.”
She’s dark. She’s fun. She’s undeniably herself, which is something fresh and needed in the music world.
Corrales, New Mexico is a small pseudo-rural cluster that borders Albuquerque, an escape from everything but within a tumbleweed’s roll of the chaos that hovers around. The eclectic villagers have clear views of the mountains rising far above and beyond the lush trees of the Bosque to the east and desert grounds sloping upward to hold the top of orange and purple sunsets to the west. It’s unlike anywhere else.
“It’s an artist and farmer village,” Vargas said of Corrales. “They have a pet parade and people will walk their pets down the road and sometimes dress them up, and there are llamas, and donkeys, and emus, and all kinds of things, and whoever wins is elected mayor for the day. That really sums up the vibe.”
Within the diverse beauty that each individual contributes to the village, Vargas embraced the arts and the scene that her personal boundaries would allow. She was, and still is, a classically-trained flautist. There was a fire inside that needed to be released, however, one of independent expression. It wasn’t a dislike of the flute that drove her to the guitar, it was her love for all music and determination to find the correct outlet. From the village’s studio where she learned to be a musician from Darryl Dominguez to community recitals showcasing her original material to Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, Vargas had the resources to follow her passion.
“I had these adults in my life who were very supportive with what I was doing musically. [Darryl] really encouraged my writing, encouraged me to play a song that I had written at a recital. It really didn’t occur to me to do that.”
However, the raw juvenile mind can be a dangerous seductress. The support wasn’t enough; she needed a way out from something. One such break booked her a trip to a boarding facility out of state as a teenager.
Vargas spent part of her adolescent life in Utah, away from her family in an attempt to curb her wild side, erase her days as a troublemaker. The temptation of vices was too strong as she constantly searched for an escape. Through her early obsession with Harry Houdini, it proved there was something that had troubled her for some time.
She explained, “There was like a rumbling, a deep rumbling. We all have stuff growing up, and it just seemed like an easier way to not have to look at it or deal with it. None of us really want to be uncomfortable or face things that don’t feel good. It’s hard being a human, especially when you’re growing up, learning what it is to be alive.”
Her upbringing, influences and mind attribute to her songwriting, but it was music that served as her life raft while the demons clawed and dragged her below the surface. She was moving too fast like a bullet train teetering on the edge of worn cracked rails, spiraling, drowning in doom, giving into the darkness she had become accustomed to relying on.
She’s now 10 years sober and counting.
“I remember that moment, it’s something I kind of have to remember. I had this real moment of clarity. I just saw myself as this kid growing up and where I imagined myself, and then I had let that kid down. I was actively harming myself and hurting the people in my life just because I wasn’t present. That was the big motivator.”
Though there was an unexplainable issue, the solution was always present. Reaching an epiphany, or multiple epiphanies at that, is important for an artist to accomplish. Vargas has roots as well as deep-seated psychological inspirations, negative and positive, she can access, whether consciously or not, to help her create. It comes out through her stories and poetry in songs about religion, addiction, relationships and just general musings of life. She’s not only a creator but a listener and absorber of stories, which helps her relate to audiences. Accepting and overcoming turmoil can be therapeutic for everyone.
A variety of contrasts have emerged from fans and critics, but that only supports the uniqueness of Vargas because it’s a diverse group of artists. McFadden, who is featured on Vargas’ 2021 album Rumpumpo, has worked with many amazing musicians and writers in his career that has spanned decades and revels in her matchlessness.
“Kate is pretty high up there,” McFadden compared Vargas’ abilities to other greats. “She’d have to be in the top two or three songwriters that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I think she’s one of the best songwriters of her generation.”
McFadden, who also spent a good portion of his life in New Mexico, has toured with the likes of George Clinton and Eric Burdon and collaborated with artists ranging from Bo Diddly to Les Claypool to Pat McDonald among many other famed musicians and writers. The guitarist also has an extensive solo collection that he continues to build.
The New Mexico connection isn’t what brought McFadden and Vargas together at first, but it certainly helped strengthen their bond quicker. The two met at the Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. It wasn’t until their third festival together that they finally collaborated on a song.
“I was really taken by her,” McFadden said, “I thought, wow, this is brilliant. Her whole presence, and the lyrics, and her voice. There’s a lot to her creatively, a lot to her personally, emotionally; there’s a lot to know. She runs deep.”
Vargas’ ability to tell a story in minutes is a talent, just like for any singer-songwriter. To put it in perspective, authors claim that 100,000 words still isn’t enough to completely tell a story, but musicians only have around four minutes to convey their tale. No word is wasted, but when complemented with a musical virtuoso such as McFadden, it adds that other element to the story. Take classical music, for example. There are no lyrics, but a tale can still be heard within the notes.
“I’m learning a lot about writing and growing as a songwriter myself just from being in such close proximity to her. She’s honest and she’s authentic, but she’s also brilliant, she has great insight.”
Together, McFadden and Vargas mesh extremely well. During the pandemic, they started live streaming jam sessions and discussions on their show “Live From The Red Couch.” His invaluable industry experience, her vast musical knowledge and both their immense talent have created something special. The pair have perfected Vargas’ sound, and their passion and exceptional songwriting ability are on full display in her music.
Vargas released her first three albums as an independent artist. It has become a strategy of many creators of late, and if they possess the perfect combination of uniqueness and quality, then they will be discovered. Her style has been labeled as dreampop, dusty folk and junkyard blues, but to bring simplicity to all the sub-genres that seem to appear with each new act that becomes popular, Vargas is a folk singer-songwriter.
Now, to contradict the above, she also has a southern gothic sound present that you find from artists such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Parker Millsap and Grace Potter. She captures the topics, deep lyrics and catchy bluesy rhythms, but adds her irreplaceable vocals. Though comparisons are the best way for the industry to describe an artist, especially an emerging one, Vargas truly constructs a range of elements that make her authentic.
This process, this genuineness and creativity, charmed Bandaloop Records founder Bill Hutchinson. He started his company in 1998 with the goal to seek out great lyricists, melodic composers and live performers, giving unknown artists an opportunity to showcase their talents to more audiences.
After listening to musicians slated to perform at AmericanaFest in Nashville, he came across Vargas during his scouting and knew he had to talk to her immediately, even before seeing her perform.
Hutchinson said, “Kate stopped me in my tracks. Then there was her distinctive voice. She had everything I was looking for. Songs, great lyrics, a great live show, a winning personality, and the desire to put in the work necessary to get ahead.”
Hutchinson praised the amount of energy she has in the studio, and that is shown through her passionate lyrics and artistic composition. Her drive, focus and hands-on involvement during recording have proven her dedication to her craft, and she set the tone early for how far she wants to grow in the industry.
“Kate’s just getting started and, really, there’s no limit to what she can accomplish,” Hutchinson expressed.
The major outlets and big names have taken notice, and her music is rightfully raved within many circles—even when it comes to lowly independent journalists. There’s a certain respect due.
The pandemic was rough on Vargas. Any artist knows that their mind is in desperate need to be occupied and spending too much time with their thoughts can be detrimental. She found herself in Los Angeles with her hands on Jackson Browne’s guitar and her mind on Newton’s first law.
Her constant motion helped guide the release of her label debut with Bandaloop Records, Rumpumpo, this year. It is her first album in three years, fourth overall, and the intention was simply to provide audiences with good, well-executed art. Rumpumpo gives listeners everything they need to know about Vargas in 11 songs—if they are willing and ready.
McFadden said of Rumpumpo, “Kate’s album is a gem. Anyone that stumbles upon Kate’s latest record is like finding a buried treasure.”
