Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #16

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Deputy Editor Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest, most essential alternative releases in this monthly feature. Astral Realm is a liminal space, a guide to music emphasising experimentation and musical virtuosityEach monthly roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist spotlight, and a breakdown of the month’s noteworthy releases.

Focus Artist: Hello Yello

Hello Yello, the Oakland trio – comprised of Dylan Wiggins, Jaden Wiggins and Martin Rodrigues – blur the line of distinction between band and brotherly affection on new project, ‘Good Intentions’. From the opening sun-dappled strums on ‘Help Again’ to the EP’s denouement ‘The Wall’ – an indie tearjerker turned galactic odyssey – Hello Yello are attuned to each other, and to the idea of energetically redefining vintage rock tropes into a modern tales of millennial dread and romantic drift.

For Clash, Hello Yello share their origin story, the need to explore the historic synergy between rap and rock, and the arc of lovers out-of-sync on ‘Good Intentions’.

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Since you came on in the scene in 2018, you’ve finessed an underground sound that’s both fresh and cleverly denotative. That transportive element is key. Who would you cite as core references in your work?

A lot of our inspiration comes from N.E.R.D, particularly their 2002 album ‘In Search Of’. I think seeing other Black artists fuse elements of hip-hop with rock, and meld genres that are actually more similar than disparate, helped shaped our sonic world. OutKast are another example of being sonically free, and their blending of worlds was a catalyst for our musical world. We would like our music to expand past the boundaries of genre like these artists that came before us.

I remember hearing ‘I Don’t Care’ a few years back – a 90s-inflected grunge meets garage rock tune. Now, how do you feel about these enduring early tracks you made on the cusp of your twenties?

Looking back on those early songs it definitely feels nostalgic, both because we’ve progressed and our music does have that wistful feel. We moved back to Oakland for a few months to finish up ‘Love Wins’, and it’s then the band developed its identity.

Talk me through your process as a trio recording together. How do these songs come to life through collaboration and co-creation?

There’s no blueprint. One of us might start an idea, or we might revisit something that we came up with at a soundcheck. Sometimes songs will turn into something completely different from what they were when we started it. It’s pretty instinctual. Most of our creative process is experimental and explorative; a lot of the time our sessions consist of creating the sonic world, and we leave the visual world open for interpretation. Visually, we want the music to speak for itself, so we opt for simple visualisers that allow the music to tell its own story.

‘Alone In December’ is the stadium-sized, guitar-shredding moment that moves from a lamenting place to a cocksure one. Why was this single number one?

We had a pretty hard time picking a song to reintroduce the band. We showed a bunch of friends the project and everyone had their own favourite tracks. We went back and forth on a few picks but ended up going with ‘Alone In December’. I think it served as a good segue and transition point from the first project.

What were these sessions informed by? Life on the road touring? Post-pandemic inertia?

Some of these songs we’ve had and even played at shows for a while. There are probably plenty of demos floating around recorded at different times over the past few years, but we really locked in and recorded everything over the span of a few weeks last year in Santa Monica.

Photo Credit: Hailey Heaton

If you could compress the ‘Good Intentions’ storytelling into a few lines, what would you say? Is there some purging happening here? Is it about modern romance and disquietude?

I think ‘Good Intentions’ is a journey through love where paths never fully aligned: the love was there, the care was there, but the timing and perspectives weren’t. It journeys through this emotional process of passion; love, angst, loss. There’s definitely some purging that went into the songwriting process, which I think comes through in the fast-paced, distorted sound of these songs.

‘Good Intentions’ is full of organic verve, as if it was made with the stage in mind…

I think that’s just how it came together. Most of these tracks were written with the three of us just playing in a room together; once we came up with something, we had conviction to record it and then move on to a new idea. We didn’t overthink anything, and that’s where the rawness and brevity comes from.

‘Sweet Baby’ is the 60s quaint psych-rock moment on the project. It’s so exquisitely done…

Dylan had a demo recorded that we sat on for a while. We took it to our homie Rob Bisel who helped us re-record everything and he really dialled into the sonics of the track. ‘Sweet Baby’ was one of those quintessential moments that came from experimenting with different sounds and different eras.

