Astral Realm is a liminal space. Clash Deputy Editor Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases; see this feature as your guide to music emphasising experimentation and musical virtuosity. Each monthly roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a breakdown of the month’s noteworthy releases.
Focus Artist: Ragz Originale
Ragz Originale’s production work on Skepta’s neo-noir breakthrough album ‘Konnichiwa’, could have foretold his own path as a purveyor of clarion-call, scabrous sound designs. Rather than integrate the sibilant chime and friction of grime into his subsequent solo releases, ‘Nature’ and 2020’s ‘WOAH’, Ragz focused on tempered immersion.
On his debut full-length ‘BARE SUGAR’, pleasure is Ragz’ primary principle. He is the smoothest of smooth operators. The North London luminary rhapsodises on modern romance; unbridled lust, the trysts that lead to entanglements, ambiguous signals, and the back-and-forth between active and passive participants in relationships. Ragz enlists collaborators from his inner circle – Sampha, Bakar, John Glacier and dua saleh, amongst others – to enhance his after-dark notes. ‘BARE SUGAR’ isn’t mired by self-seriousness. Ragz keeps thing light and legible; observations are framed to augment the deftly-engineered auditory journey or what Ragz’ defines as “Excessive Luxury Sound”.
On ‘BARE SUGAR’, Ragz integrates mid-tempo grooves and downcast, robotic soul. Soothing and narcotic, it’s a tripped-down exercise in restraint and icy minimalism. Expect a more interior offering from Ragz in the near future, but for now sink into a suite of songs that saturates space with ephemeral satisfaction and surround sound devotionals.
How would you define the pipeline from producing for other artists like Skepta to conceptualising your work as an artist in your own right? How has that transition panned out?
At the beginning, it all centred around grime and then I branched out. I’m not someone who focuses on the struggles of my career or someone who tries to sensationalise the journey, but it hasn’t been the easiest transition to be honest. I’ll say I felt I was taken seriously by the industry only two years ago, around the time I released ‘WOAH’.
Everyone knows being indie is not an easy route to take. We all know the struggles. I’m more hopeful now and I’m just trying to push my vision through to the end. Anyone who has an alternative vision knows how hard it is. You have to applaud people when you see them progressing; it has to be celebrated. I’m on the beautiful end of it now.
My first proper introduction to you was the ‘WOAH’ project, which luxuriated in this unvarnished, after-dark soundscape…
It was a Covid-era project and I had to make do with what I had. I remember studio sessions with one or two people at a time. I had limited resources. Nothing was happening, so I had to really tap in and explore my imagination. It’s like you’re not experiencing life as normal; nothing was normal about the pandemic. So I had to project a kind of fantasy.
Why did you name your debut album ‘Bare Sugar’? How does it connect the narrative to these abstractions in sound?
I was thinking of naming it after my surname, but I thought it was too personal. The premise of ‘Bare Sugar’ is that it’s like an addiction; it’s too much of a good thing, too indulgent. With the sound design, it’s like sugar to the ears. The album is about women and dating, and women are the main sugar source. It’s sweet and sensory. It’s a sound-focused project, as opposed to a narrative-driven one.
You start the album experience with ‘not everyone can be a star’, which is particularly poignant in a saturated industry. Why open on that note?
It’s me talking to myself; it’s like an inner dialogue. The song is a contradiction in that I’m saying not everyone, and I am the star of my own universe. I’m talking from the perspective of being the star, that I’m the one steering my life. It’s a strange song. It’s almost a reminder that we don’t all have to be main characters of other people’s stories.
The track ‘Radio Silence’ and the entire record is akin to experiencing music on a late-night drive. Listening to music in the car carries with it a specific sensation; you’re in transit between places and can get lost journeying. What music would you play on a late-night drive?
I actually have a playlist build around this idea of a late-night drive; it’s called What Ragz Listens To… The music I listen to is varied and sporadic, I never remember names but I’ll always recognise certain signifiers in a song. I’m a sound collector; I love assembling playlists and compilations, I love discovering new music. I wanted to make a broad project that covers distance and time. I really wanted to not isolate the listener and I wanted to broaden the horizon for where UK alternative R&B could go.
You liken this album to a ‘Luxury Sound’. What do you mean by that?
It’s music that makes you feel plush and luxurious; light, confident and sexy. ‘Luxury Sound’ is elevated listening. I didn’t want to play it safe and stick to one vibe or tempo, I wanted to have moments where the listener is surprised by what experiment comes next.
This album explores the digital world of dating, traversing the minefield of dating and hookup culture. Are you an “apps” guy? Is connection in real-time more important?