The title track not only displays her distinct sound and the creativity involved but how open she is about vices and addiction and the ability to tell a story, almost masking the depth of the words with a whimsical beat that doesn’t fit the lyrical content. That is on purpose and it’s very difficult for musicians to achieve. It eases the heaviness in a way so the listener can withstand processing each little bit, lyrically and musically, without being deterred. In addition, around the 2:30 mark, a Spanish-influenced solo is inserted into the jazzy, gypsy-like beat that on the surface doesn’t make sense, but strangely fits. Her influences, past and style are all on display. Maybe the listener doesn’t actually need 11 songs.
Luckily for them, there are. “Honeydipper” showcases her flexibility as a vocalist. The rasping isn’t an act but can be contained, and there’s a hint of southern twang that comes out at times. “Left Shoe” continues her ability to keep an infectious beat, and then she slows things down with “Everything Forever,” the first ballad on the album.
“After the song is done, it’s exciting,” Vargas said about the writing process. “I said something that I’ve wanted to say or I expressed this thing in a way that feels really true to me. It’s really like a birthing. It can take anywhere from, for me, a couple days to a couple years.”
She wants to get to the heart of each song while in the studio, which helps create an experience with each track and album. Structure and balance are vital to both. Vargas is able to capture the essence of her own music and give listeners something of everything. “Animal” and “Split 3 Times” bring back to the toe-tapping melodies and thought-provoking lyrics, but then the overlooked hit of the album emerges.
“Someday” is a seemingly basic slower track, but it’s the subtle build-up throughout that enchants the listener. Also, the lyrics aren’t overpowered by tempo or rhythm, allowing them to absorb the message clearer. If there was ever a song to either wander a dusty trail as the sun curves from horizon to horizon or sit in a rocking chair on a front porch and stare up at the clear stars while pondering life between long blinks, this would be a contender.
“Church of the Misdirection” and “Glorieta to the Holy Place” sandwich the descriptive track “Lighter” on the listing, but the two religion-based songs have drawn attention—especially from New Mexicans. Vargas dives deep into the memories of her childhood and the role Catholicism played during her upbringing, using that southern gothic sound that complements the topic flawlessly. Though it’s been concentrated on in regard to Rumpumpo, Vargas has done this before, even back on her first album in 2014, Down to My Soul, with the track “Sisters of Loretto.”
This is something that makes Vargas special. Unintentionally, she immerses listeners in a situation from a child’s perspective, which is to be considered innocent, to try to make sense of life aspects that are confusing then and now. On the contrary, when it comes to her time as a teenager and the dark years that followed, she uses her experiences to create stories and provide clarity and hope.
Rumpumpo ends with “Like Apollo” which sums up everything the listener just experienced with a bluesy rock conclusion to this specific part of Vargas’ journey. And it’s left with an open ending like any good series.
Vargas has evolved without abandoning her sound. However, nothing sounds exactly the same which some acts fall victim to. The subtle progression within one’s own catalog is an art in itself.
After Down to My Soul, Vargas released Strangeclaw in 2016 and For the Wolfish & Wandering in 2018 which includes her most popular song, “7 Inches.” Each album contains a fitting first track, especially “Roll Around” off For the Wolfish & Wandering. It possesses the same personal tone as the title track off her debut back in 2014.
This proves her commitment to her sound and lyrical intention, but she also is not only influenced by her experiences but time periods, and also by the changeability of emotion. “The Truth About the Heart” has a ‘90’s rock feel all over it, and “November” is a prime example of her ability to capture the essence of a slow emotional song. Both tracks can also be found on For The Wolfish & Wandering.
No matter which point a new listener starts their journey into Vargas’ catalog, they will receive everything she’s about.
Vargas wrote about her future in her essay “Self-Help is an Oxymoron” in Atwood Magazine, explaining that her inability to meet her potential is “a temporary state that’s lasted my whole life thus far” before promoting confidence to overcome her back-and-forth thoughts.
What a fantastic saying. Perhaps this must be said because it eases the battle with her ego. An ego doesn’t always boast conceitedness but can also express negative feelings toward oneself because of failure to meet what the ego believes is the bar. She has been open about her feelings and issues, even away from the stage, but no matter the internal debate, the outside world recognizes her impending success.
McFadden added, “Kate is an artist who I think will have longevity and keep rising because of her talent. She’s the real deal.”
Vargas is an enigma in a sense when it comes to the way she writes. Her music is a necessity, not just for her fans, but for herself. This is in no way a professional psychological analysis, but how she changes perspective to drive home a point, whether intentional or unintentional, is interesting. The confusion she addresses about religion from the pure mind of a child, the damaging vices she battles in the midst of teenage angst, and the reflection on the past that only an adult who has found clarity can offer are all present in her lyrics at some point—and there’s a lot in between as well.
Vargas said, “When I was on the path of total self-destruction, I wasn’t writing that much, and when I was, I wasn’t writing the way that I wanted to. Nothing really felt true to me. I was not doing what I was meant to do, I wasn’t doing it at all, and now I am, and that feels right where I want to be. I just want to survive.”
Her darkness, her eclectic perspective and her passion for her craft combine to create something utterly distinctive and of the utmost quality. Music: the answer was inside all along for Vargas. She has shared her solution and her calling, and will do so for a very long time to come.
“In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose it’ mind, be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind.” -Frank Turner, “Be More Kind”
I was born in Georgetown Hospital. This small, cone-headed, jaundice-riddled person entered a world that was damaged. Society, as it remains, was just as confused as a newborn, but certain figures were bigger than the world, larger than society itself in a sense. Georgetown University’s old head men’s college basketball coach John Thompson was a trailblazer, and his contributions off the basketball court were what made him legendary.
I was just an infant staring at flickering lights when the Georgetown Hoyas hit their prime as a dominant college basketball program. Four family members are alums, so I was born into adoration for the university. Though I have lived in four other states, one for much longer than the others, I still consider D.C. as my hometown. And that’s partially due to the impactful history that constantly surrounds the area.
Though John Thompson (1941-2020) wasn’t a politician, he had more of a presence in a city run by glorified salesmen and –women—a difference maker among people who should have been making a difference. Basketball was an escape for him, and after a great college career at Providence and a professional stint backing up Bill Russell on the Boston Celtics, Thompson returned to his hometown to form the most important aspect of his career: change. I Came As A Shadow isn’t just an autobiography, it’s a message.
Thompson passed away just days before his 79th birthday. The book was released four months after his death. We finally got to know the man behind the legend when he was no longer able to defend his actions. After reading I Came As A Shadow, there was no criticism to refute. He left the world with everything on the table, and it’s accepted as is.
We are in a sensitive time. The public has become more vocal about issues, especially when it comes to civil rights. Of course, technology and modern platforms have allowed expression to over-saturate the world, which has provided both positive and negative reactions. The argument for either is for another time and another person. This discussion is about how Thompson altered the outlook of society in various aspects.
Born into uncontrollably modest conditions, the famed coach explained how, at that time, it was normal. As a persecuted youth, his mindset began to shift, and realized that, though a very ugly truth, the color of your skin shouldn’t depict how a person is treated. He persevered through patience and expressing himself when the time was right. It could be argued that every situation warranted an opinion then, but practical awareness was wisely exercised. If his emotions overtook him every time racism was exposed, like revolutionaries do in the modern era, the opportunity to change the world would have been taken away much earlier than ever being presented.
Each generation has its own struggle, and many representatives from respective eras turn that into a competition that has no victor. But with each struggle comes a strategy to promote progression. The point of an autobiography is not only to educate and tell a story, it’s to provide a relation for an audience to discover, process and eventually further the conversation. It gives us meaning beyond the author/subject. It gives us perspective.
