This Journey is available at:
Atlanta, U.S.A. / Sápmi, Sweden
LAST time around, I looked at the importance of reviewing artists from parts of the…
PHOTO CREDIT: Albin Holmqvist
world separate from the U.K. Today, and rather wonderfully, my featured act has roots in Sweden and the U.S. Before I come to the American side of the trio, I wanted to have a look at Swedish music and acts the national press are tipping for big things this year. Ja Ja Ja has selected their five acts (from Sweden) we should be following this year. If we stereotype Swedish music as a “relentless stream of electro-pop” – as the site claims – Elliot is the other side of that. He makes weird and dreamlike Pop that has a sworded and odd side but has enough intrigue, musicianship and seduction to lure listeners in and get them hooked. He is someone I have not heard of and am fascinated by. It is true Sweden has a reputation for endlessly cheery Pop music – perhaps they have not shaken that label since the days of ABBA (or the earliest incarnation of The Cardigans – even if their most upbeat albums were done ironically). Elliot is the antithesis of that cliché: making songs that have darkness and a seedy underbelly. It is a glorious mix of emotions and ideas that definitely stands out. Except more from him throughout the year: a young man who could well find himself championed by U.K. stations. Skott is someone I am well familiar with and have been promulgating for a number of months now. The striking Swede has been championed by Katy Perry and included on many people’s (including myself) lists of ‘Ones to Watch’. Skott’s music is Pop on a huge scale; Folk and Electronic blends light the fuse and set off explosive chorus and sing-along anthems. She is represented and celebrated in the U.K. and shows what Swedish music is all about.
PHOTO CREDIT: Albin Holmqvist
Although she is, perhaps, more celebrated in the U.S. and U.K.; the fact she hails from Sweden will have many looking at the country and Skott-like artists coming through. I shall not go through everyone on the list but wanted to mention Hater. Based out of Malmö – showing there are plenty of awesome musicians from outside of Stockholm – the four-piece amazed with their debut E.P., Radius. Their sharp and stunning Indie songs have captivated their home nation but are catching the eye of listeners further afield. I hope the band perform some gigs in Britain as they would find a very willing and loyal audience here. I know they are plotting new material this year but should be on everybody’s list of great bands to watch in 2017. That small selection shows how fertile and varied Swedish music is. Perhaps there are still a lot of elliptical, multicoloured Electro.-Pop artists but that is not the entirety of Swedish music. There are some fantastic Rock bands and incredible Folk artists; a band of endeavouring Hip-Hop artists. I will come back to this topic – and look at some more Swedish artists set to make waves through 2017 – but will introduce Blänk to you:
“Split between Atlanta and the remote northern parts of Sweden – commonly known as Sápmi, the hip-hop meets electro-pop trio Blänk are currently getting ready to release their third album ‘Weary Soul’. Touching on topics such as self-destruction, angst, hope, and finally acceptance, the new record is as much uplifting as it is lachrymose, focusing on emotional emancipation and taking control of your own life.
With their last two albums ‘You’ve never been to Sápmi’ (2009) and ‘Only Built For Northern Lights’ (2015) earning the trio acclaim from across the US and UK, Blänk have gone from strength-to-strength with each release. It is obvious that their evolution across their work, influenced by friends from across the music scene (they collaborated with Noonie Bao on their last record), has transmuted their sound towards their most mature and consummate release yet. This record now sees the trio go it alone bearing brutal yet charming honesty and an empowering confidence”.
