Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #5

Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #5

The spirit of DIY looms large…

Welcome to Astral Realm, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest and most essential releases. Each month’s roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist Q&A, a breakdown of his favourite songs and projects.

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Focus ArtistHIRA

After debuting in 2017 with the engineered bombast of ‘Eve’, HIRA has emerged as an unswerving conveyor of melismatic RnB and the nebulous, synthesized sounds of the 80s. HIRA’s an alum of the Paul Institute founded by A.K. and Jai Paul, with a roster boasting fellow underground acts like Ruthven and Fabiana Palladino.

The institute’s homespun approach to song craft and self-regulating spirit forms the core of HIRA’s debut EP ‘Pure Gas’. Produced alongside regular collaborators Mahir Mistry and Harry Craze, ‘Pure Gas’ conjures up a shady, fictive underworld reflecting our discordant reality; the stop-start, undulating groove of opener ‘Short Circuit’ and the Desi-inspired psychedelia of ‘Cult Bells’ transporting the listener to another dimension.

In an industry stained by apathy and prosaicness, HIRA shows what can be achieved when a collaborative community and creative autonomy prevail.

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I want to start by revisiting the sounds of your childhood because there’s a distinct 80s and 90s influence that runs through your work. What music is attached to those early memories?

The earliest music memories are being a pre-school age in the car with my Mum playing her favourite singer, Luther Vandross. She listened to all the classic soul singers and we’d sing along to all these songs. Coming from an Asian background, my home life was quite traditional and conservative so I wasn’t actually allowed to pursue music. I always enjoyed singing though and I had a pretty wide musical palette growing up. When I was about 17, I tried my hand at writing songs and wrote a bunch of really terrible songs but it was all part of the learning process.

You mentioned a career in music not being a viable option in an Indian household. I don’t want to homogenise your experience but it is a common thing. Did you find that your creativity was stifled?

I think it was stifling in the sense that I wasn’t able to go and buy a guitar like the other kids could. When I was 14, a teacher heard me sing and said I should pursue music, that it’s something I’m meant to do. This was outside of the home, someone having real belief in my abilities. I just had to fight for it really and I still feel I’m fighting in some ways. That’s something I haven’t discussed yet but I’d say it’s a tricky dynamic to overcome. I’m thinking more about what it means to see a South Asian musician pursue music because I know so many others can’t.

You first came on the scene in 2017 with the single ‘Eve’ and have released standalone songs sporadically since. You took your time releasing a project…

I’m still learning. I haven’t quite yet got a grasp on songwriting and what it means to make music, what the purpose of all of this is. Also, I have a short attention span so what I’m interested in is always changing. It’s been spontaneous but now I’m at a place where I’m settling into a rhythm and I feel freer with my creativity.

My first time hearing you was on the track ‘Bombay’ and what I loved about the track was the vocal clarity. Would you say you’re a vocalist first, producer second?

100%. It’s my favourite thing to do as an artist; the harmonies and little intricacies of vocal production is something I really relish. I’m a vocalist first, it’s definitely my strongest point, everything else comes after. I love listening to great singers like Brandy and D’Angelo, who taught me what it means to be a vocalist. Recently I’ve been revisiting Bjork and Elizabeth Fraser, a real underrated legend. Her voice and melodies are inspiring.

Your work has a referential expression and you stretch these genres pioneered in the 80s by the likes of Prince into new directions. Does a sense of nostalgia define your work?

I’ve been a Prince fan my whole life; I’ve listened to him heavily and he has been a teacher. But I’m blending what’s happening now with what came before and what I think will happen in the future. It’s a mix of all of those things. I don’t know if nostalgia is the word I would use to describe my work because I think it can connote something quite negative. Nostalgia to me, means something is over or finite, something’s been done. You can look back and celebrate something that’s been pioneered, but I’m more interested in the continuum and how fluid music can be.

Your new EP is called ‘Pure Gas’. What does the title signify?

I had the name before I even thought about what it meant, I just found it funny! The whole approach to this project was being in a place – and this applies to people in general – where they always need more of something to be who they want to be. This excess; more skills, more money, more time. Personally, I don’t have all the resources I’d like to have but with this project I’m using what I have. I was running on “Pure Gas” and only the air around me.

On that note, a real strength of ‘Pure Gas’ is how it’s not over-produced and has low res, demo-like quality to it…

Definitely, it’s about making the best of what we have and not fake that we have more. It’s easily done and it’s an easy trap to fall into. I’m associated with artists around me through the Paul Institute and people might assume that I’m covered, that I have so many resources at my disposal. But I’m still making tunes the way I did before, I don’t feel the need to hide that and I hope that comes through on ‘Pure Gas’.