It’s my personal favourite along with ‘Curiosity’ which taps into the cyclical nature of programmed indie pop

We were jamming to the chords in the studio experimenting with different ways of playing it. We tracked the initial idea and sat on it for a while before we added vocals. When we were recording at 24th street (in Santa Monica), we revisited the track, finished up re-tracking certain things, and added the layer of synths you hear.

What track is the heart of the ‘Good Intentions’?

That’s a good question and it varies daily. Sometimes it’s ‘Alone in December’, sometimes it’s ‘Mercury High’. They all represent different moments that have equal weight. I guess it’s a question we hope the listeners will answer with time…

Is a debut album on the horizon? Or are you focused on building on the ‘Good Intentions’ era?

We definitely can’t wait to play these songs live for everybody, because we know these songs will take on a life of its own on stage. Maybe we’ll be releasing some new music sooner than you think…we don’t want to say too much but we can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve been working on.

Next Wave Recommendation: Wakai

On his second album, ‘Some People Scream, Some People Talk’, Wakai offers up a soulful aide-memoire for a community haunted by the ghosts of its past. Across the album’s 16 tracks, Wakai courageously lays bare his own fallibility. The album’s billowy, sweet-seeming atmosphere intensifies Wakai’s lucid wordplay which often takes the form of breezy, slam-poetic talk therapy. In some ways, ‘Some People Scream…’ is a sonically adjacent companion piece to last year’s ‘To A Dark Boy’, building out and onwards from internal anxieties, ruminating on the collective black American condition, surveying how repression and stymied creativity cripples the psyche.

Meet the Louisiana storyteller both preserving and reconfiguring the legacy of the Deep South in his own image.

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For those chancing upon Wakai for the first time, tell us who you are and what the central tenet in your art is?

I’m an interdisciplinary creative from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who creates from the soul and not by what is the most trendy.

Name three projects by other artists that get as close to defining who you as an artist?

‘Aquemini’ by Outkast. This album was cultivated by both the greens and blues of the south, but sonically it was also painted in the psychedelic funk and soul both artists grew up on. I feel my parents shared a similar taste in what OutKast may have grown up listening to, and each track was a soundtrack to the late teens of my life. “Of course, you know I feel like the bearer of bad news. Don’t want to be it, but it’s needed, so what have you?” These lyrics from Andre 3000 alone both bleed duality, calmness, and a tone of survivors’ guilt. They’re some of the emotions I felt I had in common with them.

‘Cilvia Demo’ by Isaiah Rashad. This project moulded me into loving the style of song structure I make. This came out the year I got my first home studio and I faithfully studied the way it was crafted. Fast forward to now and I’ve worked with some of the people who created that album. 

‘Mama’s Gun’ by Erykah Badu. My mother played this so much I began to notice how much I channel the words Badu spoke. ‘Didn’t Cha Know’ became a tribal anthem for me to grow with; the older I get the more I comprehend the energy she wanted to convey to us then.

Tell me about the progression of Southern rap and the arts community in Louisiana. How has it enthused you and informed your creativity?

The beauty of the culture of the South is shown from screen to screen which I appreciate, but there’s also an eclectic underground scene who rarely see the light out here. With eyes on the South, I’ve found more hope that each release is worthy of those listening. If Master P could sell millions, I believe one day I can. That mentality forever shines within myself. Think it, see it, obtain it.

You first album ‘To A Dark Boy’ established your style of stream-of-consciousness lyricism over woozy, tripped-out beats. What did that album and era represent with hindsight?

‘To A Dark Boy’ felt like my first therapy session released to the world. The amount of skin I had to shed to be able to be vulnerable enough with listeners truly began in this era. I also learned my love for minor chords and the contrast that darker chord progressions have when spoken with uplifting words. It almost runs like a coming of age story of my youth.

‘Some People Scream, Some People Talk’ is your follow-up. In what ways was this album a pivot or deviation from ‘To A Dark Boy’? In what ways have you evolved?

‘Some People Scream, Some People Talk’ is the continuation of my life story told through the amount of people I gained and lost from my last album. Notoriety can be tricky in this era we live in: on one hand I gained admiration for the world because music allowed me to travel, but the social progression, and refusal of advocating for more mental health aids towards black and brown people left me feeling numb. My biggest fear releasing this album was the box most fanbases put artists in when they don’t stray away from their debut projects. I wanted to explore my range and even the style of production that people were unfamiliar with from me. This project was the risk my soul needed to take to evolve.

