Black Astronaut – Life On Mars – Album Review
All kinds of imagination, ideas and talent combine to form the collaborative efforts of Black Astronaut & their music. Led by lead songwriter Charles Luck, the number of players, singers, rappers and musicians involved quickly multiplies from there…all united by the shared purpose found in creating something new and reintroducing ‘lyric focused rap music to the new generation for the good of the spirit of hip-hop.’
So…don’t get me wrong…it’s one thing to read and another thing to experience entirely. Black Astronaut instantly comes out throwing a curveball with the spoken-word piece “The Race” beginning the record. Confusion sets in quickly, realizing that this intro narrative is actually 2.5 minutes long as opposed to a thirty-second sample that immediately leads into the record. While the story is good…and the words do rhyme…you’ll be left wondering where this album might be heading instantly – or if what we’re hearing is that ‘lyric focused rap’ the write-up on the band was referring to. It does make for an interesting beginning…I’ll say that…I have the suspicion that Black Astronaut is taking a slight chance in launching the record with a longer-spin on an intro-cut…but even I myself was positive that once “The Race” was over that surely that led into the rap as advertised…
…and so…well…I mean…I’m sure you can appreciate that when the next track featuring the singing of Jonathan BT began their collaborative cover of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” that even the detectives at the back of the office are beginning to also catch on to the fact that there’s clearly a lot more going on here than just presenting ‘lyric focused rap to the new generation.’ I don’t have an argument for “Life On Mars” being any kind of hip-hop track…so I’m thinking the behind-the-scenes write-up & description of what Black Astronaut is really all about might need a bit of a re-write… All this being said – Jonathan BT does an absolutely solid job on the vocals of “Life On Mars” – truly…that’s more than a respectable performance, it’s entirely magic and hits all the right tones spot-on. The music is minimal but captivating…the setting & atmosphere established for this cover is highly unique in comparison to the original’s sound and I think they’ve done an absolutely excellent job of recreating a classic here.
From the instant sound and tone on Tino Red’s voice…hip-hop has ARRIVED on the Black Astronaut album…it is HERE. I’ll say this…I hear a lot of emcees…I hear a lot of rap, hip-hop and whatever the heck trap-music is supposed to be…I’m exposed to a lot – and it is RARE to hear an emcee this comfortable, skilled and ready-to-roll like you’ll hear Red is. “Land Of The Lost” comes out sounding bold, confident, stylistic and massively impressive; rooted in real hip-hop just as they’ve promised…you’ve got incredible bar-after-bar establishing a serious impact through insightful social commentary and passionate flow. Gotta say…after wondering what card was held up the Black Astronaut sleeve after reading they were about hip-hop and having a much different experience at the beginning of the record – now that we’re here I can certainly understand where they’re coming from. For fans of the old-school cuts where lyrics truly mattered and emcees truly had something to say & knowledge to share – you’ll absolutely love what is going on with “Land Of The Lost.” As the words weave around the hauntingly charismatic atmosphere of this first hip-hop cut perfectly – your ears will quickly recognize that this band can truly write a hit-song while still delivering messages and words that resonate and make an impact. That’s a seriously incredible gift…much credit to Tino Red for representing the mic so well and making the switch in the record’s energy a ride completely worth taking.
“Muse” is equally powerful in the performance of Red’s mic-work and the beat picks-up a bit more to bring in additional energy. The rap-flow is once again 100% spot and starts to also introduce a bit of that classic humor in the attitude of real hip-hop often used to highlight the points being made in the lyrics. The hook in the chorus is strong…I’m fine with the way it sounds and the way it’s been sung even though it’s one of those more real-and-raw approaches to the delivery – but…it’s definitely pumped-up a bit too loud in volume by comparison to what we hear in the music and the verse beforehand. The idea itself is a good one…but slightly over-emphasized in mix when examined…with the added power added into the vocals being sung out they’d still stand-out plenty if they were lowered to suit the track more and it’d help the music pop the way it should in these moments too. Other option of course is to bring up the volume on the rap verses as well…but again, I think for the sake of the music the best idea would be to slightly bring down the chorus of this one to settle into the mix a bit more. Might just be me…but like I said…still a great tune…I mean…it’s not like I’m turning this off by any means!
Best thing I can say is listen to the production on “Lunar Lunatics” and you’ll get a better idea of what I think really works well for Black Astronaut’s music. The lyrics are threaded SO WELL into the mix here…I mean…LISTEN to this track will you? No joke…after about my 6th or 7th time through the record I was absolutely convinced that this is one of the most genius tracks I’ve heard all year if not of all-time. Tino Red…continues to absolutely impress…reminds me a lot of Speech from Arrested Development with a bit more edge or determination to his tone; but with the added beat/combination being assisted by the incredible editing on a sample from Pink Floyd…Black Astronaut blasts straight out of orbit on this one with one of the easiest to like & most accessible grooves you might ever hear. The vibe on “Lunar Lunatics” is a playful one…but don’t let it fool you – the amount of skill in the assembly, production and performance on this tune is absolutely as serious as it gets – they NAILED this track…a real highlight for the entertainment-factor on this record and another gold-medal achievement in the lyrical Olympics.
