Niels H – Orange Purple Skies – Album Review
Some dudes were just born to rock – it still doesn’t mean it just happens overnight.
As legend has it, Niels H joined his first band back when he was nineteen…which by some measures, including his own, could certainly be considered to be a late start into a life of making music, but as you would have heard on the most recent episode of the SBS Podcast when we played the single “Say My Name” from his new record Orange Purple Skies, he’s determined & ready to make up for any lost time. From what I can tell, it’s so much more than mere words – he’s truly putting this attitude he’s got into action and making the most of every moment he’s got – and you know I’m always in your corner when that’s the case. Niels released his debut record Colour Of Our Thoughts in 2018, singles like “Changes” and “Circles” in the following year, leading up to a massive album in the next called Swain in 2020 – and he’s already back at it with a brand-new set of songs in 2021. I dig the work-ethic for sure – Niels is out there getting after it as he should be – and his enthusiastic spirit is definitely a wonderfully contagious part of listening to him…you can hear the spark it brings to what he does, and those around him as well.
Because make no mistake, not only can Niels rock hard on his own, but he’s backed up by some seriously heavy hitters that are out there in the scene, collaborating virtually with him. Throughout this new record Orange Purple Skies, you’ll find him joined by a killer bassist – Joey Howard (Hayley Williams/Paramore), and the absolutely incredible vocals of singer Katie Johnson (Solo-artist/Eversol) – there’s not a doubt in my mind about this collaboration of talents…this works extremely well all-around. Like any artist that’s still relatively at the beginning end of their career, there’s still room for everything to grow…perhaps…but really, there’s already a wealth of depth & great reasons to listen to Niels H now. Orange Purple Skies explores the multi-dimensional gamut of all-things-Rock in really adventurous ways with a highly ambitious approach…great musicianship & vocals yes – but there’s real craft in all this too.
Coming out gunning with hard & crunchy, gnarly chords – “Better Alone” starts out sounding like it’s going to be an Audioslave track before it heads into a more early-style Red Hot Chili Peppers like groove for the verses, and adds the sultry & luscious vocals of Johnson to give it all a completely different sound in the final results that would be much harder to pin down to any particular comparison. Fantastic first impression – this opening cut kinda has it all if I’m being honest with ya – spectacular array of talent on display, really clever & diverse structuring, stellar musicianship, stunning vocals, and that ambitious design I was implying earlier on. It’s interesting to listen to on several levels and just as entertaining in my opinion…I can hear that there’s a slightly Progressive thread that runs through some of these tunes to connect all these different parts together, which you’ll hear on “Better Alone” right away as well, which is one of the record’s longer cuts at still less-than 3:30 total. They fit a lot into the space they have…for some, that equates to a bit of wear & tear & trepidation in listening, and for others like myself, that adventurous spirit & hybrid versatility equals a righteously compelling experience worth turning UP. Essentially, I suppose what I’m saying is you’ll find they collectively trade what could be a few easily scored sing-along moments in favor of something more artistically involved, while still possessing that fiery spirit of real Rock at the same time…personally I think they get great balance out of “Better Alone,” and I think it’s the right message to send right up front on Orange Purple Skies. This is the kind of first impression with musicianship & vocals bold enough to pull everyone in, and writing with the kind of depth that signals to your ears that they’re looking to do more than just merely rock-out. Niels H & his crew of online all-stars are designing material built to last upon repeat…”Better Alone” makes that clear.
“All You’ve Got” brings the Funk element more into view and through our speakers, before diving deep into the fireworks of its Rock-laden chorus. Guitars from Niels are stocked with personality & charisma, the drums & bass make for a crisp & precise rhythm section more than capable of stopping & starting on a dime & givin’ ya nine-cents change, you dig? As much as I enjoyed myself at the start, I think I’d be lyin’ to ya by omission if I didn’t mention the fact that “All You’ve Got” might display its biggest moments over the course of its final minute when they really fire this mother right up to its maximum. Not necessarily saying it’s the most accessible part of the song in that universal sense – I think the flash & flair they all display as they move & groove through the first two minutes of “All You’ve Got” likely has the magic most people are looking for as a result of extremely vibrant musicianship, vocals, and a lively mix in the production to complement it all…but for my money, hearing them transition as a unified force around the two-minute mark and storm their way to the end of this track was worth the full price of admission, every time. Another highlight example of how Niels H has set out to create more with his music and what these extraordinary talents he’s got playing with him bring to the material, “All You’ve Got” is one wicked, tasty treat for the ears that packs in a wild display of range within its three minutes.
