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Gratts feat. Robert Owens - Brighter Future EP (Inner Balance Recordings, 2021)

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

On one of the most life affirming records of the year, Belgium producer Gratts introduces himself to the world with an anthem that points to brighter days, glorious celebrations and wide eyed smiles, with a little help from the iconic Robert Owens.

Certain genres remain capable of evoking the most euphoric of feelings within listeners, where the inhibitions are enticed into making us get up, groove and feel the warmth spread throughout the body and soul. House music remains one such genre which has always channelled into the spaces that persist around us and filled our lives with nourishing melodies, rhythms and vocal performances, such is its leaning towards making us move as much as it makes us feel. It's a ethereal template which has remained fairly unchanged since the genre was introduced in Chicago in the early 80s, and whilst the genre has undergone some enormous transformations since its original heyday in regards to structure and style, the essence and the soul remain very much an integral element that continues to transfix and inspire in equal measure. Lyricism and vocal performances have remained an integral element since the birth of House, and have continued to flourish throughout the various eras as producers and performers look to highlight how a well timed and expertly delivered vocal performance can impact upon listeners indefinitely. Perhaps more so than other genres, vocals within House Music act almost like a solo line, gracefully meandering atop the keys and chords that reside within the mid sections with plenty of purpose, meaning and beauty, with this relationship really helping to bind the listener to the structures being played out. Many other forms of electronic music do not have lyrics and thus rely on melody from keyboards to convey mood, but there is something truly special when you have that distinctive House laden chord progression alongside the most emotive of vocal performances. It helps provide context to the chords, the addition of words into the experience helping us to understand completely the feel of the track, and in many ways helps us connect to the music even more so than we would if we were left with just our imaginations. It creates a narrative, a story to get behind and believe in, and an experience which we can continue to invest in - time and time again, never not needing more of it in our lives. In these difficult times, House music that channels these kind of emotions is needed more than ever, as it provides a little bit of light into the lives of those who need something to latch on to and dream a little bit. But in many ways, the genre has always done this, and it ain't slowing down any time soon.

All of these feels and much, much more, can be found coursing through the veins of the debut record from Gratts, which features not only some inspired instrumental work that by itself would get the blood flowing, but also the honey laden lyrical mastery of perhaps our favourite vocalist, Robert Owens. Gratts is the long term alias of Tristan Jong, a Belgian producer and DJ who resides in Berlin, and his extensive body of work not only as a producer but as a label head is incredibly inspiring and deeply engaging. Jong has been a long term fan of House music, and this passion has fuelled many of his various projects, which have included running the excellent Cashminus Music and Ensemble record labels, alongside overseeing the absolutely wicked 'Una Vida De Barrio' project, which birthed one of the outstanding compilations from last year. From a production stand point, Jong has explored numerous avenues within the Electronic Music spectrum, with the De Ambassade project (which also includes San Soda) exploring the purest forms of Deep House going, whilst the music he released alongside Eluize as Ca$Hminus touched upon a plethora of musical threads, such as EBM, Italo, Acid, House, you name it. The Icarus Traxx project also resides within Jong's musical universe, and the sound found on this record evokes the incredible grooves and emotional rawness of the late 80s House sound. All of these projects provide wonderful insights into Jong's rich musical lexicon, where differing threads of influence and instrumentalism have found a home that will always welcome them and indeed any friends they wish to bring over, and as such the world he has created is beautifully curated and filled to the brim with meaning. Passion runs deep through his works, from curating labels to running a record shop to releasing tunes, everything exists for a reason and has a hefty weight to it, and we for one are happy to get behind it all. Be sure to check out 'Commandment' by Icarus Traxx (2018), the 'Ended Up At De Ambassade EP' (2014), and 生命还存在意义吗? and VER$ION$ (2019), if you want to get a sense of the flavours that Jong has conveyed for the past few years.