Sports are occasionally demeaned by those who show no interest in the athletic arts. It’s a fair assumption at times; everyone tends to write off interests that they have little knowledge or understanding of.
I Came as a Shadow gives readers a behind-the-scenes experience of Thompson’s life. The purpose of the autobiography is to teach, and that was Thompson’s purpose. The work is chronological; it begins with his childhood which sets the tone of perseverance and perspective. Those first 13 pages, combined with what we’re witnessing in other parts of the world at this moment, should make someone think, “Is my life really that bad?”
Hardship is relative and should be respected, however. Basketball became a platform for Thompson and it led to vital relationships to his development as a man. This is the how the autobiography’s structure coincides evolution three-fold. Thompson’s evolution under the guidance of people like Red Auerbach and Dean Smith, his player’s evolution under his tutelage as a coach and father figure, and then society’s evolution from the stances his presence demanded and executed.
It wasn’t just the major names that shaped Thompson, but the minor characters he encountered in life, and through those experiences, he was able to pass along his knowledge to the youth. He always took chances because, as a black man in the time that he lived, he had to. There was no waiting around for change; sacrifices had to be made, decisions had to be calculated and concrete, and failure had to be accepted and used.
His experiences at Georgetown and his influence beyond the university were massive. The Big East, D.C., the black community and other minorities, women and children, the nation and his players all benefited from the chances he took. When he spoke of Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Moutombo and Allen Iverson, he wasn’t just talking about their freakish skill and impact on the court, he was discussing their journey to become the men they did and earning their success as a person not a player. Thompson was more proud of the advancment of the man not the athlete.
For example, when reminiscing about Reggie Williams, Thompson explained, “But what happened to Reggie is part of the value and beauty of sports. It exposes you to things that will happen in the rest of your life” (p. 180).
Iverson has mentioned more than once that Thompson saved his life, and when looking at the Hall-of-Fame guard’s past, the accolade can be viewed figuratively and literally. Sports mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people, and if someone looks beyond the game, they will understand the vast importance of athletics.
I Came As a Shadow is an important book everyone should read because it’s historical, will educate, and most importantly, provide perspective. Though Jesse Washington is an esteemed and excellent writer and journalist, he took on the role of listener and consultant. The book is written as if the reader is having a conversation—or rather listening to a monologue—with Thompson; the audience experiences his syntax and context, and if familiar with the man’s public image, can imagine his monotone drawl and visualize his poised mannerisms. This is what Thompson wanted. His way, his voice, just sit there and listen, whether that’s Washington, me, you, or anybody.
Washington wrote in his preface, “Coach Thompson made no small talk when I arrived; there was no conversational layup line to warm up for the writing of his autobiography. He started in a full-court press, flooding my recorder with a wide range of stories. His gaze was penetrating, challenging, and occasionally amused by all the things I did not yet understand” (p. xi).
Even how much Thompson was in the limelight, the book exposed a private side that only some of his closest peers were aware existed. No one really understood. Though his involvement in certain civil rights movements and black progression was well-known, the level of influence and impact was surprising across a plethora of spheres. He was a leader, and it wasn’t because he was a coach, it’s because it became clear he was a massive figure in promoting equality and societal development in areas such as equal rights and opportunities, extreme poverty, education and business.
Readers shouldn’t view this as a sports book. Yes, Thompson coached basketball, and yes, Washington is a sportswriter, but like the subject himself, the book is bigger than the category. Washington is a great journalist who just happens to write about sports. Thompson was a trailblazer, a mentor, a legend who just happened to coach basketball. His autobiography is about human affairs, the waxes and wanes of life, altering the future of society that just happens to be in the sports section of a bookstore.
Thank you for everything, John Thompson. Rest in peace.
“Blue thumbs and hearts, put them in a line and sniff them all up, the new cocaine without the shame.” -Ivory Lake, “My Phone”
The embedded screams of abuse remain stationed in his memory as Josh Watts bashes sticks and hammers pedals against the plastic skin that surrounds him. A sound that was once absorbed in the womb to be rediscovered 14 years later through the pulsing rhythmic influence of Lars Urlich has now consumed his limbs as an adult. He was lost but found sanctity in applause.
Watts is all of Ivory Lake. The talented young musician composes for and creates on each instrument during production of his original material. For live shows, he has assembled a grouping from the deep talent pools England and Spain have to offer that embodies chemistry like only musicians can. His drive and the obstacles he has had to overcome have formed a budding artist in the alternative/indie pop scene.
Labels, however, are meant for industry, and occasionally the mood of the sound overpowers the meaning of the lyrics. With influences that range from the Beach Boys to Metallica, Watts has accomplished a rare blend of style that has the possibility of broadening his listeners.
“To be able to give people some kind of meaning would be an amazing place to be,” Watts said.
He has the platform to showcase his abilities and now he yearns to share meaning with new audiences. He needs to share his story to satisfy an understandably involved, somewhat damaged mind.
Ivory Lake is a beautiful backcountry part of the Waitaha River in the west coast region of New Zealand. The water is surrounded by mountains, like an exclusive spring reward for only the most devoted of campers and hikers. It’s somewhere Watts had never heard of before, but a glowing rippling pool one evening ignited his imagination as he visualized elephant tusks stabbing the water. Capturing inspiration is part of his creative process.
With English and Jamaican heritage running through his veins, Watts spent a majority of his childhood in Crookes outside of Sheffield, England—and his father spent the majority of Watts’ childhood in prison. His mother, on the other hand, was a musician and played in a band with her sister. Treacle was an all-female melodic rock band, and Watts’ mother managed the drums and provided vocals—something that was obviously passed down.
Watts recalled, “I can always remember the sound of them rehearsing in my grandparents’ cellar. After they were finished and my mom would let me have a bash on her drum kit, that was always the best bit for me.”
That beat, that sound that resonated upward through the floorboards, whether performed on an amplifier or streamed out of speakers, wasn’t just meant to influence, but rather drown out the issues young children should never be exposed to. Watts, along with his brother and sister, were forced beyond their control to listen to the vulgar words and witness the physical assault of domestic violence.
“We could always hear what was going on. We weren’t physically abused, it was more psychological. You have to understand the effect that seeing the person you love most getting their head slammed into a flight of stairs has on a young child; it’s something I relive almost daily. I know the victim is my mother, and I can’t speak to her experience, only mine and being five years old and frozen at the top of the stairs, unable to help or move or even speak. It’s the absolute worst feeling I have ever felt and I regret not being able to help to this day, even though I know I couldn’t have if I tried.”
Though memories struggle to exit, forms of relief have the ability to enter the mind. Music has been an outlet for Watts in order to curb the anger and release his thoughts. It has reduced the pressure of recollection and given direction to simmering uncertainty.
Pain can be an enhancer when it comes to lyrical composition, but also a hindrance to expansion if not blended into the sound correctly. Another obstacle Watts has had to overcome is the fact that he is dyslexic.
During grade school, he began struggling with core subjects such as literature and math; it was frustrating to make sense of what others seemed to solve with ease. He was an outsider without an answer until being formally diagnosed at 12, a year after moving to Spain with his mother and siblings.
The relocation was needed after the violence had become too much to deal with and his struggle in the classroom were just an added obstruction at an important developmental phase of life. Just like his mother rightfully fleeing from the abuse, Watts had to address his disorder to pursue his dreams as a composer.
“It’s like there’s a jigsaw puzzle in my head but none of the pieces look like they fit,” Watts shared. “My songs still have the meta narrative, but then there might be references to 12 completely unrelated stories that only I know about in there—which I think can help open the songs to the listener’s own perspective.”