What sonic landscape are you building with this project because to me it’s an omnipresent, immersive one?

There a few different things at play bit it’s quite sporadic. One of the main inspirations is derived from my family background and being at odds with people around you. The track ‘Cult Bells’ was initially inspired by a film I watched and the journey of the film is quite on the nose in the way it explores the mechanics of cults and indoctrination. It made me think about cults that are hidden, that have an effect on all of us, trying to change our worldview.

‘Cult Belts’ has this mind-expanding, trippy influence which ties into the world of cults but I also noticed the South Asian percussive influence running through it…

I’m glad you picked up on that! ‘Cult Bells’ is the centre of the EP for me, it’s the most unique sounding and I’ve never made a track like this before; it’s a bit of departure from what I usually produce. When we were working on it my mate Harry was playing guitar and I instantly had all the melodies laid out in my head. I added the groove with the subs and that’s what you hear - that vibrant bounce and tempo. We clocked the percussive element later, we didn’t realise at the time, it happened subconsciously.

‘Short Circuit’ was my immediate favourite from the EP, particularly the harmonic bit towards the end…

It’s the first time Mahir wrote lyrics, usually it’s only me. We were in lockdown; we were playing Xbox every day and my power supply broke. That literally sparked the song and we made the beat and pieced together the lyrics from that.

Mundane events make great songs…

Honestly, I’m quite hesitant to tell people the inspiration behind certain songs because the origins are quite boring!

You have a discernible audio-visual element to your work, which comes through in your visualizers and your merch. What’s the visual story of ‘Pure Gas’?

With videos…that’s a quite daunting thing for me as I’m not well versed in that world and I’d want to do it right and put something in the world that accurately reflects the world I’m building with the music. The inspiring thing for me is when I have the song in front of me and I’m thinking what colours and textures I’m seeing and feeling. What do I want to bring out of in the visuals? It all comes from the songs, it’s a sensory experience.

You have a background in artwork and digital effects…

I do all of my own artwork and visualizers. I’ve been studying 3D software and I’ve been using photoshop since I was ten. It’s another side of my creativity. When I was kid, me and my brother used to draw and redraw album covers; we’d get loads of bootleg CDS and we’d recreate the artwork ourselves.

You mentioned the Paul Institute run by the A.K. and Jai Paul. It’s not your conventional label but this creative incubator of independent talent. How has the Paul Institute augmented your creativity?

It’s been a massive honour to be a part of it. Jai and AK Paul are my musical heroes, it’s amazing that I get to work with them and learn from them. It’s brought together a really special community of people: we all have an unspoken understanding of what we’re trying to do with music in this space. That is so special because I don’t where I else I would get that freedom, especially for the music I want to make.

As an independent artist, what’s been the biggest challenge for you? How has it been operating on the fringes of an industry that is increasingly based on algorithms…

That’s exactly it. It’s the main issue I have with right now; that it’s so numbers-driven and people are basing their opinions on how lucrative you are. Its very stats driven. I guess it’s always been like that but the difference is seeing the numbers straight away, seeing how many streams a song has on Spotify. Artists are then scared of trying something new because a certain sound is racking up streams. Artists put more than they need on an album and it bloats the record and it sucks the joy out of experiencing bodies of work from artists that are usually dependable. I think it’s an unfortunate by-product of the streaming era. If you look at 2010 onwards, music was inventive and innovative. Now, everything sounds the same. I hope that me and the artists in the scene I’m associated can bring something new to the industry.

What is a defining message you want to convey to people with the project?

That I do things quite spontaneously and it’s all a bit random. Don’t expect anything, experience ‘Pure Gas’ with an open mind because I’m constantly in flux and I’m always changing. I guess that’s what you can expect from me. How many places can I exist?

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Next Wave Recommendation: BLK ODYSSY

Meet the Austin-based artist memorializing black innovation.

On debut album ‘BLK VINTAGE’, Sam Houston aka BLK ODYSSY mines personal tragedy and reconnoitres the labyrinthine innovation of Fela Kuti, the avant-soul of D’Angelo with the polemics and punchlines of Kendrick Lamar. ‘BLK VINTAGE’ is a heady collection of songs that speaks to what it means to be young, black and under siege.

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Who is BLK ODYSSY?

BLK ODYSSY is an alternative soul artist from Plainfield, New Jersey. The name has different meanings; in its most simple form it means the black journey. Much of the sound and stories engraved in the music are heavily influenced by what we experience as black Americans. The name also hints at the story of the odyssey (Greek mythology) and speaks to things like tribulations and war.

