Welcome to Astral Realm, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in music. Each roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, a breakdown of noteworthy releases and a retrospective highlight viewed through the lens of dewy-eyed nostalgia.
Focus Artist: Sudan Archives
Since her self-titled debut, Cincinnati-born, LA-based Sudan Archives has riffed on fantasy and folklore in her work. Where 2019’s ‘Athena’ poeticised and pulled from mythic deities, on new album ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ divinity takes the form of an earthly avatar: Brittney Parks herself, the girl-next-door with a resolute sense of who she is and her place in the world.
Sudan stretches and expands the tenor of her trusted violin to match her frenzied curatorial ambition; 18-tracks long, no one track outstays it’s welcome, the sonic sprawl of ‘NBPQ’ leaves you breathless, clamouring for more sweet and sour confection. From the chopped and skewed hip-hopera of ‘Topless’, to the hallucinogenic sexcapade ‘ChevyS10’, to the crunk-meets-bounce amalgam ‘Freakalizer’, Sudan and her ensemble cast of collaborators (MonoNeon, Simon on the Moon, Hi-Tek, Nosaj Thing to name a few) craft a synthesised experience that is as much dancefloor delirium as it is a soulful appeal to her community, her friends, her lover and herself, to seek joy and preserves one’s inner voice.
Years from now ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ will become the metonym for fearless sonic abandon. Remember I told you.
Your last record ‘Athena’ was released in 2019. Soon after the world went through apocalyptic upheaval and everything came to standstill. Many artists I’ve interviewed have said enforced remoteness made them more creative, a few said they felt stifled. What is your version of events?
I was a touring soon after ‘Athena’ was released when Covid hit. It was the last leg of my tour; I was in New York and everything shut down. It felt like the right time to start making music again. I made the most of it. I could make music at my own pace because it was the first time I wasn’t on the road. I had time to nest, decorate my house and be domestic whilst I recorded in my basement studio. It was an important time for me because I felt I could actually smell the flowers. You put things in perspective quickly because everyone is going to die or is already dead. I was able to make art; I was able to live with and through my emotions.
‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ feels and sounds creatively unhinged in the best possible way. From where did that title emerge?
This is definitely the rawest I’ve been. It’s interesting because someone interviewed me recently asking if I considered this an alternative rap record and I told her I’d never thought of it like that. It got me thinking ‘NBPQ’ has the directness of a rap record because it’s very lyrically driven.
The title wasn’t my idea. It’s always a case of someone reacting to my work and I’m always on board. My partner and collaborator James (McCall) came up with the title for the last record, ‘Athena’. I was going to call this one ‘Homesick’ but I didn’t feel it was right. My manager picked out the line “Natural Brown Prom Queen” from the track ‘Topless’, and I felt it rolled off the tongue better and brought out the aesthetic theme of the cover art.
This album feels like a communion with black women full of affirmations. Are you addressing them and yourself throughout the album?
Interestingly, I feel like I’m talking more to black men; the subconscious part I’m communicating with as if I’m in open dialogue with them. With black women, I’m merely trying to share my story, my version of events, not preach to them but to give them my take on my experiences and the wider culture.
‘Topless’ is a microcosm of the record at large, you use the “prom queen” trope to reclaim space as a black woman. Is that where the line ‘I’m not average’ comes from?
I’m saying “I’m not average” and that I’m the most ghetto fabulous black girl ever! I’m reclaiming that aesthetic and theme of a natural woman. What is a natural woman? With ‘Athena’ I was exploring the mysticism surrounding Goddesses and creatures and for this album I’m saying a superhero is a natural brown or black women.
How would you describe the accompanying video?
As a cartoon acid trip.
You first teased the era with the single ‘Homemaker’; a shoegaze meets disco romp. Why was ‘Homemaker’ the lead single?
Honestly, it felt like every track on this album could have been a single. ‘Homemaker’ encapsulates this idea of a woman who is a siren, which kind of riffs on the vibe of ‘Athena’. But I dressed up as a Midwestern homemaker which brought it back to reality. Basically, a homemaker is a siren and she will kill everyone in plain view!