His songwriting has found a home in alternative/indie pop, which helps tremendously with a jumbled mind. The style is experimental at times, and if properly contained, albeit contradictory liberal, the blend of sound and voice has the ability to branch out from the norm without straying from structure and theory. Occasionally, a listener will be entranced by the standard poppy cadence, chord progression and major-key positive emotions and fail to process the darkness of the words. On the contrary, if revealed by the ear, the lyrics may be more accepted with a broader emotional response. It’s different than falling victim to complete sadness through minor bleak signatures and depressing stories—which there’s a time and place for when sought. In a sense, and this is by no means a professional analysis, the blend of different styles and themes is a form of stabilizing an unrelated unbalance.
Watts’ music could also be derived from a subconscious connection to his mother’s ‘90’s melodies. They both had to overcome obstacles and found hope and promise of new beginnings at the same time. In addition, music has the tendency to repeat itself every thirty years, not necessarily the sound, but the resemblance, attitude and meaning. Perhaps it’s the generational bond between parent and child that creates these era revolutions, or perhaps it’s the shared influences of adult and youth listeners under the same roof.
Watts saw his first concert when he was 14, which happened to be Metallica during their World Magnetic Tour. Metallica didn’t truly find mainstream success until the early-‘90s when Watts was exposed to not just his mother’s music, but other artists of the time.
Along with the heavy metal idols, Queensryche didn’t find mainstream success until around the same time in the late-80s—though their foundation happened in the late-70s. Their records were successful enough the decade between to keep afloat before becoming an act that still tours to this day. Yet, along with Metallica, the band found prominent radio success in the early-90s.
Ex-lead singer Geoff Tate was an important part of Queensryche’s earlier success, but has since sought solo endeavors. Enter influence and opportunity for Watts. The drummer was selected to play for Tate’s band during the singer’s 2019 tour. Watts performed over 100 shows in 26 countries in just six months.
Tate said of Watts, “He’s a talented singer and songwriter as well as an incredibly solid drummer. He’s been able to play all the Queensryche material so well, and that’s serious stuff for a drummer.”
Landing a spot on Tate’s act was vital for Watts’ exposure to not only the industry but the experience of a major tour and performance fresh into his songwriting—even before releasing any material. He was able to bond with other artists and build a strong network by relying on his personality and skill. He benefited from staying true to himself.
“Josh Watts is so easygoing and such a pleasure to work with,” Tate added. “He’s all about the music all the time.”
Through inspiration, influence and first-hand knowledge, Watts has received a better understanding of sound and structure which has led to the construction of quality songs.
Though his influences could be traced back to ‘80’s and ‘90’s metal, his sound varies from the heavy distortion and monotone vocals of the high-octane genre. Yet, the deep dark lyrical themes remain. Enter inspiration. And don’t forget the underrated alternative melodies of the ‘90s and ‘00s which was found in Treacle’s sound. Though Watts has difficulty listening to songs that were meant to drown out the abuse to this day, inspiration was maintained.
Besides the connection, the words and hints of past melody, Watts has been able to use his modern influences to shape his style. Artists such as the 1975, Tame Impala, Father John Misty and Phoebe Bridgers have all served as inspirations on his path to crafting his idiosyncratic alt pop craft.
Watts explained, “Although the music I write is on the lighter side of things, a lot of my lyrics could be classified as heavy in a way. Light, fun and interesting with darker subject matter.”
There is a complex method to the madness. Humble enough to not claim expertise on any one instrument, Watts considers himself competent enough to write and play the drums, piano, guitar and bass. He’s a dedicated father to two small children, so the free gaps in the day are meant for practice and creation whenever presented. Therefore, a majority of his composition comes while alone in the dark hours of the evening. He is, however, unapologetically and undeniably himself during his practice, and also understands that in an ever-changing world, there’s always room for growth, and adaptation is necessary to survive genre and personal shifts. Change is inevitable and can affect the whole process from draft to final cut, and an artist must be open to critique and alterations that produce the best track possible.
Writing alone can only take an artist so far. Currently, Watts works with The Animal Farm records in London and producers Mat and Ville Leppanen (Alien Feelings, Alex Goupil, Seprona), and he recognizes the great contributions of the company, including maintaining an assembly to his songs when the drafts can be all over the place.
The Leppanen brothers said of Watts, “We’ve found it very motivating to work with Josh because he’s a talented, skillful and versatile musician with great work ethic. It’s always a pleasure to work with people like that.”
Watts touched on composing, “I don’t really have any structure to my writing, and my lyrics can be complicated, putting them together in my own dyslexic way. I like it that way because it leaves a little wiggle room for the listener’s interpretation, and I think in music that is a huge part of what makes people feel connected to the song.”
Ivory Lake has three songs out now and commitment to the craft can be found in each one.
The COVID-19 pandemic was bittersweet for Watts, as it was for others. Many people suffered tremendously dealing with various forms of loss, but it also offered perspective. Watts used his unexpected free time to first spend quality time with his family, but also find himself as an artist and experiment as a songwriter, mastering his craft.
In 2021, Ivory Lake released three singles, “Pillows,” “Lazy” and “My Phone.” The debut EP features “Pillows” as the title track, and the song is a great example of what Watts is going for with his sound. Structurally, it’s fantastic. A high-octave, slow-tempo soft piano intro transitions into Watts’ indulgent melodic vocals and strumming of an acoustic guitar. The build-up is what is key here, though soft, about a minute in, the listener experiences that familiar indie pop piano chord progression found in bands like Jukebox the Ghost. The song is then in full compilation as the verse flows into the chorus.
“I’m most proud of ‘Pillows,’ Watts admitted. “It’s the song that took me the longest to write and it really came together in a beautiful way.”
Musically, the song is beautiful, but lyrically, it’s deceptive. The theme is the effect domestic violence has on children who witness the assault; it’s a very personal song to Watts. The key, tone and tempo all promote joy, but the theme of the words is dark. The listener is experiencing a moment; not the violence itself, but the mental consequence that affects others. The sound is purposely meant to soothe the situation, almost saying it will be “all right.” With the decreasing dynamics of the bridge vocals and the comforting brief guitar solo that follows, it’s like the audience is under the pillow as well. The music stands for avoidance and misdirection while the lyrics serve as a reminder that the memory is always present, with hope to primarily be dormant. The structure of the song is the in-and-out of a traumatic situation. The coda then matches that lovely intro.
“Lazy” begins with a similar cadence, now cementing part of Ivory Lake’s style. The light intro rhythm becomes the verse, and then there’s a nice pick-up in vocal and musical timbre during the pre-chorus. The transition into the chorus flows perfectly, and the additional elements during the shift out of the chorus and into the second verse are done well. The theme of the song is depression and the vicious cycle the mind gets trapped in, consuming a person with the lack of motivation. However, the tone and tempo of the music and Watts’ vocals capture the mood of attempting to lift out of the state. Yet, the character apologetically succumbs to depression though the will to rise is there, but just can’t be found. The words are the disorder; the music is the cure yet to be discovered.
The last single, “My Phone,” shows Ivory Lake’s versatility, primarily in sound and tempo. It also displays Watts’ ability to flawlessly construct a pop song. “Pillows” may be Watts’ favorite song, but “My Phone” is an absolute hit. In each part of the track’s structure, the elements provide catchiness among the subtle differences. This is a record that could be played in a variety of settings. Lyrically, it’s fantastic. The words are relevant to modern society and relationships and how technology has consumed many, and could potentially replace the most human of emotions and traits. The “happy” beat masks a different trouble, not one of personal adversity or obstacles, but rather the problems society is creating for itself.
Even though Ivory Lake has a catalog of just three songs, future releases should be greatly anticipated by listeners.