Can you speak a bit on your transition from a blues musician to your current sound? How did your move to Texas affect your artistry?

By default, as a young artist coming to Texas I wanted to fit in and feel like home to the people who listened to us. I came to Texas in 2015 and did a scope of what seemed to be working. The closest example of that was Gary Clark Jr, so I very naïvely figured if I emulated him, he would pick it up, co-sign me and I could get a career boost that way.

If I could, I’d tell the 18-year-old me to just be yourself and not focus on fitting in. The sound you hear on ‘BLK VINTAGE’ is a strong representation of my predecessors and those who inspired me. I grew up in a vibrant community full of culture that I’m proud of. I wanted to wear that on my sleeve and truly embody the blackness my music could possess: I wanted to get back to my roots.

If you could pinpoint records from the great alternative rap, soul and jazz pantheon that influenced you and your work, what would they be?

My musical influence started in the back of my father’s 1990 Maroon Volvo. He’d play Miles Davis’s ‘Kind Of Blue’ which was my first introduction to jazz, setting the tone early for what I would grow to like. I vividly remember hearing Jill Scott and Erykah Badu while driving down the NJ turnpike, this was my introduction to neo soul. My Father would also play Biggie, Tupac & KRS1 which give me the foundational elements of hip hop I needed to know what was fire.

As I grew, I found Kendrick Lamar in high school. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ changed my life because it tied together a story of our musical influences. Other records that pushed me was ‘Stankonia’ by OutKast, ‘Channel Orange’ by Frank Ocean, ‘Voodoo’ by D’Angelo and ‘Welcome To Jamrock’ by Damien Marley.

What are you trying to transmit to the listener through this new phase as BLK ODYSSY?

Sonically, the best I could describe our sound is BLACK. One thing I can say definitively is that all the sounds are deeply rooted in my culture and our communities; a sound rooted in the veins our being. I hope listeners from all cultures could gain insight from an internal perspective on our music like it’s a documentary in song form. So, for those who want to know what it feels like to live life in our skin, listen to this record.

‘BLK VINTAGE’ centres the generational black experience through raw, personal vignettes. What are the main themes you’re exploring on this record and what personal experiences shaped it?

‘BLK VINTAGE’ is an album that takes the listener through my personal journey of self-realization, liberation and opening my eyes to my surroundings. The opening track says I woke up next to the Reverend which speaks to me virtually being born into religion. The song later goes on to challenge some ideas i struggled with in the Bible as I grew, where I grapple with the question that if God existed why are my people enduring this struggle?

As the record goes on it takes you through various different life experiences. ‘NINETEEN EIGHTY’ speaks about the careless mindset of the black youth from an internal perspective while ‘GHOST RIDE’ is that song from the perspective of a wiser version of myself. Songs like ‘FUNKENTOLOGY’ speaks on sexual addiction. The whole record is a time sequence. Around ‘BIG BAD WOLF’ you can feel my demons begin to battle within me, a period of time I felt I was going crazy. In actuality I was just outgrowing the skin I was in and becoming who I needed to be.

‘MURDA’ is my personal favourite. What’s the story behind the track?

‘MURDA’ is a song towards the end of the album which strikes the mindset of a Malcolm X quote “it’s time to stop singing and start swinging,” which he said during the Civil Rights movement. It’s the moment of realisation that we can’t run forever. The song is supposed to bring forth unease. I almost felt like I astral projected into the body of someone who was in the middle of a police chase running for their life. That’s the feeling that was embodied in this track.

What track would you say is the centrepiece of the project, a gateway into your psyche?

‘DRINKING GOOD’ is the track that ends the album. It’s the story of my brother David who was killed by police in New Jersey in 2010. Without that tragedy I doubt I would have had it in my mind to grow mentally and spiritually. I honestly feel that comfort is the worst thing in the world because it doesn’t push us to grow. ‘DRINKING GOOD’ was the closer to this record because it was the reason I went on this journey of growth, that is illustrated on this album in the first place.

We’ve seen the world rally behind by the Black liberation movement and we’ve seen how music can shape the public consciousness. Is that what you’re doing with ‘BLK VINTAGE’?

I’m just doing my part to create understanding. Much of our issues in society could be fixed with tolerance, understanding and for me it’s important to do our part in at least creating understanding. ‘BLK VINTAGE’ gives anyone (who wishes to know) the reason why black people do this or why they think like that or why they say this is a clear answer. I’d ask that they just listen until they understand. It’s there for them.