I’ll get down to investigating the trio soon but am fascinating by their ties to Atlanta. You might think Georgia (U.S. state) was baron with regards music: that is where you’d be wrong. If you think about all the legendary artists who are based here you see just what a scene there is there. Metal band Mastodon are from here; so too is the band, Gnarls Barkley. The Coathangers and Royal Thunder are two fantastic groups from the city. To my mind, the two finest Atlanta-based bands are Arrested Development and TLC. You cannot hear a selection of the 1990s’ best tracks without one or two tracks appearing from both acts. It is the Hip-Hop/Soul flavours of Atlanta that really compel me. Blänk split their time between Sweden and Atlanta and have taken a little bit from each area. They have the Hip-Hop credentials of Atlanta with the traditional Electro.-Pop brilliance of Sweden. Putting those genres together might be a risky venture, but when it comes to Blänk, you have no average band. Their U.S.-Swedish D.N.A. is interesting but their sounds and genre combinations are even more fascinating. I have listed some great artists from Atlanta – and some wonderful new Swedish acts – that shows what is happening in those places – where Blänk are playing and the kind of artists surrounding them. In terms of upcoming Atlanta bands, Quiet Hounds are definitely worth your time. Their live performances might be rare – information and artists courtesy of https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/atlanta/the-new-atlanta-bands-to-watch-in-2016 – and their mask-covered faces spike intrigue yet the guys have shown they are much more than novelty. Their 2015 five-track release, Shake Don’t Shatter, was well received and provided the band a mass of new fans. Last year might have been fairly quiet, in terms of taking step forward, but this year will be a crucial one for them – expect new material and announcements soon enough.
There are a lot of great artists putting Atlanta music on the map – including a real wave of fantastic black Soul/Hip-Hop musicians. In a nation divided by a dictatorial president, it is pleasing discovering a lesser-represented corner of America unchanged and undeterred by prevailing winds of fear. Brittany Bosco has a productive 2016 and lends her intoxicating voice to trance-like, head-swiveling Hip-Hop beats. Once referred to as a cyborg version of (the late) Aaliyah: the young innovator – no shake having anyone compare you to Aaliyah – is throwing that backhanded compliment off and stepping out on her own. Before I move onto my next point, I’ll end this section (on Atlanta acts to follow this year) with Boog Brown. As I stated about talented, rising black artists: Brown is a commanding and mesmeric rapper who hails from Detroit – she calls Atlanta home these days. She is a Hip-Hop artist that boasts that rare combination: a sweet, can-go-anywhere-it-likes voice and knowledge of the genre. She provides phat beats one moment; something more restrained and nuanced the next. Her voice is chameleon-like and capable of going from a silky, rich tone to an authoritative, declarative strike. She is, like other acts I have mentioned, someone we need to see in the U.K. It is clear Georgia is proud to have her and falling for Brown’s incredible songs. I know she will be a future mainstream star so it gives me pleasure seeing her continue unabated and committed. Maybe other areas (of the U.S.) have a larger and more diverse Hip-Hop scene but Atlanta is one of the most underrated and potential-laden areas. The city, and the county of Fulton, might have voted (sanely) for Clinton last year – even if the state voted for Trump – so I am always happy to back musicians coming out of Atlanta. The sheer vibrancy and range of sounds pulsating from the city have compelled a mass of new, hopeful bands.
I wanted to bring up the genres of Hip-Hop and Electro.-Pop, not just because of Blänk and what they are doing, because of a class-leading album celebrating its tenth anniversary: the unstoppable, unstoppable Kala. Hounslow-born M.I.A.. created a Hip-Hop/Pop/World classic that brought in tropical sounds with jagged beats and progressive, unpredictable compositions. Kala blended cultures and addressed themes of alienation – at a time when many Americans felt alone and jaded – one of the reasons the album did so well over there. As it turns ten, and Americans feel even more afraid and alienated than they were ion 2007, the album picks up new relevance. It spoke for the world back then – and raised some very key issues; addressing vital themes – so it should be given a whole new lease of life given the ascension of Trump. More than anything, its chemical explosions and cross-pollinating ambitions amazed critics. Few artists, up until that point at least, has fearlessly paired so many genres and made it work. Thinking about the album made me yearn for M.I.A.-like acts who have the bravery and talent to fuse Hip-Hop and Electronic ideas together with other genres and cultures. Whilst Blänk might not be as acclaimed and up there with M.I.A.’s masterpiece – do not rule against them creating something as profound – but I can detect comparisons. Hip-Hop, like so many other genres, has to fight for an equal vote and proper appreciation. There are so many ‘niche’ genres; each trying to up its converts and create a genuine movement. Some sides of music – Grime is one example – are gaining traction but still not as mainstream-accepted as one would hope. I think that about Hip-Hop. The genre has been alive and burning bright for decades now. From Beastie Boys swaggering into music in the ‘80s through to the best Hip-Hop albums of the 1990s – Nas’ Illmatic; Dr. Dre’s The Chronic – right through to last decade’s best – Jay Z’s The Black Album; Stankonia by Outkast; Kanye West’s Late Registration – there are some world-class, extraordinary records in there. Hip-Hop masterpieces of this decade – Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange – are still inspiring new artists but the genre itself is not as well-regarded and proffered as it should. 2016 helped in a sense – Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Kanye West all busy and staggering – but there is a lot of work still to be done.