Watts has the ability to take Ivory Lake far in the industry. He is an excellent musician, a great songwriter, and already has major performance and touring experience serving as the drummer for Tate.
“I have listened to and enjoyed his solo material,” Tate shared about Watts. “I see nothing but success for him in the future.”
The multi-talented singer-songwriter realizes the effort that must be put toward his goals. His dedication is proven, his abilities have been showcased, but he also understands that balance is a necessity. Luckily for Watts, music also serves as a form of decompression, a relief from his anxiety.
“I have a very busy mind that often evolves into panic attacks,” Watts confessed. “So when I’m creating something, it’s the only time I can really feel my mind go quiet and go into auto pilot.”
That, and his love for exotic animals. From years spent watching Steve Irwin and David Attenborough as a child, Watts began collecting unusual species. Iguanas, tortoises, terrapins, snakes, leopard geckos, salamanders, tropical fish and tarantulas among many others were always of the utmost interest to him. Witnessing the beauty and magic of the life cycle became a side passion, a different avenue to channel his emotions and thoughts.
We all have our idiosyncrasies that lead to ascertaining some idea of significance, and whatever Watts is doing, it’s working. His overall approach to life is admirable, maintaining a warm heart though a product of a troubled past and damaged mind beyond his control, and making sure his children are never exposed to the same issues. The perseverance to overcome and find meaning in art, discovering splendor in the darkness, and recognizing that deep-seated gloom is always present have shaped his sound and personality. Watts’ life created Ivory Lake. His creation has no ceiling.
“My drive comes from self-loathing and not believing I’m good enough, it just makes me try harder and put in the hours. I can only really hope to sprinkle a little bit of who I am as a person into the genre and watch it unfold from there,” Watts said. “There is no telling where it will go but I’m excited to find out.”
He has done his best, he has tried, and listeners are rewarded for that. This is only the beginning, and we all have been given perspective to reflect upon through Ivory Lake’s music and Josh Watts’ story.
“Idon’t like work, work is for jerks, stay in be with the circus freaks.” -Prime, “In Summer”
Lee Heir was working in a meat factory. This isn’t a follow up to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It was his first job and he wasn’t undercover. He was just going through the tedious motions of industrial livelihood, watching each package convey by with “prime” stamped on the side.
Whether the band name serves as motivation or a memory, Heir dedicated his free time to producing a blend of good music
Heir started Prime years ago, but later teamed up with guitarist Chris D. Bramley in 2019, and the two eventually brought in Stuart Boles and Jon Carter. Yet, the group was strictly formed to make music for the time being.
“I formed Prime originally in 2014 as a studio project,” Heir explained, “and in 2015 we began doing more live shows, playing pretty much continuously for a few years until I wrapped things up on the band just over a year ago, and decided we wouldn’t play live again.”
That decision happened in December 2019. It wasn’t the end of a band per se, but more of a recharge considering the group is still releasing music. The pandemic may have helped the quartet accept the transition to making camp in the studio and taking a break from touring. Heir was able to concentrate on new music and new projects while also returning to the drudge of the daily grind during the day.
Prime is a rock band. However, they blend in some classic sounds of other genres, and they do it well.
Heir said, “We make rock music, but it has a mix of blues, glam, indie and punk which I think makes us stand out.”
There are certain tracks where listeners are privy to the influences and inspirations of Prime, and the sound spans musical generations. There are hints of famed revolutionary artists such as David Bowie and even a little Pet Shop Boys sneak in, but what is most prominent is a mesh of ‘70s’ and ‘80s’ punk attitude and sound, bluesy rhythms and a touch of glam.
Although Prime may be finished touring and Heir is looking toward the future, there are still some quality tracks that listeners can enjoy.
The UK outfit has centered their sound around influence and are looking to share their music with listeners though the direction of the band is still in question.
In 2020, they released a compilation of their best songs, Art/Facts. “In Summer” is a solid opening track with a genuine poppy ‘80s’ feel to the sound. The rhythm, especially the vocal verses, is infectious. It’s a perfect lead into “Bye Bye” which can be considered a glam rock, funky track that makes a listener want to move. From the first two songs, perhaps their best two tracks, audiences can grasp the talent Prime has for melody.
“To Be Or Not To Be” then brings out the punk sound. That continuous loud drumbeat that became a staple in the British punk revolution is found throughout, and Heir’s attitude can be sensed in his blunt lyrics. “I.O.U.” then highlights a different instrument: the bass. A funky bass line opens another rhythmic track that has a feel of an early Tom Petty or John Mellencamp song.
After the rough garage distortion of “No Sign Of Life,” the band slows down their tempo for the ever-important album balance. “Free N’ Easy” showcases Heir’s vocal range as the listener enjoys ‘70s’ melody and cadence. “Like The Weather” then teases listeners with a new element to Prime’s sound with a brief bit of synth to introduce the track—which will become more apparent later on.
“Flatline” showcases Heir’s real lyrics the best since he does tend to focus on what he observes on a day-to-day basis. It’s a great song because of the shift in tempo that happens around the 1:10 mark and the 2:00 mark on the track. As stressed before, and album needs balance, but that same balance can also be captured within the a single song if done correctly.
Considering Prime meshes styles of the past, most can be found in “Take Me To Your Crew” which is quite a feat to accomplish. There’s this strange marriage of ‘70s’ and ‘80s’ punk with a bluesy guitar solo by Bramley. Though punk is technically one genre, we’ve seen it change each decade, so being able to blend certain elements without losing the overall sound is respectable—as is adding a totally different genre’s dynamic.
Prime’s sound begins to shift into experimentation with “White Boys, White Noise,” taking a Primus-like bass line and inserting pop culture references. It’s funky, going back to their style on “Bye Bye,” but more contemporary. Fittingly, a “Bye Bye” remix follows with an increased tempo and electronica dynamics added, putting a new wave feel into what originally sounded like a ‘70s’ track. This remix takes basically everything they know how to do, punk, rock, funk, disco, glam, and whatever else to create this alternative track—and the keyboard is a fantastic touch.
“Teen TV” ends the album with a straight chaotic punk track, reverting back to that garage band sound of a band’s pure joy for their craft without a care for what the audience thinks.
In 2021, Prime released “Jeff Took A Trip,” which, despite the band’s uncertain future, verified their studio work remains intact. The psychedelic track rivals a Pink Floyd song with soul, blues, indie rock and electronica elements.
Heir confessed, “I’m not a fake songwriter. Everything is based in reality or observations that I feel to be an accurate representation of how people really act. There’s pressure I put on myself to succeed in what I do.”
There’s definitely talent present. If Heir continues Prime or decides to focus on a different project, he has at least left some good music to be remembered, and enough of a sample for listeners to be intrigued by what else is to come.
“I see my father now in me, a little more every day, the bad is there too, keeps the good company.” -Tony Benn, “Don’t Give Up Your Heart”
Tony Benn has an interesting namesake. He is not the former minister of technology, nor is his name the hip shorter version of the famed crooner. And for all the college basketball fans out there, it’s not the head coach of Virginia’s stage name.
No, Tony Benn is his own person, and he’s made a name for himself as a modern folk singer-songwriter.
The Irish singer has spent most of his career as a solo artist. Yet, he found success in 2005 with the band Exploding Marmalade, reaching the Irish Top 30. Having been in the industry most of the 21st century, Benn has shared his stories internationally. He dedicated himself to music when he was young, however.
He reminisced, “I always sang in school and when I was 15 I had some money saved from my summer job. I wanted to get either a surfboard or a guitar. I decided on a Squire Telecaster (no regrets, it shaped the rest of my life), I bought a book and taught myself, playing every day till I was obsessed.”
