King Shaolin – Play Against The Rules – Album Review
So…let me catch you up on the details of King Shaolin before we jump into the details on the new record Play Against The Rules…this story is moving quickly – it’s important to get onboard before this train permanently leaves the station and we all have to place ten back & forth calls through their management team just trying to get ahold of them! King Shaolin is going places…trust me on that.
According to what I can see, they come into existence around 2011 and quickly gelled into a unified band through the leadership & songwriting from singer Dominik Stofko. In 2012, they released their debut record called Road To Machiavelli Valley, followed that up with more successful singles online before the Burn Inside EP in 2016 – and now here we are with the record that they released in March of last year, still sounding just as fresh as if it were released yesterday, Play Against The Rules from 2017. While they’re no doubt writing new songs and getting started on whatever that next step forward may be, they’re making sure to take that time to spread their sound around the globe and promote their hard-work & effort on their latest set of shiny tunes. Coming to our pages based in Canada all the way from Bratislava, Slovakia – you gotta admit, their music has already come a long way geographically; but if you listen to how quickly this band has already evolved by their second full-album – you’ve gotta admit they’ve come quite a long way with their style & sound as well. Not only do they have an incredibly universal & appealing vibe in their music that will catch a ton of attention from all kinds of different listeners out there – but they’ve clearly got an intense grip on how to create songs that’ll last.
As in, while they might show you a ton of flashy Pop-inclined sounds throughout Play Against The Rules…you’ll still hear the heart & sincerity in every moment, which as we all know, is actually quite an accomplishment in this glossy style of music. It’s the combined strengths of Stofko’s absolutely remarkable songwriting and the brilliant shine that the band brings to the material through their performances together that really bring out the full potential…there’s direction & leadership here that leads to a boldly decisive sound that’s brilliantly honed-in and focused on delivering maximum entertainment and King Shaolin never loses sight of that goal within the lineup of songs on this album.
I mean…for being around for all of roughly seven years, they definitely sound like they know what they’re doing, it’s unmistakable from the very moment that “Kissed By Her Name” kicks off the latest album. Not only do the vocals immediately stand out, but the songwriting really comes through…the structure itself is massively rewarding to experience & listen to…the way this first cut flows, develops, and expands is completely awesome. Great use of the isolated & intimate verses flowing into the blissfully imaginative & fully-loaded chorus where everyone joins in…background vocals are insanely cool – but so is that hook! The main hook that Stofko has written and the stunning simplicity of it all actually shows that next-level thinking…he’s not using many lyrics in the chorus at all, but MAN is he using those words! Know what I mean? He’ll go on to reveal a similar strategy on “Goodbye And C’est La Vie” in the following tune…it’s definitely not always so much about what he’s singing as it is HOW he’s singing it. The instincts Stofko has as a performer & singer definitely lead the way in directing the melody & energy of this first song – “Kissed By Her Name” immediately becomes a powerful opener.
With snaps, whistling, and a bouncy synth-piano melody, King Shaolin heads into what sounds like more playful terrain on the surface while digging even deeper into the emotional content that fuels a lot of the themes you’ll find on this album on “Goodbye And C’est La Vie.” Love the sound of the drums on this cut, love the way the background vocals come in to support and the hook of those whistling sounds coming through to reinforce the melody; as for the lead vocals, it’s literally impossible to define Stofko as anything less than completely impressive – he’s captivating in this performance and putting his soul into every moment of the rhythm & groove this song creates. Proving instantly that the tight songwriting on “Kissed By Her Name” was no fluke whatsoever, “Goodbye And C’est La Vie” soars from verse to chorus and continually raises the stakes as it plays on. Like it’s a combination of Maroon 5, Go West, and Eskimo Joe – the Pop hooks are undeniable…but there’s so much more here than normal Pop music has to offer – you can really sink your teeth into these ideas and marvel at how much there is to experience in a song like “Goodbye And C’est La Vie.”