I will get down to reviewing This Journey shortly, but before then, I am reminded of emancipation and taking control. The band’s forthcoming album, Weary Soul, explores looking at life’s highs and lows as a collective – not just items on a tick-sheet. We experience wins and losses. Rather than celebrating victories and commiserating defeat; we must recognise everything is part of a whole – for better or worse. The album reads like stages of bereavement: tragedy, denial; loss and acceptance all feature on Weary Soul. It is a deep and detailed work that deals with so many important issues. None of the topics addressed in the album is dealt with a gossamer touch. The band ensures they provide complete dedication and conviction to every song/theme. It is unusual finding a group that has that intelligent, quasi-philosophical lyrical bent; whose compositions are quite fun and rousing. That dichotomy and unusual marriage is solid and works very well. You are invested in the stories and words but fascinated by everything happening in the background. In fact, the trio seamlessly merges their aural colours with the eventfulness of the lyrics. I do like hearing about traditional themes in music – romance and heartache – but there is a part of me that can grow weary of this. Blänk have enjoyed a fairly long career and, of course, look at love and its fractious senses. Importantly, they shine a light on life as a whole: do not just look at events as pass/fail; they are all part of a bigger picture or collage. Yeah, there are some bad times and some good – each is as relevant as the other. There is, as the band state, a collective weight. Peaks, valleys and wins are all part of an interconnected pattern. Weary Soul takes time and investigates depression and loss. You get triumphant times and some really provoking ideas – making you think about your own life and how you view it.
I am impressed by bands who improve album after album. In music, the debut can be a tricky proposition. You have to cement a sound and ensure you do not sound too much like anyone else. Of course, there is the temptation to include your influences (on the debut record) but ensure there is a degree of commerciality and accessibility. If you survive that and manage to get fans behind you; it can be exhausting equaling that debut – or topping it – and creating something progressive but familiar. Then, if you survive that marathon, it is on to the next album. Blänk opened their account with 2009’s You’ve Never Been to Sápmi and laid down an impressive and consistent record. A six-year gap ensured before the sophomore release, Only Built for Northern Lights in 2015. The progression from those two albums shows a band influenced by their music peers and inspired by their time on the road. They collaborated with Noonie Bao on Only Built’ and expanded their songwriting and lyrics – an L.P. brimming with confidence and exceptional production values. Now, the guys are sparing no time getting that third album out there. Given the amount of bands coming out right now; you cannot afford to leave a six-year gap between too many albums and expect to be remembered. Fortunately, the Swedish-American band are in fine form and determined to get their new music out to the masses. We often take for granted how hard it can be to remain consistent, relevant and changeable. So many artists start with a great debut and struggle to follow that with something new and solid. Likewise, there are those that improve other time by making changes to their music and experimenting. Blänk are at their peak and proving they have the legs to go all the way in music. Whether there is another album/E.P. planned later in the year I am not sure but would not rule out new music being in their mind.