After grabbing the axe and mastering the strings, Benn wanted to make a mark with his own voice, and he strengthened the talent he had inside the hard way and the academic way. While busking on streets, Benn attended Dublin’s Ballyfermot school of Music, and the combo helped prepare him for this career aspirations.
With influences such as Eddie Vedder, Roy Orbison, Ani Di Franco and Bruce Springsteen, Benn’s knowledge of music was vast from a variety of avenues. Listeners may even find some Bob Dylan-esque dynamics in Benn’s composition, both musically and vocally.
“I try to marry modern songwriting with a classical DADGAD guitar sound and my singing voice,” Benn said.
His acoustic stylings fit the alternative folk genre well, but with the addition of his deep soulful poetry and measured tempo, his sound becomes very stripped-down and raw. He isn’t afraid to find inspiration outside of the genre as well. For example, listening to pop and classic country helps discover basic and infectious melodies. All these elements help construct a good singer-songwriter, and it’s a style that audiences of the genre have come to love from generation to generation.
In 2009, Benn released his first solo album, Tony Benn. Though the production quality wasn’t outstanding, the tracks really defined what Benn was going for: emotional lyrics paired with great guitar play. Just like some of the best Irish music. His songs were basic to his plight, but tracks such as “It Starts in C” gave hints at the passion he was capable of creating.
After a lengthy hiatus from releasing new content, it wasn’t until last year when Benn put out another full-length album, If I Cross Your Mind. The title track softly, and fittingly, opens the album and sets the tone of what is to come—and it’s one of the songwriter’s favorite songs.
Benn explained, “It has a distinctive sound because of the DADGAD tuning. The melody is sung in kind of a yodel which I don’t usually do, and the lyrics are simple and mature.”
When an artist is able to accept and stay true to a consistent sound early, it makes for a better collection. Benn created his own distinction in the alternative folk genre without straying too far and deterring listeners who are loyal to the style.
The harmonica in “Don’t Give Up Your Heart” is a nice touch, and also a staple in folk music. There is a slight shift in sound in “Won’t You Be Mine” and an increased tempo in “The City.” Yet, his best cadence may come, depending on the ear, in “No More Excuses.”
Explicit language isn’t needed in most stories, but when Benn curses in “People Give Bullshit Advice,” it heightens the song. Since it is uncommon throughout the rest of his lyrics, it strengthens his passion.
“Gypsy Rover” closes out the album nicely with a little more volume then the tracks that preceded it. If not paying attention, as in playing the album in the background while focusing on work or another task, the songs could sound the same. However, they aren’t, and there lies Benn’s brilliance. Subtle changes in the sound provide enough variety to produce a quality album.
Benn’s latest 2021 single, “If We Make it Through the Winter,” continues his consistent sound, fresh with harmonica, melodious guitar and a sing-along..
Though imperceptibly different, each song has two traits that are never abandoned: guitar melody and meaningful lyrics anyone can be moved from and find a relation to.
Benn said of life, “The struggle for me, like anyone else, is to survive and keep all the plates spinning.”
Alternative and folk fans, especially ones accustomed to Irish melody, will be satisfied with Benn’s latest release. He stays true to himself just like listeners stay true to the sound.
Hardboiled crime is a special genre. Derek Raymond, the founder of British Noir, took it to a whole new level with his Factory series. Nothing was like it before, and nothing has been like it since. It also includes the design of one of the most heinous fictional crimes in the history of all entertainment.
Raymond, born Robert William Arthur Cook, created a simple character in the Factory series: an unnamed sergeant. This man, the one the reader knows as Noir’s classic unlikable protagonist, works for the A14 division of London’s Metropolitan Police. Or, as the branch is also known as, the Department of Unexplained Deaths.
The author sets the stage in development, but its simplicity is genius. Raymond gives us a man with no name who handles grotesque murders with no apparent motive, suspect, worthy victim or sufficient evidence. The nameless can’t be explained just like the deaths he is assigned—a perfect love affair between character and cause. It also subtly alludes to the fact, through crime as a metaphor, that persons of power and popularity chose prestige, like picking the most athletic kid on the playground first while leaving the ugly scraps for the less important who dwell in lower, unclaimed societal statuses.
The series begins with He Died With His Eyes Open (1984). This not only remains the best title of the grouping, but perhaps one of the best hardboiled crime books ever written. It changed the genre by inserting philosophical thought into a style that was normally structured for fast-paced entertainment with little depth. However, it didn’t stray from the standard characteristics of the literary category which is fascinating. It still gave readers mystery, bleakness, wit and sharp tongues, but added the element of furthering the discussion after the last page. It made readers think.
The remaining titles in the five-book series include, in order: The Devil’s Home on Leave (1985), How the Dead Live (1986), I Was Dora Suarez (1990) and Dead Man Upright (1993).
One aspect of the series is that the crimes, though all gruesome, progressively get worse or stranger. Nothing will ever compare to what happened in I Was Dora Suarez, however.
Raymond’s narrative goes deep below the surface of just a shocking crime and the path to resolution and closure. There, in fact, is no closure after each respective case file is sealed because the crimes are parallel with the unnamed sergeant’s, as well as the suspects’ he pursues, thoughts on society.
In his personal life, Raymond made it public that he did not particularly fit in with the upper crust he was thrust upon from birth. He challenged his upbringing constantly, and his escape became writing. With the passion he wrote with and the topics he brought to light through controversial creativity, he established a signature dialogue. Whether said dialogue was portrayed as negative or positive is a rather moot point because if an author can form a discussion without being involved, then they have produced something impactful.
Raymond’s literary work focuses on the ugliness of society. The platform and genre he chose was a perfect foundation because it reached an audience and demographic that was ripe for unexpected influence; it put readers in an urban landscape, immersing them on the streets where many found an either direct or indirect relation. An interaction they were accustomed to or wanted to understand on another level.
Anna Pasolini, contributing author of Serial Crime Fiction (2015) wrote, “The five novels included in the Factory series encompass the core issues in Raymond’s literary and political project: a representation of the margins of society and of its evils aimed at uncovering and overthrowing the power relations embedded beneath its apparently plain surface” (p. 144).
The author’s transition from crime to crime increased the severity of his underlying message beneath the prose. It’s as if readers experienced Raymond’s transformation from frustration to absolute disgust. It wasn’t expected, but it was needed and welcomed; it was a literary fit decades in the making. Yet, even among readers who aren’t fazed by the most shocking illustrations, the descriptions of the unimaginable acts—details that may question Raymond’s overall sanity and own sociopathic nature—in I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright may have gone too far.
Still, it was needed and welcomed.
The controversial crimes in the last two novels of the series are unsettling, the most disturbing on display in I Was Dora Suarez. It wasn’t necessarily the crime itself, though ghastly beyond the imagination; it was the whole process of the performance. The victim was dismembered and her open wounds were violated, but the multiple forms of defecation by the assailant and his masochistic self-mutilation was what left chills. Somehow, halfway through the book, it got worse during an autopsy, and the final scene brought back the bumps. To put it in perspective, if this was ever made into a modern film, or even adapted to a case for crime television, the crime couldn’t be shown or even spoke of without a non-pornographic rating above “R” or “TV-MA.”
However, the unimaginable, yet strangely outstanding criminal concept behind the act, was where Raymond’s creativity shined. It was amazing this was never conjured before. Perhaps there are better word choices than the accolades, if taken in such a way, for the storyline, but it’s not the situation that deserves praise, it’s the fact that it was created, used and presented as a viable disgusting possibility during this time period, and actually captured a major issue that was trending in society.