The violin has always been the canvas for you to embellish around. On this album you take strings to some really inventive and idiosyncratic places. Talk me through that exploration…
I feel I’m getting more experimental with the violin outside of a strict classical sense and framework but the overall sound is more polished. There might be a misconception that it’s not as prominent but it’s still there; I’m using pedals in different ways, I have more gear, I’m manipulating the violin in ways I haven’t before.
The credits on this album are a veritable who’s who of pioneers in electronic music and progressive rap. It’s a collaborative feast!
These producers brought a certain musicality that I haven’t had on a record before where obscure instruments are made prominent. Simon on the Moon plays a bouzouki which sounds so cool because it has a certain depth and flavour. ‘Selfish Soul’ would not have been what it was without that bassline. My friend gave me a lot of piano loops and I started ‘Homemaker’ and ‘Freakalizer’ from that foundation and my friend Andre (Elias) produced ‘ChevyS10’ with me.
‘ChevyS10’ was an immediate standout for me. Break down that freaky metaphor…
Me too! Truthfully my favourite keeps changing. ‘ChevyS10’ is about admiring someone’s beauty. The metaphor is the car which is a nod to Tracy Chapman. The car is a metaphor for the relationship; I’m talking about a threesome with me, my partner and the car. The song details that building excitement that he’s about to visit with ‘her’ – ‘her’ being the car.
Back to your collaborators, it ties into this debate raging about samples and credits on R&B and rap records. That the presence of however many collaborators dilutes the essence of traditional song craft. What’s your view?
Well it happens to me a lot. When I get interviewed, they’ll only acknowledge the white producers or they’ll acknowledge the artists that already have clout. I had a lot of friends play instruments with me in my basement. I worked remotely with Hi-Tek and MonoNeon. James (McCall) helped with arrangements. It really did feel like a big family making this big meal together. I wanted to give my friends, family and fellow musicians an opportunity for us to create something meaningful together. I don’t want to ever be that artist that wants to do everything solo; it’s more fulfilling when you can co-create.
You’re expanding your voice in ways we haven’t heard before. There’s clarity in your singing and there’s bite in your bars when you’re rapping…
Most of the vocals were recorded in my basement. I didn’t re-record the vocals because you just can’t match the energy of the first time. I remember someone saying they liked me manipulating my voice. At first, I was singing the verse of ‘Topless’ and my manager said I should just rap it instead. James is a notorious battle rapper and he helped me arrange my vocals and helped with conceptualising it all. If he thought my raps were great, they must be great!
Let’s talk about ‘Freakalizer’. Another freaky moment! How did you capture that airy, weightless feeling in an up-tempo moment on the album?
‘Freakalizer’ was a song I was going to discard. I remember being naked one day, lounging and thinking it sounded odd. My boyfriend arranged some things around and instantly made it sound better! I have a habit of throwing songs away, that’s why it’s important for me to be open to feedback. I was experimenting with my vocals and adding weird effects but felt the drums needed to knock harder and so I roped in Egyptian Lover to make it freakier. He didn’t have time to sing on it but we added even more drums on top and turned into the banger you hear.
And ‘Milk Me’?
I started making that on my i-Pad. It was very stark with only violins and vocals. I sent it to this producer who beefed up the drums and moved the vocals around. I really liked what he did with the bassline. He made it funkier. I made ‘Milk Me’ on my partner’s birthday, I didn’t have money that week to buy him a present so I made him a song. It was a birthday gift!
What track is the emotional centrepiece of ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’?
I think ‘Homesick’ is the most emotional one. I was definitely emotional when I made it. I’m talking about how I still miss home even though this feels like home now. I’m missing my Mama, my friends and my community.
I’ve seen videos of you bringing the album to life on stage. You’re performing at KOKO on my birthday. What can we expect from the show?
Where am I performing?!
KOKO? On November 23rd? At least according to your press release…
Oh okay! Have you been there before?
