Blair French - The Art Of Us (Rocksteady Disco, 2020)
One of contemporary music's most genre defying producers conjures up a new full length filled to the brim with originality, innovation and melodic evolution.
When mixing and matching genres together, it can become tricky to find your own voice within a wide spectrum of sound, but for some music makers they are in such control as to always be able to inject their own ideals into anything they wish to make. Its that producer who understands and acknowledges the influences they look to for inspiration, taking in little bits and pieces from within their sea of passions, and injecting it into a streamlined sequence of sound, incorporating and morphing all these ideas into a record that takes something from before, but is sealed with the vision of the maker behind it. In the contemporary music landscape, we find that its these kinds of artists who push the boundaries of music forward into new realms and spaces, where the notion of sticking to one formula doesn't compute to those who's musical spectrum requires a lot of thought, care and attention. We see these crossroads appear just as frequently as before, a pillar of shining light that beckons us to its sonic message, urging us to partake in its offerings and dance the night away, or remain calm, seated and in deep thought, or perhaps put us in both places across a particular listening experience. Morphology in music is certainly a topic that is more about essence than anything else, and when paired with technique it can be a very powerful tool indeed, transporting listeners from places that remain tangible and into others that leave us in new territories. We arrive at a destination that seems familiar but new and unknown at the same time, certain features resonating on our frequencies that we become bound to but not entirely, our mind wishing to explore every single facet that is being laid out in front of us. Its these kinds of records that listeners become excited about, the foundations set right from the off before descending into a pool of blended vibes, dynamic hybridisation, and of course excellent progressions, all the while we remain certain of the person behind the music and their core ideals. It certainly is a real skill to find those who join the dots of musical stylings whilst also able to stamp themselves into the record, finding the spaces in which to remind us of who made it, adding another piece to their musical jigsaw that only keeps growing and getting more complex with each passing record. Music which's flavour can't quite be pinned down or described in a handful of words, only translated to us as something to digest over a handful of listenings, records that contain an immeasurable amount of depth and ambition as to spent so much time enjoying and taking in all the little elements and transitions that make up its sound. These kinds of records bind us to the concept of excitement, of channelling into a desire to explore more, understand more, and immerse ourselves within new worlds that little bit more. Music made at the crossroads of sound, conceived and bought to life by those who inhabit these intersects, for us to all appreciate and be thrilled by.
For producer Blair French, residing on the outer echelons of music has led to a plethora of excellent records travelling out of his finger tips, crafting so much wonderment along the way to listeners. Born and raised in Detroit, French immersed himself in the rich musical heritage of the city, that has seen so many iconic musicians and genres expressing themselves to the listening world, and it was this background that led French down the path he now walks. His music proudly remains ever shifting, moving between the lines of varying styles with ease and complexity, much like the past couple generations of dance music producers who have made the idea of chameleon like sounds their own. Within French's own works you can see this core value crop up absolutely everywhere, with his records easing between feels and tones that remain highly intuitive and invent, crafting a sound that remains unlike no other, with its immediacy and good vibrations coming through as a given before opening up to us with so many more levels. The technique applied to complexity is something which sings true from all his works, with a density that reveals itself through the unravelling of rhythms and progressions, music that channels into our inner self and breathes new life into the dance, the quiet places, the softer moments, or indeed the times where we just want to let ourselves go. French often uses the structural framing of house or jazz house as a means to allow a wide spectrum of genres to imprint themselves into his works, with Afro, Ambient, Latin, Nu-Disco and everything inbetween residing deep within the rhythm, confirming his role as someone who really understands the blends and intersects that exist between genres. There really doesn't seem to be an end to the deep pool of inspiration that French draws from, his works extending out like fingers into the collective hive mind of musical freedoms, absorbing power from all manner of situations and contexts to feed into his immense visions for what he wants his tracks to sound like. Setting the parameters far and wide, there doesn't feel like there is much French couldn't try his hand at, his style seemingly able to accommodate all manner of feels and tones, an approach that has seen him release some stunning records over the years, all of which have character and heart by the barrowful, and all of which feed into his overall signature style. Looking back through his discography, there are some real crackers that he has released under his own name, with our favourites including the excellent warm house and Afro blends found on his debut EP, 'Standing Still Is An Illusion', that landed in 2014; the chilled out Balaeric vibes found within the 'Sandbar Caviar' EP, from 2017; the hub of activity to be found on the incredibly dancy 'Public Park' EP, from 2018; and the reality of warmth and sun drenched highways that is the 'Patio Pastels EP', from 2019. French is also a member of a couple of excellent group projects, with the groups including fellow Detroiters Todd Cochell, Todd Modes and Peter Croce. These groups consist of