And like…you’d THINK that King Shaolin has eventually got to let the energy or focus drop slightly somewhere along the way…but you’re not gonna find that from this band. They’re completely dialed-in to their sound after only seven years in King Shaolin since being formed – and that depth of understanding what they’re looking for in their own style & sound carries them confidently into extraordinary ideas like “This Town.” Truthfully, we haven’t heard a song yet on this album that isn’t single-worthy…any of these first three could easily be a hit for King Shaolin – the bright melody and Pop/Soul/R&B style of “This Town” is massively appealing. Really well produced material overall, the stunning sound of this entire band is brought to the surface on this third track – the way the vocals flip between Stofko’s natural singing voice and his falsetto is as endearing as it is excellent to listen to. There’s the occasional note that you might hear wandering right to the fence of what we’d accept – but you gotta acknowledge he’s written a tremendously challenging part to sing that requires a ton of technique & skill to pull off…and no matter how close he gets to the edge in those falsetto moments, he always manages to stay right on target when you really listen to how the melody works. When it comes to the chorus, or really just how this song continues to move forward from the first moments on, “This Town” truly continues to surge with energy and gets stronger every second it plays on. Memorable hooks, unique performance, smart drums and guitars filling in on the breakdown before they roar back into the chorus and the finale of this third cut…King Shaolin is crushin’ it with a killer beginning!
The catchy combination of smooth rhythm & groove in “Nobody Said” might somehow have even MORE universal appeal than the first three cuts do, if that’s even possible! The spirit of music flows through this track perfectly…you can’t deny that beat, the vocals are perfection, the hooks in the chorus are exactly the kind that we as a people, as listeners, as fans – we’ll all want to turn this up and sing along. Stofko works absolute magic on the mic in this song…that’s about as inviting of a sound in a singer as you can possibly find…and the confident way he approaches his vocals is truly continually impressive. Together, they’re bringing these songs vibrantly to life…it goes so much further than mere Pop could ever go…these are jams that will seriously last with songwriting that makes a massive impact on both the heart & mind – “Nobody Said” is all the proof you need of that. King Shaolin brilliantly contrasts heavier emotional content in the lyrics with the brighter vibe in the music – and it’s that release in the chorus that adds that extra meaning behind them…like as in, “Nobody Said” it’ll be easy, but everything WILL be ok. This entire vibe is like a warm hug & a party wrapped together at the same time – loved it.
Half of me really digs “Walkabout,” and the other half of me acknowledges I’m gettin’ old. The energy on this cut is completely badass – so gripping and intense, the drums never quit and neither do the wild ideas comin’ at ya once this song springs into gear. It’s an interesting composition…King Shaolin is heading into like…real entertainer-terrain here…almost stylistically like something you could imagine Gwen Stefani would wanna rock. So again, if we’re talking about crossover potential and songwriting, you can tell just by a comparison like that alone that the range of what King Shaolin brings to their music is seriously widespread…it’s still got that Maroon 5 flashiness in the chorus, but those verses…definitely more like a Stefani tune would come out like. Does it work? That’s the question. Like I said at the very beginning…half of me can really get behind this easily because the energy is so amped-up & incredible and the execution, focus, and overall quality never drops…but that old greybearded-half of me says this particular track reaches for a more youthful audience with its more direct modern-day style & sound.
Loved the piano melody & vocal pairing that starts out “Fly By” and that crisp snare drum snapping into place as the song moves on – there’s a great mix of that isolated & intimate sound expanding into that series of fireworks when it comes time to building into the chorus and letting the full potential loose. I’ll say this…I dig the melody, I dig the sentiment & emotion in the songwriting, and I think that King Shaolin ultimately sounds just as good here as you’ll find on any other song on this record more or less – but with that being said, I can also acknowledge that “Fly By” does flow with a bit more challenging pace for what the people tend to quickly connect to. The juxtaposition between the vocals and the music is going to put this track at a disadvantage in comparison to many of the others that adhere directly to the beat rather than fit the pieces around it…that’s just the nature of how the masses listen to music. Fact is, King Shaolin could have chosen to make “Fly By” more ‘ordinary’ or flow smoother if they wanted to – but they’ve challenged themselves here as a band to go left instead of right…to take the road less traveled in their approach…and I definitely salute the effort. Personally I think the main hooks and melody are strong enough to pull people in to listen no matter what, and that spot where the background vocals happen in the breakdown around 2:20 made for a highlight moment on the entire record in my opinion…so don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to listen. I love the fragility in the way that Stofko sings this one…in the verses, he’s a dead-ringer for Eskimo Joe’s Kavyen Temperley.