I have. It’s a classic venue and they’ve reinvented.
Wow, it looks really big! Lately, I’ve been bringing mad energy to my sets. Last time I performed I jumped over the barricade and joined the crowd. ‘Freakalizer’ is usually the last song I perform; I have an encore and then I go into it. I feel such mad feedback from the fans, it’s so rewarding.
I like how you’re incorporating the wireless mic into your performance…
That’s been a game changer for me because I felt I was a slave to chords and performing instruments and being rooted in one spot. I always felt awkward on stage. Now, it feels effortless.
And you have the brilliant Growth Eternal as part of your band…
He’s been the best addition! When you have a moog player with you it adds another dimension. The crowd really feel him and we have really good chemistry on stage. The room really shakes now. I want the room to vibrate when I perform.
Next Wave Recommendation: Triathalon
Triathalon – Chad Chilton, Adam Intrator and Hunter Jayne – are the Brooklyn-via-Savannah creators of a dazed brand of indie for slackers and stoners. Bridging the muffled acoustics of breakthrough album ‘Lo-Tide’ and the ephemera of living through the digital rapture, new album ‘Spin’ attempts to make sense of our detachment from one another, and ourselves. Fuelled by the metropolitan life of New York, ‘Spin’ is a time capsule of a band in transition, sauntering between lucid dreams and reality; that tonal mismatch is riffed on by warped guitar licks, echoed voices and hollow sound system-plunging breakdowns.
Laconic and lush, ‘Spin’ is the work of a band settling into their groove and moving away from a creative holding pattern. Here they detail their journey to making one of this year’s quiet triumphs.
For those chancing upon Triathalon for the first time, detail who you are, how you came to be and the core ethos behind your artistry?
We’re an American band currently living in New York City. There’s three of us; Adam, Chad and Hunter. We just put out a new album called ‘Spin’ and we all started playing music together back in college in Savannah, GA. Our motto is simple: we just want to make music people can relate to and feel a type of way about.
You came up as part of this “lo-fi” contingent after the release of your project ‘Lo-Tide’. Have you ever felt impeded by that description of your work?
We definitely don’t feel like we’ve ever tried to be lo-fi. When we hear “lo-fi” we think of an unmistakable quality to the sound, but over the years that term has taken on such a different shape and I think lo-fi is more about an aesthetic now. It feels nice to be a part of that wave but since then we’ve really tried to make our music higher quality and more diverse. We’re hoping this album proves we’re more than that.
What are the main characteristics of the “Triathalon sound”?
Moody, vulnerable and uncanny.
‘Spin’ is your first record with Lex Records. In what ways was the record a pivot away from your past works?
This album had a lot of time to marinate, more so than our previous works. We starting recording back in 2020 and tried really hard to make it a nice balance of all our past work with a slightly new feeling. For a while we were unsure how to release it but once we met and signed with Lex, we finally felt like we could take the album in a different direction. You could say this album was long overdue and for our listeners we just wanted to put something out that felt bigger and more universal than anything we’ve created before.
‘Spin’ revels in live musicianship and retains a sense of unrefined rawness throughout; it’s not compromised by studio sheen. Why did you opt for that mode of sound design?
Some of that has to do with the vintage equipment and processes that maybe give the sound a certain colour. Gabe Wax and Zeroh, mixing and mastering respectively, also gave the album a lively texture. I think ultimately, we opted for what felt good to us.
With this album we really wanted it to feel vintage and live. Hunter had been listening to a lot of 70s music when writing some of the riffs for this album and wanted to record the drums and bass live to tape. Chad was listening to a lot of Nujabes and that helped him with the direction he’d eventually take for his drum approach. I (Adam) was really inspired by our friend’s bands’ that we’ve toured with over the years, which in turn shaped a lot of the songs and styles for this album. We really wanted this to be an album that was fully collaborative and one where all our influences and styles meshed perfectly into one piece.
‘Spin’ has that dazed New York feel. How did the change of setting and sense of relocation and distance from one another inform this work?