I never use apps. There’s this thing about celebrity culture and apps, it just doesn’t compute with me. I’m not dating at the right now. I’m pretty settled at the moment.
What would be the piece of advice you’d share to would-be daters trying to navigate the dating world?
Dating is a big burden man! You have to figure out who you are and what you want from the world, from there you can access connections with other people. I’m very driven and goal-oriented, so I really don’t want to waste time. Also, you have to have money. Dating is expensive, make sure you check your finances!
‘Bare Sugar’ embraces romance as a prominent theme. There’s a dearth in UK male-centric RnB projects centring love and fidelity. Would you agree? Were you trying to remedy that?
It’s me talking from experience. The sound dictated the messaging on the music. Something about this night time sound inspired me to talk about connections: forging and severing them. The sonics made me want to explore desire and how it can consume you. I wanted to experiment with my sound more than ever before; my voice is just another instrument, another part of the texture. I didn’t overthink the writing process. There are projects I have planned that will be tonally different, more lyrically-driven but for ‘Bare Sugar’, the sound dictated the story.
‘Flashbacks’ with Sampha is a personal highlight. It’s a smooth track exploring the what ifs through a wistful lens. Talk me through the creation of this track and what Sampha brings to the experience?
‘Bare Sugar’ is a friendship-based record. I worked with people I knew and vibed with. ‘Flashbacks’ is a special track – it took six months to finish. It was the first beat I made for this record, so it has a specific feeling of new beginnings. I cherish time with Sampha in the studio. He brings a whole space and tone to the music, and is so unique because he can shapeshift. It’s a best of both worlds approach.
‘what comes next’ with dua saleh is another highlight – a meeting of worlds that makes sense…
It’s a fun song. It’s like going on a third date when you’re familiar and in tune with someone. Dua had my songs in their playlists, and I had one of their’s in mine. I reached out to them when they were filming Sex Education. They pulled up at 10pm when they were in London: it was a seamless 30 minutes making that track. Dua is one of my favourite people, they’re genuinely so caring and compassionate. I’m so happy this collaboration materialised.
You also linked again with Queen of cool, John Glacier…
John is my homie! I found them on SoundCloud a while back and I reached out to her. When I tell you I’m all about discovering singular artists, I mean it. John replied within an hour of me messaging her. We have a fun energy when we’re together. John is so G, she’s so street! We always capture that Gangsta energy on our songs together.
Are you tethered to one song in particular on ‘Bare Sugar’?
‘Radio Silence’ is the song I’m most proud of. It’s a song that I’d be jealous of if I hadn’t made it. It’s me experiencing the song as a listener. ‘Flashbacks’ is also monumental. What are your top three songs by the way?
You put me on the spot. I’d say ‘What Comes Next’ with dua is a favourite. ‘Ego’ is also a highlight, a little bit softer than the rest of the album, almost folky. That’s probably why I like the opener as well…
That’s so interesting because I get so many different variations of favourite tracks. ‘Ego’ is an album track but I think it will have its moment. It’s necessary, it’s something I feel will travel further than me. It’s timeless.
Where do you want the listener to go when they experience this auditory journey of yours?
I want the listener to be awestruck by it. I want them to play it again from start to finish. It’s a continuous experience. I’m less concerned with how I’m perceived as an artist this time round, I think that kind of perspective has loosened me up for a bit. I want this album to be the conduit to seeking out other artists that break the mould. This is my palette cleanser.
Next Wave Recommendation: Bickle
“The less real it is, the more real it feels…”
Duluth-raised Bickle is a digital archivist. A repository of his unreleased experiments can be found online if you search long enough, his digital footprint existing long before his official debut – the pandemic-era viral hit ‘Naked’. Capturing a hunger for dancefloor delirium when communing was prohibited, Bickle was the genre-agnostic artist serving up ravey voyeurism.
His debut album ‘Biblickle’ is by comparison more inward-looking, blithe and breathless. It’s packed with love songs, torch songs and songs of Suburbia. Despite the veneer of a degraded retro quality, ‘Biblickle’ is a modern record and apocalyptic dread looms large. Time is warped and fragmented in Bickle Land; a charged stillness courses through numbers that carry with it the immediacy of pop, and a need for nostalgic soul-searching. Bickle’s vocal is always the focal point: the ceremonial power of gospel is heard in a voice that is mighty and magisterial, where background harmonies vacillate like the scales of an organ.
For Clash, Bickle shares why ‘Biblickle’ needed to be both a love letter and a testimonial to his native Georgia, and the messaging he wishes to impart to anyone who presses play.