While the stylistic performance Stofko put into “Fly By” may/may-not instantly gel with listeners, they make the case for what I was pointing out about that song right after with “Trapped In Reality” and the ultra-smooth way they bring their A-game to this cut. Easily one of the most single-worthy hooks you’ll find on this record, they dazzle & charm throughout the verse for sure, but MAN do they shine throughout the chorus of “Trapped In Reality!” That’s about as hard to resist as music can get right there is what that is…that’s a bulletproof hook, perfectly complemented by the ‘do-do-do’ lines following each line of the chorus…you’d have to be made of pure steel to not get into this tune. Love the way the synth supports the vocals in the chorus, dig the acoustic breakdown – but I’ll admit, King Shaolin takes this chorus to a whole other level…as cool as any one element of this song may be, that’s the part I’ll be turning over in my head for days and days. The qualities in Stofko’s voice are always gonna remind me of the Eskimo Joe dude, but musically, they’re nearly into Hot Chip terrain here with this jazzy & snazzy synth-laden sound and powerfully inspired Pop hooks elevating the vibe.
I felt somewhat the same when it came to “Gone Crazy” and the captivating way they put the chorus of this song together…much like “Trapped In Reality,” it’s the chorus that stands-out here completely. And like…not just stands-out, but stands-out in that massively single-worthy way. For me, “Trapped In Reality” might have the edge between these two songs when it comes to the strengths of the verses – but when we’re talking chorus and hooks, both of these tunes have such bulletproof ideas in these moments that they could carry the overall opinion of the entire song, know what I mean? Even if you end up liking but not loving the verses, those choruses in both song are strong enough to pull you into a favorable opinion of each cut without question. That being said, there is perhaps a more noticeable balance in the writing in the tunes earlier on in the record. “Gone Crazy” is a really interesting tune to listen to in my opinion…I think the verses have artistic merit, I think the guest appearance by Celeste Buckingham is perfection and wanted more of her all-too-short moment in the spotlight…good use of the lyricism & conflicting emotions in this tale of life & love. All that being said…and I mean this with all due respect & no offense intended…the chorus of “Gone Crazy” is like, the best parts of the music of a boy band or the 80’s vibe without all the parts that suck; but if you close your eyes, you can kind of imagine how well-suited a sound like this would be for King Shaolin to bust out the chairs and get their choreographed dance-moves on in a video for this song, don’t you think? So there’s that.
While I’m always gonna be a little on the fence with a song that has a ‘dance, dance, dance’ chorus – the rhythm & groove of their title-track “Play Against The Rules” is insatiably cool, I can’t deny that. Here’s where I think King Shaolin has found an absolutely awesome vibe to fuel the energy of the verse and find a chorus that still brings it to the next-level, but with more equal balance between the caliber of the writing of the hooks in each part. Background vocals play a huge role, smart & subtle guitar hooks, energetic, bright, & enthusiastic drums providing the beat, and another quick but effective guest star in the spotlight when Vladis takes over the bars to rap for a moment or two – “Play Against The Rules” has real swagger & style throughout the pace & tone of the verse and springs into party-mode for the chorus. Great vocals, great beat, great guest appearance from Vladis, and overall great results…hard to argue with the stylistically smooth sound of “Play Against The Rules” – it’s instantly catchy & wild fun. Stofko has really put the moves on the mic on King Shaolin’s title-track…you gotta admire a performance like this…confident, full of attitude, charisma, and spot-on for tone – super enticing to listen to.
Loving the electro-infused vibe of “Born Free!” and the use of space on this song. Smartly leaving Stofko mainly with the piano & beat throughout the verse, he raises the stakes here and knows that much of the melody rests on his shoulders to provide – and I felt like he really brings his A-game here to fill that in. Brilliant structure & flow of this cut…bringing in the chorus to sing along in the hooks in the later stages of “Born Free!” takes this entire idea and expands it even more with so many voices in the mix creating a massively memorable moment on this album. There’s a lot I really love about “Born Free!” and felt quite often that it’s one of the real unsung heroes on this entire record…it just continually felt like I didn’t see this one coming. Perhaps where they’d shift & change…that part you can foresee if you know timing & song-structure – but it was more about WHAT King Shaolin chose to do with each piece of this tune along the way that really seemed impressive. At the end of the day, it’s quite a unique song on this album…a bit quirky in that sense, a bit sparse in sound by comparison to many of the others – but all these things add up to what makes this song so humble & irresistible to listen to. I’ll say this – on those first couple spins through Play Against The Rules, I noticed the main hooks for sure in the chorus (how could you not?) – but it took a couple more for me to fully appreciate just how much I was really into this track. And then by like, by the time that 3rd or 4th spin was finished, I was hooked. End of story.