We actually moved to New York long before the album was recorded but over the years our sound has naturally evolved since living there. Maybe not because of the actual environment of the city but I think any time someone changes location it effects their lives regardless. New York has a special feeling and this album really feels like it was made here for right now.
How do these songs come to life through collaboration? How have you grown as co-creators?
On this album we spent a lot of time before we went into the studio recording demos of each other’s ideas. What really brings them to life is keeping an open mind and allowing ourselves to deconstruct an idea and approach it over and over until it’s the way we want it to sound. We’re a lot more casual in our approach when working together these days. Sometimes we can work in silence and still be on the same page about sounds, textures and compositions.
The one-two punch of ‘Time’ into ‘XP’ is a highlight. How did you master that aural feeling of floating through the abyss?
By the time we were sequencing the album we just went with what made sense to us. ‘Time’ kind of gets back into the psych territory at the end and we felt like ‘XP’ should naturally follow that. This album is a winding journey, we felt it was right to position the most psychedelic songs at the beginning because it felt a little easier on the mind. Life is strange. Escapism seems to be the only way to get by these days.
I wanted to single out the track ‘Infinity Mirror’ which notches up the tempo with a bass and beat injection. Break down the makings of this track?
Hunter really likes 90s DnB and Jungle, so ‘Infinity’ was born from a session we did for fun a while back and it ended up feeling right to position towards the end of the album.
What track is the heart of the LP? One you feel defines the album at large?
The title track ‘Spin’.
Final words on the impact you want ‘Spin’ to have on the listener?
It would be nice for listeners to walk away feeling like they just travelled through an alternate dream state with no chance of a come down.
Benedek – ‘Zabrano’
On ‘Zebrano’, Nicholas Benedek soundtracks the urban decay and decadence of his native LA; a smooth, sonorous trip through G-funk, boogie, video game glitchtronics and vintage R&B. The retro synthesis at play here is wall-to-wall immersive without being consumed by monoculture’s obsession with regurgitating past trends. Archivally precise, this is the work of an artist who has lived and breathed these sub-genres.
On the dreamcastmoe-assisted ‘Peace Of Mind’, faded vocals, life-altering lyricism and roller rink-styled organ merge for an acrobatic dancefloor anthem. Elsewhere, Devin Morrison pours his heart over airy melodic lines on the soft-yet-percussive mid-tempo, ‘Emotional’. The project’s heartbeat is the analogue splendour of ‘In The Air’ featuring Canadian-Ghanaian singer AKUA: it’s the aural equivalent of driving – without inhibition – through the sun-baked streets of LA into new love’s embrace.
‘Zebrano’ is released September 30th.
Oscar Jerome – ‘The Spoon’
Interiority and cold apathy course through Oscar Jerome’s second album, ‘The Spoon’. Alone in Berlin mid-pandemic, the seasoned multi-instrumentalist spent his time forming the bare bones of a record that luxuriates in nocturnal notes, abject conditioning and the faint, hopeful promise of what tomorrow brings.
Two characters meander their way through the narrative arc of ‘The Spoon’; Ice Guycicle, an epithet for Jerome’s moody introspectiveness and Jerry, a caricature of a noxious City banker driven by ego and vices. These binaries aren’t always clear cut, and Jerome masterfully meshes both sides in grey hues on tracks like ‘Sweet Isolation’ and ‘Berlin 1’. Elsewhere, Jerome reconciles his jazz background with folky overtures (‘Aya and Bartholomew’) and extended Marvin-esque suites (‘Use It’), creating a body of work that comforts and confronts the listener with its creator’s bold and expansive vision.
‘The Spoon’ is out this Friday.
LYZZA – ‘Mosquito’
A mainstay on the electronic circuit with co-signs by the likes Nicolás Jaar and Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, Amsterdam-based, Brazilian-born artist LYZZA coheres her disparate influences and medley of club-honed styles into an unbridled 10-track passion project, ‘Mosquito’. Out on the minority-focused Big Dada (a sub-imprint of Ninja Tune), ‘Mosquito’ is a formless, globalist experience tapping into maximalist anti-pop (‘Eraser’), the seedy underworld of mutant techno (‘Heathen Calls’) and icy reggaeton breaks (‘Deserve It’).