Cosmic Handshakes, who released one of this website's favourite records, 'In The Midst', back in 2018, that is a must have for any leftfield-dubby-cosmic traveller kind of music lover; and Nois Land, who released the equally brilliant 'Big Kahuna' album back in 2016, that will also get your mind racing to other worlds and distant plains of existence. There is much to enjoy and engage with in Blair's works, and you will be hard pressed to think of a producer who has achieved so much with sound and style than he has, a audial craftsman if there ever was one, who is capable of sweeping through time and space to conjure up moments of sheer ecstasy, for all those moments in life where you need a soundtrack to your joyous occasions. We throughly recommend checking out his works, you seriously won't be disappointed.
And now we arrive at his latest offering, the sparkling 'The Art of Us', that arrives via Detroit label Rocksteady Disco. Across 14 cuts, French truly demonstrates the depths of his talents, moving across a seemingly endless spectrum of sounds that transcend all moods, tones and contexts, with brilliant vocal performances giving a real weight and dynamism to proceedings. Moving around his lauded house leaning sound, French takes the time to pass by all the other genres he has dipped his toe into, including downtempo and leftfield cuts that really keep the pulses running and the hearts racing. With some show stopping performances from some of Detroit's finest, its as much a celebration of French's sound as it is the city in which he grew up in, and what a celebration it turns out to be. So, without further delay, lets get into this little slice of heaven.....
'Faded By The Sun' kicks things off, and we arrive within a musical landscape where the mother of all grooves is being set up. The intro sees the twinkling of keys then gravitate quickly into the blues tinged guitar, dripping with passion, as the vocal line above provides an engaging opening monologue, a chapter beginning so to speak, and as his voice fades away, we transition into the beautifully deep groove that rolls out in front of us. The groove is filled with rolling percussive features, with a mass of elements occupying the foundation of the sound, the groove expanding and feeling every inch of the room. The vocal lines that come into view provide further compelling context to proceedings, but what follows is so profound, as French deconstructs the groove via all manner of melodic features that flicker in and out of view, with the song really delving into its core essence - one that flows like water, never standing still, constantly evolving, consistently searching for that next sequence that keeps the intrigue going. The track takes a breather to introduce some lovingly placed keys, before building itself up with the heavily delayed guitar, whipping us up into a storm, as the groove then takes in keys, chords and all manner of feels, just wow. The way in which it plateaus, its just such a journey, how French ended up here perhaps only he knows, but its masterfully pulled off. There's time for some more vocals as the song plays itself out, content in the knowledge that it has really set the parameters for what is going to follow. Up next comes 'Celebration Ritual', and we see the introduction of some delicate drumming patterns to get us going. The vocal line once more adds the opening salvo, allowing us to get to know the track and what its all about, before long the kick hits, and the vibraphone/xylophone that plays out on top becomes that little bit more special. Graceful, delicate and precise, its a whirlwind of texture and mood, with the bass underneath adding some extra spice to proceedings, with little peaks and troughs adding such dynamism, with the bongos that come in making the sequence really sing. The track then takes one more dip in energy, as the vocals then come back into view, before the beat then hits right back in, and its so glorious, the view in full flow something to really behold, as we move back through into yet another masterclass of song development, as the bass line takes on a life of its own, hitting with major levels of chop and class. Its a wonderful way to see the song out, a groove to end all grooves. Up next comes 'Stay Detroit', and we know the vibe as soon as it rolls into our view. A gorgeous slowed down live feel beat, with the sound feeling alive and in session, with the looping vocal samples wonderfully interlaced with the beat that continues to evolve with each passing second, as French keeps floating the notion that melodic features will come into view any time now. And just like that, the drums quieten down for a moment, giving way for some beautiful chordal progressions to fill the screen, delightfully moving through the gears, before we move right back into the chug, and its quick the moment indeed, with all manner of sounds swirling above the beat, with the vocal samples coming back into view that provides the track with a wonderful sense of energy. We then go through a few more waves of sound before the track comes to a close, our intrigue levels really up there right now.