What spurred your love of song craft?
My first love was making video. I had a Vivitar camcorder and many ideas when I was a kid, and those ideas led me to start making music. I was making bad EDM at first, and then my tastes just kept evolving. Now, I’m doing whatever this is.
Atlanta, Georgia is renowned for putting countless idiosyncratic stars from the underground on the map. In what ways has the mythology of Georgia and its lineage of artists informed your work?
Life in Georgia moves very slow and it makes my imagination move quickly. There is such a melting pot of culture and styles of life out here that really is special. I didn’t realise how special it is until I travelled. This place rules. There’s a beautiful world of indie music, underground rap, and superstars alike. My good friend Ezra Pound$, for example, plays all the string parts on ‘Biblickle’, makes trap beats for artists, and is the frontman of a punk band called Hensleys. People here are very multi-hyphenated. Popstar Benny runs a label and produces for all your underground and major label favs. Nobody around here can stomach just being one set thing. It inspires me a lot.
Name three projects by other artists that get as close to defining who you are as an artist?
I’d be somewhere between ‘Thriller’, ‘My World 2.0’, and ‘Discovery’.
Your pre-pandemic track ‘Naked’ was a viral moment early on in your career. It’s a track that struck a chord when people longed for connection. Were you surprised by it’s success?
‘Naked’ just came out at the right time for everyone. I don’t have much to say about that song, only that it was a gift from God as all great music should be.
My introduction to your music was the track ‘Heartbreak Sedative’, easily one of my favourite tracks of 2021. It’s a plaintive, vocal-led approach to breaks and beats. There’s something universal to latch onto even though you want to move..
That song exists because of the music video! I worked in the same BPM all year, hired actors off Craigslist, shot a bunch of footage, and then I made ‘Heartbreak Sedative’ inspired by the feelings from the footage. I went back and filmed some lip-syncing shots and that was it. I was listening to a lot of SWV and classic jungle at the time. This was me trying to write like Brian Alexander Morgan over some breaks.
‘The Suburbs’ captures ‘Heartbreak Sedative’s’ sense of off-beat dance, and it manufactures a glazed feeling for the past. On ‘The Suburbs’ what are you pining for or wanting to reconnect with?
‘The Suburbs’ is a love letter to Duluth, Georgia and all the years I’ve spent feeling stuck there. I still live here and I no longer feel stuck, but I needed a song to send off those feelings. It’s a beautiful and complicated place that has given me a large amount of my best memories. I correctly assumed I wasn’t the only one with these types of feelings about where they live.
An integral part of ‘Biblickle’ is the vocal production. How did you capture that sense of grainy detail in your vocal whilst retaining clarity?
The key to my vocal production on ‘Biblickle’ is all in the engineering. There’s not any compression on my vocals and barely any EQ. I used to edit the hell out of my voice and use a lot of autotune, but I wanted to try going as raw as I was comfortable with this time. I produced around the sound of the SM7B or SM58 mostly. I wanted that raw emotion to take centre stage.
My favourite track is ‘All My Thrills’, a churning track with a classical crescendo. It’s home to sonic embellishments that give it a devotional feel. How did this track come to be?
‘All My Thrills’ is a song I would sing on my bike all the time just as a vocal warm up. The album was almost done, I was scrapping a lot of songs and needed one more. I got like 75% of it there, then hit up Jane Remover and woke up the next morning to some stems. She added some extra drum sounds, that little organ line and the piano that became the outro and it was perfect. I had Ezra come and freak it with the violin. The song feels almost hymnal and I love how it turned out.
Where does your sense of surrealism come from in your self-directed videos?
There’s something beautiful about the stillness of the suburbs at night. It’s not a city where the action is quieter after dark, no, the suburbs get completely still. The signs are still on but the businesses are empty. The working people that keep the heart of the burbs beating are all at home with their families. My mind is most active in these quiet moments. It’s surreal how in just a few hours, places where people work all day and go through the motions, can become a playground if you’re up. My videos are an attempt to show how I bring my inner world to the outer world. The less real it is, the more real it feels.
You’ve been approached by numerous labels, but have opted for the independent route as an artist. Why have you eschewed big label support and kept your creativity autonomous?
No one has offered me anything that makes more sense than what I’m doing right now. I seem to have carved out my own little pocket in time, where I can take as long as I need on things and people still respond when it’s go time. It’s a massive blessing that things took a long time to materialise. I used to be so eager to jump into a situation with machine support, but there are so many different priorities working against you in those buildings. I had a couple of missteps early on that taught me some big lessons very quickly, and it’s made me comfortable with taking the longer route. I’m of course always open to things that make sense, though.