Beyond the dirges and drones lies an exposed centre where LYZZA toys with industry typecasts surrounding black female and femme autonomy, where having pride in creative ownership is oft mistaken for misplaced brazenness. As the breathless experimentation conveys, this is a dark dominion entirely of LYZZA’s making: Just shut up and dance.
Nat Home ft. Ms Ray – ‘Witching Hour’
Part of a motley crew of South East London musicians alongside King Krule, Ben Hauke, Jamie Isaac and Pinty, DJ/producer Nat Home makes his solo debut on the latter’s newly-launched imprint Winged Feet. The dusky heat of ‘Witching Hour’ features pitched-to-perfection vocals from Ms Ray: a paean to Detroit House luminaries like Moodyman, ‘Witching Hour’ is a cerebral piece of after-hours sorcery doused with synthetic jazz brushstrokes and foggy atmospherics
Nat’s EP ‘Average Stardawg’ arrives on October 14th.
Narolane – ‘Rent Free’
Formed in 2019 in Limerick, Ireland, Narolane is the home of its founders Denise Chaila, God Knows and MuRli; the three operating under a banner that elevates creative aspiration and mentorship through songs that explore communal black enterprise and the complexities of navigating small-town mentalities. The strength of new single ‘Rent Free’ lies in its audible detail, widescreen topography and dizzying POV shifts; from Chaila’s unruffled yet soulful vocal entreaty to the primal scream dissonance of MuRli and God Knows, ‘Rent Free’ ensures this trio take up space in your consciousness.
ELIZA – ‘A Tear For The Dreadful’
‘A Tear For The Dreadful’, is the beating heart from ELIZA’s sparse and quietly disarming new record, ‘A Sky Without Stars’, an ode to DJ Premier-esque grimy drum patterns and desensitised insanity. Come for the brooding bass – the slow builds and burns – stay for the exquisite (and unexpected) Phairo-produced dance breakdown at the 3:45 minute mark.
August Rosenbaum ft. Coco O. – ‘Seconds’
Danish pianist and producer August Rosenbaum shifts gears from his instrumental work, announcing a new album with the elegantly-crafted minimalism of ‘Seconds’. Roping in friend and frequent collaborator Coco O., a simmering tension builds between Rosenbaum’s metronome-like production and Coco’s yearning vocals which reveal a rainy day fragility coursing underneath. A cinematic burst of inspiration.
‘Songs People Together’ is out October 21st.
Retrospective: Mariah Carey – ‘Butterfly’
Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ turned 25 last week and to memorialise an album the Mother of Lambs considers a “personal favourite”, Carey unveiled an expanded edition with special collectibles, live renditions and eight bonus tracks, including a re-imagined version of ‘The Roof’, featuring fellow vocal bible Brandy.
‘Butterfly’ marked Carey’s first emancipation; a breakaway from a parasitic partner, label and the syrupy balladry that had characterised the early part of her sanitised diamond-certified success story. ‘Butterfly’ was a creative risk – and rebirth – that didn’t match the commercial height of its predecessors, but stands now as the crowning jewel of artistic expression in her vast discography.
‘Butterfly’ is a vocal masterclass in subtle and subdued ways, deviating from belting into whispers and withholding restraint, artful ad-libs and harmonic stacking. Carey courted a phalanx of rap’s heavyweights (a rarity in the pop sphere at the time) and embraced her love of a genre that allowed for her most direct and intuitive songwriting…ever. The album houses arguably the greatest sequence of tracks in a contemporary R&B release, unfolding a glazed reverie of intimacy, lust, longing and emotional scarring: ‘The Roof’ into ‘Fourth of July’ into ‘Breakdown’ into ‘Babydoll’. Get into it.