'F O A' follows next, and we are greeted with the singular piano chord to get us going. The singularity of the chord provides a pulse for which all else can fall away from, with cosmic sounds and jazzy lines begin to underpin, along with a sultry expressive beat structure that begins to emerge. A lovely key solo then takes over centre stage, with vocal snippets beginning to permeate through, the vibrancy just beginning to showcase itself within this track, as the kick then takes hold alongside the softly spoken guitar, moving the track into new spaces and realms. In full flow, its quite something, the ebbs and flows really making the listener feel involved, the track shifting like the sands, the groove continually evolving and moving, effortlessly breezing through varying scenes and soundscapes. Brilliant stuff. Up next comes 'Deep Tissue', which features Craig Huckaby in the first guest slot of the record. The track consists of a deep set vocal line, which appears to discuss various myths, urban legends and alternative theories, which is propped up brilliantly by a gentle ensemble of instruments, the drums in particular crafting this textured world view, with the vocals slowly fading away to allow the instrumentals to provide the climax. Up next comes 'Space Time', with Fahrenheit 2040 featuring on this one, and we are welcomed with the gorgeous chords that we may have heard somewhere else (the sample, from Space's slammer 'Carry On, Turn Me On', is inspired). What flows next is truly special indeed, the drums are full to the brim, moving from a loose style before cresting with the sax triumphantly riding high, pushing the energy up as the tempo suddenly changes, and what a transition it is. 'Space.......Time......' reverbs over the foundation, before we descend into the groove, and oh wow, its a good un. The drumming structure is full of energy, as the melodic features on top do much to take us away on a little trip, the sax in particular is something to behold, leading the way for all the other elements to follow. The track is content to keep moving and evolving around its pulse, the bass key line that comes into view around the 4 minute mark crafting a real sense of urgency, inviting the track to swell and swell, leading to one final climax, where the crowd has reached fever pitch. A truly remarkable track indeed. 'Honey Rooftops' arrives next, which features Kaylan Waterman, and we embark on a sultry groove into the deep blue hues on this one. The backdrop organ work moves alongside the delicate guitar work and soft percussion, as the bass line dives and dips around all that persists around it. The vocal work is inspired, repeating the same few lines over and over but to great effect, simply adding to the mesmerising feel the track is able to portray, providing a soundtrack to many an adventure. The way in which the track sweeps through scenes and contexts creates a wonderful narrative, presented to us via its little twists and turns that evolve and devolve around the beat and what it looks to achieve. The melodic quality of the track remains very high indeed, a easy going track that slots in well with French's more contrasting tracks, and we couldn't be more into it.