Projects

Nite Jewel – 'No Sun'

A searing minimalism emerges from the clefts of silence and space on ‘No Sun’, the fourth album by LA artist Romana Gonzalez aka Nite Jewel. Charting the dissolution of her marriage and the unknowing aftermath, ‘No Sun’ is a charged lamentation on loss, isolation and the advent of new beginnings.

Nite Jewel’s vocals are clear, docile, expressive, at times even theatrical, like on ‘Before I Go’, which brings lightness to often low-spirited expressions of feeling. It’s matched by the glacial, throbbing synth patterns of ‘To Feel It,’ and indeed much of the LP, which grasps for a kind of lucidity in the wake of despair. ‘#14’ is a well-timed reprieve midway through, an ambient beam from a remote faraway land; the surrealist jazz of ‘When There Is No Sun’ matches the former’s elemental sensation.

A weightless, furtive experience, ‘No Sun’ eschews what we anticipate in favour of something latent and subterranean. A triumph.

Colloboh – 'Entity Relation'

Nigerian-born, Baltimore-raised Colloboh is a nascent producer you need to familiarise yourself with. Evoking his city’s storied history as an arbiter of musical excellence, debut project ‘Entity Relation’ moves faultlessly from the club-adjacent to more tessellated soundscapes.

‘Entity Relation’ is a monosynthetic, improvised feat incorporating a few sub-genres all in the space of one track: from the edgy UK garage beatscape (‘Borderline’) to more cerebral, toned down concoctions ('Reason'), 26-year old Colloboh relies on his trusted modular synthesizer to generate denseness and texture to his songs. On ‘one2many’, tribal rhythms cascade into a vivid techno-tinged outro, Colloboh demonstrating finesse and adroitness.

Something tells me the future is bright for this one….

Mansur Brown – 'Heiwa'

Brixton’s Mansur Brown has an affinity for invoking Japanese traditions in his work: debut album ‘Shiroi’ and 2020’s EP ‘Tesuto’ each bearing a Japanese title, each enacting life lessons from age-old ideologies. New album ‘Heiwa’ - which translates as ‘Peace’ – continues the theme. Whilst serene atmospherics seep through each of the ten tracks, ‘Heiwa’ is a duskier, more narcotic blend of the loungey jazz and hip hop-leaning sound he established on his debut.

Brown is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist and tracks like ‘Kerene’ and ‘Serene’ give his weeping, pirouetting guitar production room to breathe, mirroring the after-hours heat he fashioned for underground stalwart Ojerime’s ‘B4 I Breakdown’ EP. It’s not all slow and soporific: ‘Flight’ and its stadium-sized galactic chords glide over a trippy, early 2000s Darkchild-esque beat and ‘Fade’ is a frenetically-paced, grimey number devoid of melody.

Album closer ‘Arrival’ ventures into mystic Fourth World territory; a morphic, resonant amalgam of sub-zero acoustic undertones and hi-tech experimentation. An electronic fever dream.

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Songs

Louis Culture – 'Naked'

“Sometimes I can't feel movement, But we moving…”

The South London rapper continues his hot streak of muted, mellow meditations on new single ‘Naked’. Louis Culture has a knack for creating curative worlds with his words, re-evaluating experiences through the lens of maturation. Over a Jim Reed-produced beat which integrates chipmunk vocal loops and subtle chord distillations, Louis Culture shuns bravado, instead expressing raw susceptibility, struggling to move past the phantom effects of a past relationship.

a l l i e, Matthew Progress, River Tiber – 'Hybrid'

Taken from her equally decadent debut project ‘Tabula Rasa’, Canadian artist a l l i e unleashes a celestial odyssey with album track ‘Hybrid’; a spaced-out, soft-funk number morphing from third-eye rapped introspection to winding choral chants. Singing of lovers in sync and the dazed discovery of opposites merging like a stellar collision, ‘Hybrid’ reminds us of the intergalactic potential of Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘Fantasy’.

Asna – ‘Atalaku’

Ivory Coast multi-disciplinary artist Asna threads together propulsive, body-talk afro-anthemics and the potent spirituality of her home city Abidjan on debut single ‘Atalaku’: "an ode to a free generation totally reinvested in the genesis of its identity."

Suffusing her music with the lifeforce of her birthplace, Asna is the next ‘Atalaku’ calling on the wisdom of her ancestors to forge a new path forward. West Africa remains the source of electronic metamorphosis.

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Words: Shahzaib Hussain // @ShazSherazi

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