What’s the album centrepiece? A track you feel captures the ‘Biblickle’ ethos…
Not to be that guy but it’s 25 minutes long, you need all of em’. That being said…’Apocalypse Love Song’.
Musically, who are you enjoying right now?
I’ve been listening to this band New Musik. Incredible production and songwriting.
What’s the core message you want to convey with ‘Biblickle’ ?
“You are everything you aspire to be and more; the things you need to succeed are within. Take a deep breath and enjoy where you’re at on the journey.”
Albertina – ‘Waiting 4 Life’
Albertina is up there as a favourite discovery of mine this year. Experiencing her asymmetrical dirges is akin to desisting with the familiar and embracing the unknown. Last year’s ‘Cars’ captured the post-rave comedown, it’s UKG template frayed by moody world-building. The British-Caribbean artist’s debut project ‘Waiting 4 Life’, revels in a similar strain of dissonant design but is altogether more weathered and cryptic.
The project comes accompanied with a 15-minute visual, scoring strange, foreboding feelings; isolation to corporeal connection, longing to desire, love as a distant aberration. ‘Being’ is a digital lullaby, Albertina’s looped vocal refrain fluttering over minimal chords; ‘isitluv’ with its quasi-classical atmospherics and background wails, pulses with a primal intensity, the protagonist beleaguered by an encroaching figure.
Press play and seep into blissful abstraction.
:3LON – ‘Eden’
The Baltimore-born vocalist and producer teased his ‘Eden‘ project last year with ‘Quantum Leaping’, a skittering cybernetic jaunt carried by the depth of his seasoned vocals – vocals that would make vocal bible Brandy proud. :3LON, pronounced Elon, undergoes a metamorphosis across ‘Eden’s’ five tracks, shackled to his humanity whilst he hops across the galaxy looking for contact. ‘Glossolalia’ is a plea for a reciprocity, a shimmering piece of machine funk, whilst closer ‘Eclipse’ builds from a scene-setting phantom chill to a wonky crescendo of acid techno. Romantic longing has never sounded more preternatural.
Memory of Jane – ‘In The Double’
“In The Double’ is about duality and contrast…it’s about wanting both sides to just get along…”
The 21-year-old British/French producer from South-East London makes light of personal dichotomies on his debut project ‘In The Double’. Be it the chemical rush of desire or the devolving feeling of inertia, ‘In The Double’ marvels at the capacity of the mind to freeze or free us. Channeling the naked, negative space of early The xx on ‘No Answers’, or the globular synth-work of James Blake on ‘How You Make Me Feel’, the EP has touchstones along the austere electronic continuum. Closer ‘Left Alone’ may signal where Memory Of Jane ventures to next. The song’s expansive art-rock flourishes coast along with clean guitar lines and bass grooves, as Maïlé Doremus-Cook finds a measure of peace in the open expanse of his solitude.
Jalen Ngonda – ‘Come Around And Love Me’
Supported by the might of the iconic Daptone Records, the London-based, DC-bred musician brims with ardour on the title track from his forthcoming debut album. ‘Come Around And Love Me’ is not a perfunctory attempt at Motown pastiche. It triumphs as something more than revivalism because of Ngonda’s vocal conviction; his topline aglow with verve, backed by doo wop harmonies that soar and saunter. Special mention goes to the closing moments, where euphoria vaporises into a haunting euphony.
B-ahwe, TAMBALA – ‘Ride 2 Nowhere’
Inspired by her travels across Vietnam with close collaborator TAMBALA, the ruminative expression B-ahwe has honed across a slew of jazz-tinged projects is given a functional club uplift on new single ‘Ride 2 Nowhere’. This merger is an organic next step for the South London artist. Dreamy and mellifluous, B-ahwe pivots to a chillwave terrain – an invitation to roam free and far without any of our automated compulsions to distract us.
ELIZA – ‘Everlove’
This original number from ELIZA’s ‘ASWS: Sketches & Remix’ collection, is a shaded balm for the ears and mind; an extension of last year’s criminally underrated lament to man-made catastrophes, ‘A Sky Without Stars’. Like scribbled verses in a diary, ‘Everlove’ carries with it an unspoken, ghostly quality. ELIZA’s vocal lines arch and ascend, her stream of consciousness swells, let loose from it’s pages, functioning as an eternal inscription for lost souls in need of healing.
Check out the accompanying Astral Realm playlist:
Words: Shahzaib Hussain (@ShazSherazi)