PHOTO CREDIT: Albin Holmqvist
Looking back at the band’s work and you get a sense of where they came from. Áurinko Rising Again was released four years ago and is one of the most colourful and alive E.P.s I have heard. Across the five tracks, you get plenty of percussive pummel, spirited, explosive electronics and fantastic vocals. Noonie Bao joins them on Do This Thing: a chugging, propulsive Electro.-Pop number that braces out of the gates and never relent its charge. Seaside is another interesting track from the E.P. and has a far-off, dreamy vocal. There is a sense of being caught in the machine or adrift at sea. The song is not as energetic and bold as Do This Thing but is a more relaxed and sensual number. It proves how rounded Áurinko Rising Again and what a depth the trio has. Only Build for Northern Lights arrived two years later and showed new direction and inspiration. From female-led Electro.-Pop, here there is a definite flavour of Hip-Hop. The vocals are more urgent and tough whilst the compositions are more street-wise and swaggering. Of course, there is sweetness in moments – the male-female vocal dynamic provides balance – and there is more of an American influence – whereas earlier work has its heart in Swedish Electro.-Pop. This Is BlÑnk is a fast-charged, businesslike mandate that comes with cool: the hero “taking a second” smoking and drinking; the canvas is blank and there is a lot of intrigue as to the derivation of the song. You are drawn by the accelerated, slick raps and tight, focused beats. The band changed from a Pop outfit with their songs sounding one way to changing things only a couple of things later. Their newer work – and This Journey – is great but one hopes they look at bringing back in some of that Electro.-Pop sound – to give their songs a bit more contrast and lightness. What they have now is strong – their latest single proves that – but one gets a definite sense of the U.S.
Sometimes there is a sense of the generic and predictable in some of their moves – the processed vocals and familiar lyrics – but it is when they utilise all their members and dig into their past, they really distinguish themselves. If you have that Electro.-Pop past then use it. Undergoing such a radical shift in a short space is brave and shows a need to evolve but it has (almost) come at the expense of their identity and what made them special in the first place. This Journey shows huge promise but their earlier work is more engaging and populist than their more recent creations. That can all change, and their new album sounds like it is their strongest yet, but I don’t want Blänk to forget who they are and why their music is so popular. Maybe bringing in some of their early E.P. sounds together with the Hip-Hop moves would work better. As I say, what they have now is great and it definitely stands apart – sometimes it lusts too hard after the U.S. market and does not differentiate itself from the already crowded Hip-Hop market.
The hero, in the early stage of the song, destroys himself and brings himself back up. In the initial seconds, there are some processed vocals (which are hard to understand) and a definite sense of meaning and motivation. If you are not a fan of Hip-Hop, it might take a little while to bond with the song but those who are familiar with the genre will find familiarity and something they can bond with instantly. That idea of rising up and having to overcome obstacles is a sentiment that carries on throughout the song. You can get invested with the song right away as it does not push the listener away. Essentially, it welcomes you in and asks you to emphasise with the hero. He loves this ride and would not change anything but is facing his fair share of problems. Having to tackle any hurdles that come his way, you can sense that strain and stress come through in some of the vocals. Backed by strong and combustible electronics, it is a song that never lets go. Before I continue on and portray all the (many) strengths of the song, a few of the negatives. The title (This Journey) is one you might expect to hear from a reality show contestant. ‘Journey’ as a cover-all word is one of the most unpleasant aspects of the modern age. Everything is a ‘journey’ and it does give things, like a music career or medical procedure, a sense of pretentiousness and nausea. That word was never overused in the past and it is an unfortunate modern invention. I respect the band and what they are saying but the second I hear the word ‘journey’ employed in this context it makes me lose a bit of respect. Similarly, there is an overly-familiarity with regards the sound and lyrics.