Believe it though…things continue to get even more lighthearted and playful as Black Astronaut & Tino Red ponder the ever-important question that we ALL ask ourselves at one point throughout our lives on “Is The Galaxy Just Pimping Me?” Making use of a Lisa Mitchell sample on this one…I dig what they’ve done here in the chorus with the twist on the sound that I’m sure exists even without being familiar with her work or music. Black Astronaut absolutely assembles another seriously impressing composition & production here on “Is The Galaxy Just Pimping Me?” – but the amount of uplifting JOY you’ll get from listening to this makes this vibe massively FUN to listen to and SO EASY to groove along with. Tino Red has really added strength to this record with a pitch-perfect tone and energy brought to each of these rhythms & cuts we’ve heard…but even here on “Is The Galaxy Just Pimping Me?” you can STILL hear the impact that a truly good time has on an emcee. His performance is lively, vibrant and highly skilled…I could listen to this guy spit rhymes all day long when it really comes right down to it and his style has never sounded like more of an invitation to do just that than it sounds like on “Is The Galaxy Just Pimping Me?” Brilliant cut from beginning to end.
Keeping the themes of space & atmosphere prevalent as Black Astronaut incorporates a David Bowie sample into the music of “The Show” for a more serious sound and approach. A few slight air & balance issues in the mix on this one by comparison but nothing so harsh that it would kill your enthusiasm for what you’ll hear. “The Show” draws upon a melancholy set of chords from “Space Oddity” and lyrically it heads back towards a much more serious vibe than we’ve just been experiencing on “Lunar Lunatics” and “Is The Galaxy Just Pimping Me?” – so admittedly…it’s a tough spot on the record for any song to exist in. Even though the mix issues make themselves slightly more known towards the end of this track, some of the best ideas on this song also do as well; “The Show” might need a bit of further refinement in the mix but the idea is intact and the concept is strong.
Tino Red gets a momentary break for a set of three tracks that feature other vocalists taking on the microphone duties, starting with “Kaleidescope” featuring Gyro. Powerful mix on this cut and the beat has excellent rumble & shake to its pace, sound and production…overall I’d say the guitar-led rhythm in the music sets the stage for Gyro to confidently command the mic and bring this one home. Credit to Black Astronaut’s main songwriter Charles Luck…thanks to his focus and attention, thematically these songs stay completely cohesive to the record even as it changes from song to song or singer to singer; “Kaleidescope” offers that same gripping insight and social awareness that you found in the songs led by Red at the mic. Quality doesn’t drop and neither does the entertainment as the album heads towards its later-stages – “Kaleidescope” makes a good case for our collectively-cracked perspective on our world today and how it’s those tiny cracks of light in the dark that make everything we do worthwhile.
If you want a fantastic glimpse of what beautiful sounds like…check out the performance from Muze on “Stardust.” It’s credited as a ‘Beatles Interpolation’ but let’s face facts…we ALL borrow from the Beatles at some point or another don’t we? I’m pretty sure each week new artists and songs come out Paul sits at his breakfast table thinking about how he’s inspired that whole new set of artists and songs, as distantly related however they may be. As additional sidenote…I’ve certainly heard a whole bunch more songs that truly SHOULD have given credit to the Beatles for similarities before this one needed to. The beautiful and extraordinary performance of the melody and piano of “Stardust” and the stunning vocals are the perfect pairing. Muze delivers an honest, real and raw performance…it sounds so free yet so very connected to the melody and the music…I really admire, respect and love the way he’s chosen to go about singing this song and think that “Stardust” made for one of the most intimate and special moments you’ll find on this entire album – it’s gorgeous.
Gyro steps in to bring the energy back up in the music with an inspired performance on the empowering anthem of “When You’re Down.” Something about this track made me smile…the dude I make music with personally brings out organ-sounds all the time in what he writes and I always look at him like he’s crazy…I don’t find them to be something that works in very many songs – BUT…something about the way they’re laced into this vibe absolutely had me smiling. Not only did I appreciate that their glorified sound had me captivated…I had to grin because I realized that at this point in the record I have ZERO urge to rebel – Black Astronaut has me completely on their side. “When You’re Down” is seriously SO MUCH fun and so uplifting to listen to…and honestly, I feel like those are the true intentions behind this entire project. They WANT you to have a great time…they WANT you to learn a thing or two or examine LIFE a bit…but they WANT you to feel that uplifting energy and feel that inspiration…and on tracks like “When You’re Down” they truly hit the mark of their intentions.
Whether or not they believe that the positivity they write about exists on this particular planetary experience or the next one we inhabit…well…it’s hard to say. What they clearly do believe is that the experience itself continues…and their collective faith in humanity seems to be unshakeable…and I admire that in times like these. “Live Within” is a solid conclusion to the themes that have been presented throughout the record and leave us on real highlights of insight on unity, togetherness and how we all treat each other. What I appreciated beyond all things in this final cut is that it doesn’t let us off the hook as individuals…unity and togetherness are great things for certain, but the movement starts within each and every one of us. “Live Within” reminds us to look deep inside ourselves to remember what’s important and examine how we relate to each other…and again – I think the messages on this cut and definitely throughout this record are the exact kind that need to be heard right NOW. While it might have been a little bit bass-heavy in the mix…I’m more than satisfied with how Black Astronaut have ended this record and represented themselves…and ALL of us throughout the songs on their highly imaginative and inspiring debut album.
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