The other member to feature within this new record is the legendary vocalist and song writer Robert Owens, who by this stage needs little introduction to his accomplishments within a truly stellar and groundbreaking career. Owens would become one of Chicago House's most recognisable voices during the mid to late 80s, where his tonally rich and effortlessly dynamic voice would sit atop a sea of productions by either himself or others. His initial start was alongside a certain Larry Heard and Ron Wilson, and the trio would form the group Fingers Inc., perhaps the most important group to come out of Chicago at the time, and would release a number of bona fide classics together, culminating with the groups' magnus opus, 1988's 'Another Side'. The sound found on here was a delightful interplay between Heard's impeccable key playing and Owen's unreal vocal performances, with his voice acting as this floating force of nature that swooped and dived at every conceivable opportunity. The group would split up shortly after, but the impact they had on House is honestly immeasurable, with Owen's voice swirling around the hearts and minds of music lovers the world over. He would then embark on a lengthy solo career which has seen him release countless LPs and EPs which have all displayed an impressive array of styles, tones and rhythms. His discography is littered with brilliance throughout, be either via his own productions or when featuring on others records, with his voice remaining an integral element that propels the progression and helps to bind the wondrous keys and drums underneath. Some of our favourite Owens records include the Garage House classic 'Ill be Your Friend' (1991), the beautiful 'Too Much For Me' (1992), the late night burner 'All Night Long', (1994), the groovin' 'Always' (2005), the excellent 'Inside My World' (2008), the beautiful 'Believe In You' (2014) and the rhythmically engaging 'Won't Go Back' (2021). Be sure also to check out both his debut solo LP 'Rhythms In Me' (1990) and perhaps our favourite record of his, 'Night-Time Stories' (2007), if you fancy getting your Robert Owens feel over a longer listening period. In all, Owens has carved out a journey for himself that continually serves up vibrations that could last multiple lifetimes, with his vocal performances continually serving up emotion, mood and commentary for us to wrap our heads around. His longevity persists not only due to his phenomenal talent but also his willingness to sing on just about every conceivable style of House music going, and this approach has allowed him to keep pushing forward and also portray his voice within multiple musical contexts. Vocalists come and go, but Robert Owens has remained ever since his debut all those years ago, his voice inspiring countless artists and mesmerising dance floors the world over, time and time again.

And now we arrive at this most inspired of meet ups, 'Brighter Future', which lands via Jorge Caiado's excellent Inner Balance imprint. Jong and Owens met for the first time in Berlin back in 2015, when Owens had just relocated to the city from London, after meeting in the streets of Kreuzberg, Jong invited Robert to come for a dance to his then Chalet residency. It took many more years until the Belgian finally sent some of his music for Robert to check out. The instrumentals for 'Brighter Future' were written in Australia in 2020, and were written very much as a reaction to the world and its current dire situation, in order to bring a little bit of hope and joy into the mix that people can latch on to. The music is immediately inviting, the tones of the keys pointing to sunlit skies brimming with life, whilst the groove runs through the body, as excitement and joy fill our bones. The instrumentals are impressive by themselves, but when you throw Robert's vocals into the mix, the feeling only intensifies into an explosion of delight and anticipation. The record itself consists of the original mix, along with a remix on the flip from Jorge Caiado and a dub version courtesy of Gratts, so if having one version wasn't enough, there is a holy trinity for which to dive into and get to know, no matter what context you find yourself within. So, on that note, let's dive right into this gorgeous slice of House music, that will have your soul spinning endlessly.....