The processed vocals are a staple of the Hip-Hop market but would be good to hear less of it. Bringing in Öhman and adding a female dynamic would have given some smoother, sweeter vibes to really give the song an extra layer of something. In addition, the trio wants to establish themselves as a new and original force but, at times, stick too closely to the mass of chart-made acts that do not remain in the mind. The guys have that incredible Electro.-Pop past so mixing that more into a song like This Journey would elevate it and really make it stand from the crowd. That said – and the trio must think I’m giving it a bashing – there are vastly more positives than negatives. The trio is phenomenal and means every word and deceleration. Weary Soul will, one hopes, brings their former self into music more and This Journey is a solid and impressive cut. Things are a “work in progress” as the hero says and a bit of a project. It is clear music and success is the goal and achieving that means everything. You can really buy into what is being said and why – if sometimes decipherability is a bit of an issue. What I loved about it was the fact it makes Hip-Hop more accessible and introduces me to a side of music I do not often listen to. I tread carefully and tend to avoid a lot of the weaker, mainstream examples who would be mocked by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Blänk sit on the credible side of the fence and ensure their drive and connection comes through strongly. The track becomes more interesting and strong just before the two-minute mark. Our man wonders about his role on the planet and wonders whether it is worth the effort. Yes, there are some tough times and reality checks but battling those and remaining focused ensure you get where you need to go.
The fizzing electronic undercurrents and stringent foreground beats are designed for those who know Hip-Hop and have that knowledge: if you are new to such territory then you will not be disappointed. What connects me to the song, detraction aside, is the will and foresight of the lead. There is never a sense of submission and retreat. He knows the future is going to be uncertain but is prepared to take it by the scruff and challenge it. You are in his corner and alongside him as he spits rhymes and proclamation. The vocal does alter towards the end (Öhman comes in) and the beats get tighter and stranger. Rather than create a song that is plodding and generic, we get something a lot more endeavouring and dynamic than one would expect. Blänk have that extraordinary past and authority and ensure it runs through every second of This Journey. I was never bored or switched off from the song and was following it to the final moment. It is wonderful seeing a trio like Blänk shift their sound but retaining what made them special and noticeable in the first place. If you are a newcomer to Hip-Hop and Rap then take it gently and investigate This Journey. It might take a few listens but the song will get to you and resonate. The drawbacks I have highlighted are valid and clear but they are very much the minority voice. I am impressed by the group and how they continue to shift and grow. I said, and will go on to say, how Weary Soul is a development and a definite progression for the trio. That is what they hoped for and This Journey is one of their most arresting and hopeful songs yet. It has caution and reservation but an abiding feeling of ambition and confidence. That is what you want from any song and is something that will define their forthcoming album. As I said, it would be good to see some of their Electro.-Pop spirit more firmly in This Journey but is something that will be might be rectified in future songs. Kudos must be given to the U.S.-Swedish force and another accomplished and strong number that shows they have a big future ahead of them.
Blänk are making a name for themselves across the U.S. and U.K. right now. Obviously, spending time in Atlanta has opened their eyes to the fantastically broad and community-heavy music scene. They vibe and take from the brilliant Hip-Hop movement there and sprinkle in that magical Swedish Electro.-Pop fairy dust. There is a blend of multi-coloured upbeat and reflective shadowiness. The contrasts are what makes the trio such an intriguing proposition. Before I come to my conclusion – and reintroduce my original points – it is worth casting our thoughts ahead and seeing what is coming for Blänk. The band have already garnered support from some really impressive sources: The Line of Best Fit, Pigeons + Planes and Clash among them. Their last two singles have accrued over twenty-thousand plays on SoundCloud – that number is ten-times larger on Spotify. The guys mean business and have a special chemistry. There is something about the music that is connecting with listeners around the world. The kind of people listening to their music are not just Hip-Hop/Electro.-Pop lovers but those who cast their net much wider. I know 2016 was a big one for them but it seems like this year will be even more memorable. Of course, their new music is going to help and they will be performing to new crowds. I hope they have some time to drop in on us here and play to the British crowds. They have a transferrable sound that will find very few resistors. I know London, as I say with a lot of reviews, is perfectly placed to have them stop off here. Venues are busy and ready so they should consider doing quite a few shows here. This Journey is an apt title for a trio embarking on something quite exciting. They have already covered so much ground on previous albums and Weary Soul looks set to best them all. Hubris and pragmatism go alongside darkness and pain (on the new L.P.). I can hear the band move forward and sound more confident than they ever have.