Break down why you opted for the title ‘Some People Scream, Some People Talk’?

Each project I release is based on a poem. This project was a poem I wrote during the creation and it stuck with me. If you put both of my projects together you will notice it runs like a poem: “To a dark boy some people scream, some people talk.” I want each release to continue the stanza. I felt so many people who looked like me were taught to suppress both anger and the dreams they held close. I wanted to be the vessel of the people who felt unheard.

Talk me through your process recording this album. What were your moodboard/sonic references? What works or literature were you pulling from?

I grew very close to the film Clockers by Spike Lee. It was shot on colour reversal film and not the traditional film people use. I’ve noticed I gravitate towards things opposite to what most people like. There is a page on Instagram called @blackinlouisiana that documents old Louisiana archival footage of the black people who lived here. The images and videos resonate so deeply with my upbringing, and I wanted to polish these visuals to emulate that time period; from the flannels my parents used to wear, to the Walkman cassettes they walked around in. I finally got around to reading both the biography of Malcolm X, and the book they released for J Dilla. This album took about two years to complete, but twenty three years to write.

You memorialise your experiences growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on this album. How did you feel your expression was suppressed and how did this album give you an outlet?

Our imagination had to be the driving force of our hopes and dreams living here. The state of Louisiana rarely poured into the art departments in educational settings. If my father never helped me create a studio when I was 14, I may have spent more time around the wrong crowds outside. The studio became my safe place and also my go-to place for healing. Around the time Alton Sterling was killed I noticed the power of my words when I began to write songs about him: I knew there was a light that needed to be shined on a city of darkness.

The segue midway through the song ‘Some People Scream’ is one just example of the sonic terrains you experiment with. It enhances the urgency of the private and communal messages you’re sharing…

I wanted people to put themselves into the passenger seat of the ride of my life to this point. From me introducing my mother Bridgett, to speaking about the philosophies I began to subscribe to, I felt the frustration of the systems put in place to keep people around me down for years and years. Some people want change, others don’t give a fuck. Simply put.

The production is mellow and mellifluous; it’s dreamy in some places, druggy in others. Talk me through the sonic world-building…

This project is dripped in the psychedelics I took in the course of making it. Shrooms. The feeling I get when vibrations go right to left in my ears while tripping was a feeling I wanted to strike within people hearing this project. Kirti Pandey a producer and multi-instrumentalist is my go-to when it comes to being the exec of my albums: he executive produced ‘To a Dark Boy’, so it was only right we followed up together. This project was my dream creation on paper.

As a November baby, I have a connection with the track ‘November’. It’s a month of transitions and a month of reflections. What does ‘November’ mean to you?

‘November’ is the pace I feel when I sit back and breathe. The leaves fall at the pace of the city; there’s stillness all around, and the simple things we ignore we tend to appreciate most in the winter. That’s what this song meant to me.

This album explores the connection between spirituality and healing. Where are you in your spiritual journey?

The steps I take day by day are the ones that reassure me the journey is one worth taking. I’ve done a lot of work within and I hope I continue to do so.

What lyric from this album best represents where you are in your journey as a rapper and an artist?

From ‘Some People Scream’: “I held a curtain I exposed in some interviews, chose different goals. I was told they resented you, living in they ridicule defending what they never knew…” 

Which artist or album are you enjoying right now? A work you’d recommend to our readership…

I am obsessed with Ego Ella May’s ‘Fieldnotes II’ EP. I play the song ‘for the both of us’ so much.

What core messages or lessons do you want the listener to take away from this experience?

That the beauty within will be the strength you need to fight the battles you face in the world. Don’t give up when you have rounds left to complete. I want people to know in this world of billions, we are all the same deep down, just in different clothes. We can’t neglect that we all need help. I’d rather we scream from the top of our lungs in search of that help, or at least learn to talk with one another.

Release Roundup:

BAMBII – ‘Infinity Club’

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“You are now entering the Infinity Club…”

On ‘Infinity Club’, Canadian DJ and producer BAMBII masters the art of fashioning dance music which simultaneously disarms and frees the nocturnal souls walking through the sticky doors of her underground procession. ‘Infinity Club’ is an unregulated space; jungle segues into Jersey club before making way for the nebulous dancehall experiments BAMBII first became notable for. Midway through, BAMBII shines neon lights on her Toronto origins, enlisting compatriot Sydanie for a dancefloor sermon over a floaty ambient trip; centring frisson through ASMR crispness, sex and swaying bodies. ‘Infinity Club’ ebbs and flows like a DJ set – a communion and a safe haven for those who exist and thrive beyond boundaries and binaries.