With the addition of the crime(s) in Dead Man Upright, Raymond’s imagination must be addressed. He was not a sociopathic person as some could assume just from reading his words. He was quite colorful and emotional, on the contrary. I Was Dora Suarez broke the author; the book was a difficult burden, but a task he had to complete, only to realize what he had done after the fact. His reaction to his own work, his empathetic behavior to a fictional situation proves he was not sociopathic.
He said in his memoir, The Hidden Files (1992), “I know I wondered half way through Suarez if I would get through—I mean, if my reason would get through. For the trouble with an experience like Suarez is that you become what you’re writing” (p. 133).
The plot changed him and it was apparent in his shift of writing, even the shift of the unnamed sergeant’s life.
Each novel, or “black novel” as they have earned the moniker, in the Factory Series offers something unique and addresses different aspects of society and mentality.
He Died With His Eyes Open helps us understand the unnamed sergeant and his bleak outlook on life. This is most apparent has he absorbs the recordings left behind by the bludgeoned victim and relates to the viewpoint. The reader gets a feel for not only the character’s personality, but also the true setting and issues revolving around that time in London. This is the best title in the series because, and I will repeat, it brought philosophical thought into hardboiled crime.
The Devil’s Home on Leave delves deeper into mental health; though it was a theme throughout the series, this was more specific and involved post-traumatic stress and literal and figurative forms of addiction. It also involved power and status. A deranged hitman has been done and will continue to be done in the genre, but the metaphor for how the crook was used and by whom, his techniques and backstory are a direct reflection on societal standing and trauma. For reference, Raymond, as Cook, was a corporal in the National Service. Though good, this title is the fifth best in the series.
How the Dead Live gives the reader love in a loveless world. The story almost didn’t fit, but after the reader processes the message, it almost fits too well. There is love and beauty in death, there is devotion in the most disturbing of ways. Also, this is where the reader gains more insight into the personality and life of the unnamed sergeant. He is being developed with more understanding of reason and humanizing the otherwise overlooked lowlifes and unwittingly banished now-reclusive ex-socialites, showing admiration for the enemy. He gave life to people through death. An underrated title, this is the third best in the series.
I Was Dora Suarez pushed the limits of everything. There isn’t much more to be said that hasn’t been mentioned. The book was repulsive to the point where Raymond’s publisher at the time vomited over his desk while reading the draft and immediately told him to take the work elsewhere. Yet, the underlying message was that of societal contamination in a variety of aspects. What the book did give us is even more depth to the unnamed sergeant; it gave him deep sympathy and meaning to his own life. It gave him a reason for redemption not only for the victim, but to fill the voids and pain present from the demons and memory he personally possessed. Despite the criticism, this is the second best title in the series, and not because of the shocking crime.
Dead Man Upright gave the reader what has been overdone: a look into the psyche of a serial killer. It also, and somewhat expectedly, used a snuff film as evidence—which is why it’s the second most disturbing of the series’ acts. It wasn’t the first work to examine the mind of an unhinged psychopath, and it probably has been more overdone since and not before, but it was different and extensive for the genre. The intention of the book, however, may not have been to just provide a form of entertainment, but rather closure to the mystery that was the unnamed sergeant. It gave answers; it gave readers deeper looks into reoccurring characters, or for the main character, relationships and significance in the world. The ultimate summary in metaphor: the killer was society and the unnamed sergeant was the counter thought. The title was the fourth best in the series, but vital to the masterpiece as a whole.
Raymond explained, “A special mood is necessary to make language plastic enough to convey such experience exactly; experience so devastatingly simple that, like love, it verges on the indescribable. Nearly every attempt to convey it can really only be described as another endless series of attempts since we cannot describe what we are not yet in a position to know—and yet it is the black novel’s absolute duty to express it. T.S. Eliot, I think, got closest to describing the nature of this challenge when he wrote (I paraphrase): It is not necessary to die to describe death” (p. 144).
He later added, “Nothing else much matters once you have achieved the hardest thing, which is to act out of conviction. Even if you have been beaten by evil, in the bitterness of the defeat the battle has left a trace for the others, and you can go feeling clean. I recognise that I am a minor writer; but this does not affect the depth of my convictions” (p. 287).
Perhaps, then, it wasn’t the murders that were most disturbing and needed closure; it was the times. Readers followed the journey of an unnamed sergeant; they followed a needed counter belief combating a damaged society.
I must first state that I do not recommend Raymond’s work for every reader. I know many aren’t affected by this style of writing or imagination, but then again, nothing like this has been read. If your advantageous enough, your curiosity may be met with delight, but the scenery does come with a warning label. The series is not for the squeamish; it’s certainly not for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating work of literature.
The Factory series was needed. Not because of the gruesome crimes, shock value, sharp wit or superb writing, but because of the philosophical understanding, in the mind of the author, that paralleled the issues society faced during that era. It enhanced the hardboiled crime genre, made it more academic in a sense, instead of just offering raunchy entertainment with enough bleakness to satisfy but not continue a reader’s thought.
Raymond wrote in How the Dead Live, “I’m afraid even those of us who have never committed murder are nevertheless guilty of it because we enjoy death at second hand, just as we enjoy watching a thriller on television. After all, what’s the use of a newspaper to the general public if there’s not a single good murder in it?” (pp. 2-3).
Murder and crime surround us in various mediums, in fantasy and reality. We’re victims without an escape other than avoidance, which is sometimes too tall of a task. Raymond made hardboiled crime meaningful, thought-provoking and relevant, and blended our separate fears into bittersweet grotesqueness. The Factory series is tragically beautiful and there’s nothing else like it.
“Something’s missing inside your soul, and you’re looking for someone to blame.” -Poison Oak, “Some People Tell Lies”
An artist doesn’t have to be unique to provide quality music. Creativity is creativity, and it takes a lot of work just to contribute to the continuation of a genre. Rockers Poison Oak look to give listeners quality music to simply enjoy.
Poison Oak hails from Townsville, Australia on the north-eastern coast of Queensland. The process to forming the band was organic. It started with jam sessions, then innocent recording and eventually serious industry interest.
“We came together because we like to write music,” said lead vocalist James Balthes. “After a while we decided to do some recording, which lead to some music companies showing interest in us, which also led to taking it more seriously.”
When like, or sometimes unlike, minds can conjure and create through improvisation in an intimate setting, the writing benefits. It’s more living in a sense, and eventually those sessions don’t just make a song, they make a story. There’s still a need for great songwriters who keep their songs due to the deep personal connection within the work.
The band, though hesitant to define their sound, can fall into the mass saturation of Indie rock. However, they do offer ‘80s’ and ‘90s’ punk elements whether that be through strategy or subconscious inspiration.
Balthes explained, “We’re not that unique, and I don’t consider that a bad thing. We all creatively play the way we do, and when it mixes together it comes out as a combination of everyone’s individual influences.”
I’m a sucker for nostalgia, musically and lyrically. Singer-songwriters like Frank Turner, Butch Walker, Brain Fallon and Dave Hause have the uncanny ability to capture a moment, reminisce and share that with listeners for them to find a relation. Aage Birch, formally Onward Etc., is also fantastic at this style. Poison Oak focuses on recollection as a theme, and that’s what makes the act so appealing.
Locals have compared the group to other Australian acts such as The Go-Betweens and The Whitlams, but one thing is for certain: their music is broad and has the potential to reach many audiences—audiences that know what they like and know what has worked before.
Poison Oak has been releasing music since 2019, but their latest EP, 1996, has given them a solid sample to provide audiences. “Waiting” is a great opening track; it’s rhythmic and has decent structure. This is especially exemplified about two-thirds through the track when the bass only accompanies the vocals, and the drums begin to build up before the group falls fully back into the chorus. The song is a throwback to old catchy Brit-rock.