Sweden’s contribution to music is axiomatic and unquestionable. From classic bands through to relatively new artists such as Lykke Li and Tove Lo: a nation that continues to amaze and inspire. True, a lot of their artists do fall into that stereotypical trap: it will be a combination of Pop and Electronic music. Miike Snow, Robyn and Elliphant – three quite new musicians from Sweden – certainly fall into that mantle. Toss in Maja Francis, Noonie Bao and Zara Larsson; Veronica Maggio, Dungen and Frida Sundemo – a list of talent who, broadly speaking, perform those genres. Even legends like ABBA, The Cardigans and Neneh Cherry (who was born in Sweden before moving to Britain) worked within Pop confines but created music with real range and nuance. Looking at the new Swedish talent worth watching, the poll-makers have been a little quite this year. I have mentioned Ja Ja Ja’s recommendations but there are not many others making predictions. What Sweden is proving – because Blänk have Sweden in their blood – is how adaptable and boundary-less the music is. You cannot look at the nation’s musicians and assume they will all sound like ABBA or The Cardigans. If you are proffering London and Los Angeles and its diversity then you cannot overlook Sweden. Atlanta, a single city and not a nation, is much more proactive promoting their finest musicians. Gucci Mane, Black Lips and B.o.B. are three names that have helped put Atlanta on the musical map but there are so many newcomers who will continue that great work. Over the last couple of years, not necessarily new to music this year, we can expect good things from Abra. Since her 2015 debut L.P., Rose, her ‘80s-Pop-meets-sensual-and-soothing-moderntiy in a clash of late-night ruminations and for-the-moment dancefloor jams. She is someone continuing to produce music tinged with eccentricity and style. Heavy Eyes are a band I am excited to hear more from. The result of broken bands – Kidbrat and Novus among them – a solid Garage four-piece has survived. Out of the ruins, the band have packed out local venues and toured the South and look set to make another big statement in 2017 – following their incredible three-track debut E.P. back in 2015.
Similarly – thanks to http://immersiveatlanta.com/artists-to-watch-in-2016/ for the tips – Mothers supported a raft of national acts throughout 2015, and since then have been – although based in Athens they represent Georgia pretty damn well; in addition to Atlanta – playing some rather high-profile gigs. They have already performed at SXSW and are another band ready to create new music very soon. Sea Ghost’s have ensured Pop-Punk is kept alive and spirited. The genre has been derided and overlooked the last few years: Sea Ghost infuses optimistic in their music and ensures any Trump-induced misery is combatted with some fine music. Their debut L.P., SG, helped redefine Power-Pop and brought their music to the masses. I am excited to see how the band reacts to Trump’s presidency. If ever a band were needed to help banish depression and uncertainty they are it. Finally, and before I make my point, Waking Astronomer have grown from an unsure, hard-to-nail force – one single in 2015; their debut L.P. last year – to a defined and multi-talented group. As you can see, from that brunch-like appetiser of a list, there are some fantastic acts coming out of Atlanta and Georgia. I mentioned earlier how the city has provided some phenomenal Hip-Hop and Rap over the years but there is plenty of music being made there now. Blänk are fans of Atlanta’s rich Hip-Hop past but are very much in the moment. The fact they splice Pop and Electronic music shows they are listening to what is happening in Atlanta and parts of Sweden. I have talked for long enough so shall wrap things up. This Journey is a wonderful peak inside Weary Soul – their forthcoming album out in March. I am looking out at music and trying to examine all the artists who will make a big noise in 2017. Blänk are a trio who will continue to make music for years to come. They improve and grow with every album and have plenty more inspiration left in them. How that presents itself will be interesting to see and I’ll make sure I keep my eyes alert. Another week, another great band in front of me. With regards the U.S.-Swedish force, they are three people…
PRIMED for better things.
PHOTO CREDIT: Albin Holmqvist