'Jeans' arrives next, and we begin off with the guitar riff welcoming us into it. The riff interplays around a gently evolving beat, which at the start is happy to play second fiddle, but before long we descend into the crux of the groove, as the riff evolves into the singular chord, inviting the bass to replace the more picky guitar style that opened things up. The groove is on point, a killer demonstration of pairing just a few elements together to craft something that really gets the blood pumping. 'Genes' follows next, and the vibes flow easily from the previous cut and into this one. The groove commences immediately, the beat structure affording plenty of space for varying elements to grow and move within, as the singular guitar chord leads the way in terms of melodic mood setting, but like with the previous cut, there is always room to grow, with the chord morphing into a series of wonderful guitar lines that dip and dive down and up, with the bass line consistently pumping away underneath to great effect. The looping feel really does a number on the listener, its constant wave like notion greatly moved forward via the introduction of beautiful key and guitar lines, which do much to craft spell binding sequences and add an extra layer of texture into proceedings. Positively sparkling. Up next comes 'Honey Rooftops (Reprise)', which features Kaylan Waterman and Eddie Logix, and the vibes keep on coming on this little number. The vocal snippet at the start welcomes us into the song, before the drums, keys and bass take us away, with the key sweep moving the track forward into the next scene, as the vocal line once more makes its presence known. The song then gracefully moves through the notions and flows, sauntering down the lane to the beat of its own drum. 'The Art Of Us' enters next, and acts as a short vocal led snippet within a sea of phenomenal music, just adding further to the narratives that have already played out within this record, both from an audial and vocal point of view. Up next comes 'Chest Drum (A Natural Unification)', that features Pathe Jassi, and the deep set drums get the blood pumping right from the off. The percussion is extremely dense and precise, crafting a very compelling foundation indeed, before the slight reprise introduces the superb vocal line, leading the way in both melody and power, calling dancers to the floor, bringing the people together, delivered with such gusto and purpose. The vocals move towards the backdrop for a bit, still issuing a call to dance, with the fuzzy key line providing some melodic foil to the vocals, before they make themselves known once more, with the track then leading into the melodic breakdown. Its pretty fucking special, after all that energy, we get a chance to collect our thoughts and embrace the wonderment that is found in the vocal delivery, contrasting between the enriching backing line and the lead, before we jump right back into it, the lead really going for it as the drums and bass line emerge to inject some final majesty into a already incredible piece of music. Power! 'Drop Ceiling Shuffle' arrives next, and the drums kick things off once more. The kick arrives quite soon after the intro, with the melodic features letting themselves known very soon indeed, a beautiful series of chords that evoke things deep within us, as the bass line pounds away underneath the drumming structures, giving a loving full bodied picture of things to come. The keys move away for a moment, giving centre stage to the drumming flows and deep set bass line, as the snippets of vocal samples float on top of this intoxicating mixture of sound. Never fear, as the melodic features come right back into full view, and its absolutely glorious, their nature one of playful tenderness, easing our minds on top of all this rhythm. French finds that perfect blend, that epic flow that binds the track together, its something to behold, on a record full of moments to behold. To wrap things up, we have 'River Crossing', and perhaps suitably for an outro track for an album full of meticulous twists and turns, this chuggy didgeridoo ending feels very appropriate. The sonic hums fade away to reveal a mellow underbelly, one characterised by soft dense percussive patterns, with cosmic floating chords gently swaying in the breeze up above. The track remains at a steady pace, providing space within its vastness for additional key lines and chordal pieces to come into view, providing a view that takes in all that it can see. A fitting slow burner for a record that really has it all, from the mind of a producer who knows his own vision and takes the bull by the horns. Simply outstanding.
There's a lot to unpack here, simply because French packs so much goodness into one LP, that its hard to sum up in just a few words just how damn good this record is. There's moments where you feel elevated within the groove, swimming in a gentle current that could easily become a tidal wave of euphoria at any minute, the transitions on display here are so expertly pulled off, and act as the pivotal element in blending the varying genres on display here. Never one to shy away from innovate thinking, French just makes the ebbs and flows that producers look to perfect so easily, a saunter through all the realms of musical expressionism that French has made his own. Never for a minute do you feel lost or confused, only breezing along in the winds of excellence, a soundtrack to immersion, to any context, to life itself. You won't hear another album like this all year, or indeed for a long long time.
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