One of the most ambitious tracks you’ll find on Play Against The Rules is towards the very end of the album on “I’m Still Here” – and it’s tough to say for sure what people will make of this one 100%. I can definitely vouch for the fact that there’s about two or three songs-worth of ideas on this one tune…so in that sense, there’s really something for everyone at some point, somewhere inside of this song. I think the hooks (as always) are stronger than steel once again in the chorus and I think they’ve challenged themselves in the verse to create something that stands out for being different that a typical Pop song. The additional horns…like trumpet sounds in the chorus I think…the synth strings…the performance from Stofko on the vocals…these are all major strengths for sure on “I’m Still Here,” as is the intensity the ringing distortion of the guitars bring to the pre-chorus of this tune. I do suspect that King Shaolin is asking a bit more from the everyday listener here however…the verse is a swirl of emotion & complexity through multiple layers, and yet, a sparse sound still. A track like “I’m Still Here” is another example of how that one magic moment can make all the difference in the world – and the powerful way they explode into the chorus of this song is definitely proof of how it can sway the opinion on an entire song. Because that’ll win people over for sure; no matter what they make of the verse, they’ll get the chorus and they WILL be singing along. Stofko deserves an award for his performance in the biggest moments of “I’m Still Here” when he’s singing that line out in the chorus…pure passion and talent on display.
Really dig the final cut “Duch Človeka” which is sung in Stofko’s original language, which of course, puts a whole different aspect of the band’s sound & accessibility in the spotlight on the album’s last song. I might not know the words or the meanings in the lyrics of this song – but they say music is our universal language for a reason…and this last song is a fine example of what that statement really means. You can hear the hooks, you can hear the skill, passion, tone, and all that captivating charisma & charm that King Shaolin has brought to every moment along the way throughout Play Against The Rules – it’s all still there. No reason to expect that it wouldn’t be…they’re still words, Stofko’s still ultimately using the same skillset to sing’em with, know what I mean? If anything, I’d imagine most people would expect it might even come out sounding more connected to King Shaolin’s music than when he sings in English, but I didn’t feel like that was the case…I had no problem at all liking both languages he sang in on this album. What matters most in a situation like “Duch Človeka” when you don’t know the words, is that the emotion, melody, and vibe still connect – and I completely think they do, without question. There’s a sleepier, almost mystical sound surrounding the verse and a professionally controlled restraint in the approach to the sing-along style chorus they’ve got on “Duch Človeka” – and even in his own language, Stofko STILL reminds me of the Eskimo Joe guy…clearly they’ve got themselves similar sounds & tones. That’s always gonna be a great thing in my books anyhow. Regardless of that last fun fact – “Duch Človeka” makes for a unique ending to Play Against The Rules and lets us exit the record in a gentle & subtle atmosphere that still sounds & feels all-inclusive.
That might very well be my favorite part about the music of King Shaolin overall – the fact that you can truly FEEL on every song that they WANT you to listen and that they are LOVING these songs just as much as we do. You can hear that passion and genuine enthusiasm for the music they make – and that MATTERS to us as listeners…it makes it so much easier to enjoy…because you KNOW that they WANT you to JOIN them and sing along. King Shaolin makes music so inviting that you’ll feel like you’re the fifth member of the band watching & listening while they play the songs on this record…that feeling of unity through music and the power of the shared experience & bond it creates is a staple of their sound.
And if you need further proof of that or their intentions, just have a look at their main website and specifically check out the header that’s atop of their ‘music’ page…the part where it says “We’re All One.” Their music makes me believe that…they’ve got a sound strong enough to bring us together.
Find out more about King Shaolin at their official website at: http://www.kingshaolin.com
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