Up first comes the original cut, and we are greeted immediately with the drums and chord line to get things going. The chords glimmer within the backdrop, shifting through the lines with a wonderful sense of intent, their placement matched by the growing presence of the drums which intricately tap along underneath, and as time passes by the complexity of the rhythmic structure grows even further. The stage is set for Owens to slide into view, and his vocal lines begin to chime in up top in a series of layers, converging between the repetition of 'bright' and the longer wavering 'bright future' utterance, and as a mixture of words it works effortlessly. The track takes a break before launching into the first verse, and this is where we are left alone with Owens' voice for a while, the tone of his voice as always mesmerising to the ears as he weaves through every conceivable layer within the top ends of the track. The synths in the backdrop seem to respond to his dynamism, with elements moving in and out of view in order to provide a sense of progression, and its this momentum that flows very nicely into the switch up that occurs around the 3:30 mark, where the chords become solid and Owens' voice matches perfectly. The segment that comes next consists of a number of sequential flows that merge and converge beautifully with one another, as if they are speaking to one another, conversing about the good times that lie ahead for those who wish to seek them out. A saxophone then comes into view, and as if the conversation couldn't get any more engaging, Owens does some incredible stuff in response, his high notes cutting through stone as we shift into a bliss like existence. The drums then kick out for an extended period, where we are greeted with a conservational line and some more of Owens' voice, but the beats aren't far behind, and as we see out the final stanza of this track we reflect on what we just went through, and it's oh so positive. You can't help but feel good inside, and that is down to the way this track has been constructed - for us all to feel just that little bit more connected and together. Wonderful stuff. Up next comes the Jorge Caiado remix of the title track, and this one begins in slightly differing territories to the original. The welcome consists of a 90s era bass line alongside a less dense but equally compelling drumming pattern, as all manner of textures persist on the outskirts. Owens' vocal line from the first verse comes in right from the off, its path weaving and meandering through the top ends of proceedings as we begin to immerse ourselves in the momentum. Chords then flicker into life within the mid section, along with little elements that featured in the original cut, with all these new elements providing us with an indefinitely groovy rhythm section to dwell deep within. This passage is stretched out so that every bit of goodness can be enjoyed, with the climax at the end leading into a breakdown where Owens resurfaces, with his voice merging excellently with the melodies. The track then takes it down once again before climbing back up for the final flurry, and it's just as enjoyable as the first time we dived into it. What a wonderful reimagining.

To wrap things up, we have the 'New Vision Dub' version to wrap our ears around, and this one begins with the drums and Owen's voice to kick things off. As time passes the bass emerges from underneath, and then the keys cascade into life, with an initial chord progression hinting at things to come. Owens' voice holds the pulse very well indeed, and as the kicks remove themselves from the blend we get lifted off the floor once again, as the keys come into view at all the right moments. The track then shifts into a dubbed out section, where the vocals feature less densely and and the drums come through very strong indeed, and as we continue to flow onwards the rhythm just hits in all the right places. The little variations in melody and vocals are a delight, and help to propel the track into new spaces, which occurs when the kicks slip away before leading into a groove that just won't quit. The flow continues to impress, with the drums hitting hard, the keys descending when they feel like, and of course Owens delivering up some memorable moments within the top ends, and as an ensemble it just works so very well. It's a fitting end to a record that serves up so much emotion, meaning and heart, and as an experience you will certainly want to return to understand all the little things that permeate through the blends. This record has certainly brightened up our day, that's for sure.

House music has always made people feel good, or feel something anyways, and that is largely down to the essence that runs through its veins. We might not be able to put our finger on it exactly, but it evokes something within us that makes us close our eyes, breath and think of happy places, people and experiences. In keeping with these traditions, this new record from Gratts symbolises everything that House music can achieve when its executed just right, and the success of this record boils down to the inspired instrumentation, Robert Owens putting in a remarkable vocal performance (as always) and the three differing versions of the track which just add icing on the cake. From the off the mood is immediately uplifting, with glittering hopeful synth lines meandering around rhythms that chime along to life itself, and atop all of this we are accompanied by Owens' glorious voice which acts like a beautiful solo element that provides rhythm, mood and commentary. The album is called 'Brighter Future', and not only does the music embody this name but it feeds us with its message, one that converges with our own hopes and dreams and fuels our desires to do better, be better and feel better. The tracks unravel in such a way as to almost reinforce the idea that music can be life affirming, and the ingredients are deftly balanced and perfectly presented. You won't hear a record that lifts the soul as much as this one, so if you feel like you're looking at your feet too often, put this record on and feel your head reaching for the stars. Beautiful stuff.

The above image is a still from the up coming video for 'Brighter Future' - keep your eyes peeled!

You can pre-order the vinyl here:

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