“1996” captures Poison Oak’s theme. Coming-of-age lyrics and guitar melody starts to showcase the band’s strengths. They keep their same structure, which is seemingly simple, but also difficult to perfect and remain consistent. Small elements like light backing vocals that sometimes go unnoticed really bring the production of a song together, which can be heard on the title track.
The group slows it down a tad for “Sarah” but maintains the theme of memory. Lyrically, the song is descriptive and detailed, honing in on imagery like cigarette burns that can activate multiple senses—hearing not being one of them, coincidentally.
“Some People Tell Lies” continues the gradual slowing of cadence. The track is a ballad and it provides the all-important aspect of balance to an album. The melody is strong once again, and though Blathes breaks from the theme a tad, the emotional tone is still present. The build-up is the strongest on this song, almost similar to how The Airborne Toxic Event expertly produces anticipation.
Poison Oak then showcases their versatility in “Let You Down.” Musically, this is my favorite track, and though Blathes doesn’t stray from his range much, he subtly hints that he contains the ability to do so if controlled. The bluesy, dark dynamic of the structure is intoxicating; it compares to acts such as The Zutons that can offer a different sound without it actually being different.
“Thinking of You” is the perfect closing track to the EP. It sums up Poison Oak’s sound with shifts in tempo and their lyrical theme of reminiscing. Not only is balance important on an EP or full album, it also can be accomplished in the same song.
Poison Oak has not just created a sound and nostalgic lyrics, they’ve created an atmosphere, and experience best visualized in crowded dive bars and pubs. Don’t assume that limits them, however, because they have the talent to go far and connect with the audience and meet their energy. They have the ability to relate because they are not just rockers, but fans of rock. They’re simply people telling stories about life.
Blathes stated, “Daily life is the struggle, and drive is to make it more enjoyable each day.”
“I hear your voice, it’s calling out my name, I had no choice, I watched you slip away from me.” -The Last Element, “My Heart Became Your Home”
No matter the genre, a general love for music is vital for success. Achievement, however, is relative, and when a group can come together and exert the same passion as the next member, it will show in their final product. The men in The Last Element have exemplified their desire for music.
The alternative quintet formed in Amsterdam in 2016. Each member of The Last Element had experience in the rock world, touring and playing shows with other acts. With the combination of industry knowledge and musical love, the group banded together to form their own signature sound, and has created an organic following while doing it independently.
Guitarist Nick Polman simply stated, “The love for music is what brought us together.”
That dedication is surprisingly difficult to sustain in the music world because of false expectation and immaturity. The Last Element is made up of vocalist Jasper Roelofsen, guitarists Noah Grim and Polman, bassist Jan Bijlsma and drummer Robert Spaninks. The five have committed to making better music no matter where it takes them, which is refreshing.
“It’s not exactly about the prospect of being able to retire to your own private island in the Pacific for any band making modern metal these days. Few are able to make a living from it. But hey, you’re a musician and you have this terribly romantic idea of being in a band, touring and playing to audiences around the globe. Unless you gave it a proper try and pushed aside everything to where you want to be, you’re not entitled to give up.”
Not only does devotion advance an artist, so does honesty. That doesn’t mean The Last Element are content, though. They’re learning and growing tremendously.
With an endless supply of influence, The Last Element has definitely found a place in the modern rock and metal world. As discussed in previous articles, acts are currently revisiting the roots of modern metal and the emo-alternative scene of the early-2000s—which span the greater part of this century’s first decade. It’s a fantastic era of rock and metal, and The Last Element is pulling from the time but keeping their sound unique and fresh.
One of the major features the band uses is soundscapes. There’s synth, and then there’s fitting synth appropriately with the aura and emotions of a track. The Last Element is able to master this technique with each song which is impressive.
Polman explained, “We all have certain preferences or elements we’d like to hear back in our songs and, of course, along with that boundary, also shift towards what’s current these days. We feel that we are stronger when we’re together and click like pieces of a puzzle forming the bigger picture.”
On first listen, especially with their latest release, there are notes of Nonpoint and Taproot. There are other influences present, such as Breaking Benjamin and Anberlin. If I may go a little hipster here, I believe The Chuck Shaffer Picture Show is present as well. The Last Element is able to mix fast-paced distortion with backing synth and a combination of vocal tone and tempo. For listeners outside of the genre, screaming can be quite eloquent if done correctly.
The Last Element doesn’t drift from their sound; they know what they have and don’t need to be entirely experimental. Sometimes changing a genre isn’t a good thing and it leads to the delusional confidence in the ability of an artist, which eventually hinders their progression. This band, however, is dedicated to the process and their craft.
With normal approaching, or whatever normal may become, The Last Element is excited to share their music live. In the meantime, they have been perfecting their sound, almost obsessively, and they have remained consistent. The proof? Having over a million streams. Not bad.
The Last Element has released a slew of singles the last five years. In 2016, they debuted with the song “Broken.” This track right away shows their modern rock and alternative roots. Though the structure is slightly choppy during transitions, it’s a solid song. The same year, they put out “Lost” and their sound begins to develop. They still have the heavy riffs and drumbeat, but the synth is more apparent at the beginning and Roelofsen’s transitions flow better. It also displays the band’s rhythmic ability.
The following year, the band released four more tracks. “Gravity” brings in that emo element and listeners can hear the structural progression. The composition changes; there seems to be more theory involved with how chords are broken up and arpeggios are used. “Dreamweavers” adds another shift in cadence and vocal tone. Roelofsen begins to show his range and utilize different elements of his voice throughout the song. Then with “Hollow” we have what is always needed: balance. Musically, the band shows they are capable of capturing a mood, especially during the intro which also is used in stages of the verse. It’s not a soft, acoustic track, but the sound meshes with the lyrics and emotion well. “My Heart Became Your Home” is the song of 2017 for the band, and is one of their best to date. Ballads always catch the attention of listeners, and this song fits in with some of the best painful emo love-themed songs on the radio.
In 2018, the band only released one song, “Not All Said and Done,” and it was a tad underwhelming, but not because it’s a bad track. If anything, it’s crisper in production, but it didn’t seem to advance the band’s sound. The first two years there was obvious progression.
Then, in 2019, The Last Element wrote their best song. Right from the beginning of “My Own Hell,” it was a hit, and there is no doubt about it. When a rock song is that loud, that rhythmic and that catchy, both musically and lyrically, a listener knows within in seconds. “Forget About The Sun” and “Damaged” both show how hard the band worked on perfecting the theoretical and structural parts of composition. Everything is smoother, everything blends well.
Last year, the band released four tracks. “Stuck In My Head” and “Ocean Floor” are continuations of their 2017 emo sound and then “Blood Diamond” and “The Devil” goes back a little further with their more powerful riffs, bass and drums. However, just like they band has proven they can evolve, Roelofsen’s lyrics similarly grow, becoming deeper and more complex. This is what good bands do.
The Last Element’s latest release, “Cut It Off” debuted this year. If we track back their progression, or their evolution, if you will, this track can be considered a final draft. It’s a solid rock song that can be on the radio and was composed by a very seasoned band. The vocal bridge could remind rockers of “Runaway Train” by Oleander—which is good a thing—except The Last Element truly comes into their own emotions and sound. It will only get better for the band from here.
Polman and the band view their music as they do life. “It’s an ongoing process that will only stop as soon as you take your final breath, a process you try to get a grip on and if you take the occasion to learn from all that you encounter, the journey through life can be an adventurous and rich experience. If you are granted the time, do something good with it, tomorrow may never come.”
The Last Element has developed a great sound the right way. They have songs that should be on the radio now, and they’re an act that will be touring and making music for a long time.