L E M F R E C K – ‘Blood, Sweat and Fears’

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“There are whole regions within Wales that are surrounded by poverty… Our biggest fear is that we are never seen or heard. So, we want to create something that forces the world to hear us…”

L E M F R E C K’s honours and codifies his Black Welsh identity on new LP, ‘Blood, Sweat Fears’, an unlikely contender for fringe rap release of 2023. On the track ‘Foreign’, L E M F R E C K – real name Lemarl Freckleton – unleashes a series of charged missives: He’s no longer a regional outlier but one staking his claim as a viable alternative to the London-centric rap monopoly. On ‘Blood, Sweat & Fears’, L E M F R E C K’s messaging is filtered through half-rapped, half-sung dirges. The Newport mythology comes through in interludes and voice notes owing to Freckleton’s pirate radio origins. There are confessions, moments of contrition, territorial grandstanding, intricate character studies and lovers disillusion filtered through SOS melodramatics – take ‘Death By Nyash’ featuring some risible repartee with the always lively Manga St. Hilare.

Nate Brazier – ‘Nothing Sacred’

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When I spoke with South London’s Nate Brazier for Astral Realm back earlier this year, he talked of a quick follow-up to his debut EP, ‘YSK’; one that would shift from the dance realm, to a mutable RnB-rap amalgam. On ‘Nothing Sacred’, Brazier’s messaging is less opaque and more diaristic. His vocals – still at times sheathed in autotune – more clearly delineate a world beyond inchoate nostalgia and suburban mundanity. Having turned 20, Brazier grapples with the values he’s inherited, or been conditioned into believing. Brazier soundtracks this unlearning. On ‘Putting On Airs’, he critiques consumerism and digital monomania, his discomfit at the overload of external stimuli patently clear as he repeats “sick of this shit” as if he’s glitching. Indeed, throughout ‘Nothing Sacred’, Brazier’s awareness brings him back from serving up moral instructions, his style of lyricism imbued with a degree of self-flagellation. Wherever he ventures to next, rest assured Brazier will continue to inject abstract alt-RnB odes with a conscience.

Mykki Blanco – ‘Holidays In The Sun’

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“Italian cowboy era…”

An actorly country drawl. A thumping hybrid hard beat backdrop. Evocations of late summer fantasia. Mykki Blanco deviates from the trenchant juxebox blending of last year’s ‘Stay Close To Music’, for explicit supercharged rave. The William Eaves-produced closing track from forthcoming EP ‘Postcards From Italia’ sees Mykki Blanco on an acid-dipped European escapade. Take us with you.

‘Postcards From Italia’ is out September 22 via Transgressive.

Laura Misch – Hide To Seek

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The track is about desire and wanting someone to draw out parts of yourself that you’re hiding, and how we’re all shaped by this interplay...”

A few years ago, I came across the track ‘Slide’ by Laura Misch. It remains one of the most sensual sax-led instrumentals I’ve ever heard. Her repertoire has since expanded beyond sax and jazz to integrate synthetic lines and tones; 2019’s ‘Hibernate’ a peak in after-hours synthesis. Her soon-to-be-released debut album ‘Sample The Sky’ continues the idiosyncratic immersion. This time the source material is the synergy between the natural world and corporeal existence. The album’s sole external sample is the beating heart of ‘Hide To Seek’ – the “internal conversation” of trees recorded using geophones – illustrating Misch’s mastery of structurally precise, elemental songs that doesn’t forego the feeling of wonderment.

‘Sample The Sky’ arrives October 13th.

Elmiene – ‘Mama’

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“Would you mourn a sinner mama? Could you love my demons mama?”

Co-written with and produced by Sampha, ‘Mama’ sees by Oxford-based crooner Elmiene genuflect in an act of expiation. Continuing the transatlantic, flecked majesty of ‘EL-MEAN, released earlier this year, ‘Mama’ swells with purpose and prayer. This is elegantly-crafted, fully-dimensional gospel soul that packs a vocal punch, further evidence that Elmiene is leading the British RnB vanguard. Remember his name.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain (@ShazSherazi)