LISTEN to spots like around the thirty-five second mark of “Let You Go” will ya? That’s depth in action right there is what that is – and what a remarkable moment from the microphone & Johnson’s vocals! I ain’t gonna lie to ya – it’s THE main hook of “Let You Go” – and you’ll be surprised you almost don’t hear them dive into this even more than they do…it might be a part that shows up multiple times, but it’s still a very brief departure from the rest of the amped-up Rock fury scorchin’ your speakers surrounding it. Bonus points for the momentum & energy they generate right from the get-go here…in particular Niels on the ol’ axe, grindin’ up something special for ya as “Let You Go” begins…performance-wise, you won’t catch this crew bringin’ ya anything less than high-quality results, and that’s what matters most. The rest is all people’s personal opinions & personal taste etc. – but when it comes to what Joey, Katie, and Niels have done, they can hang their hats up at the end of the day knowing they’ve done everything they could and gone all-in when the studio lights came on and it was time to record. Listen to the way they transition & flow throughout “Let You Go” – or any of these tunes for that matter…none of this is half-assed, none of this is phoned-in…they put passion into every second, and it makes a HUGE difference! I know it sounds like an obvious thing to say, but you gotta understand – when you’ve got a unified goal, you’ve got serious focus, and a professional attitude, you get exceptional results like you’ll hear on this song, and throughout this entire album. Do I want more of that ethereal & atmospheric vibe they latch onto for those brief aforementioned moments in “Let You Go?” You BET I do! Of course I do! Who wouldn’t? Like I was tellin’ ya from the start, Niels was clearly born to rock, and rock hard – but if he’s listening really closely here to the artistic brilliance that a song like “Let You Go” reveals in the space of that one tiny fragment of this particular cut…I swear he’ll find the blueprint for his future path.
Title-tracks can be a tricky thing. Ultimately, I think almost every listener out there secretly expects to find that to be the best track on a record, and that’s rarely ever the case when it comes right down to it. “Orange Purple Skies” would be an example of a good Niels H tune in my opinion, and pretty much full-stop. What I like, I can get through the first three tracks as well, and they’ve got additional highlights that continually stand-out along with’em. “Orange Purple Skies” is kinda like the track that no one out there would ever turn off, but it’s not necessarily the track that’s gonna get your pulse or emotions raised all that much either, you feel me? I dig the lyrical imagery, I dig the breakdown of this cut around the 2:10 mark a ton as well, and I fully dig the professionally smooth & sleek design of the way it flows & the way they play this title-track overall. Fantastic bass-lines from Joey and genuinely inventive guitar moments from Niels too…Katie’s as stellar as she always is…I like the ideas in the backing vocals, but I’m much more mesmerized by the lead…I never really put my finger on what it was about “Orange Purple Skies” that didn’t quite hit the level of excitement in me that the three tracks before it seemed to. It’s a solid track…I suppose I don’t feel really one way or the other about it, but I don’t feel indifferent either.
“Say My Name” is the kind of no-BS track where there’s simply no time to mess around! Some of you out there that tuned into the latest episode of the SBS Podcast got the opportunity to check this very cut out on our show already – but lemme assure ya, it’s just over two-minutes in length & it’s a sonic fireball just waiting to light up your speakers. Most of these cuts have some sort of video along with’em online to support’em at this stage of the album’s release in 2021 – but notably, “Say My Name” basically led the way as the lead-single according to the timeline, and rightly so. For all of 2:06, these three go on to absolutely knock this song outta the park in ways no set of functioning ears could possibly miss. Musically, it’s tight AF and contains a gripping onslaught of punked-up spirit that expertly rolls through bass-line led verses and roars into the wildfire of the chorus, where you’ll also find one of the most spectacular & straight-up jaw-dropping performances by Katie on the mic – she’s electrifying here with a real live-wire vibe to the way she sings that’s every bit as strong of a hook as what she’s actually singing. While there’s no doubt in my mind that this cut is too short in all the best of ways…you’ll want more & FEEL like you can never get enough of it as a result of that choice they’ve made. A short & fiery dose is all we get…and we’re just gonna have to live with that, knowing that we’ve got our repeat button close by to satisfy the craving this song will induce. Because that’s the facts here folks…you’ll hear “Say My Name” for the first time…and there’s no way you won’t notice it – they’re larger than life on this track – but somewhere after that…maybe the second spin or the third, you’ll go from just wanting to hear this song to NEEDING to hear it again & again & again. For a two-minute track, to not get bored, or to not want less of it…for as many times as I’ve played this song already myself…is beyond impressive – if “Say My Name” was being played on vinyl over here, I’d have worn serious grooves into this record already.
If anything – that might be the reason I seemed to have a tougher time in loving the title-track before “Say My Name,” and the cut afterwards in “Turn Around.” Don’t get me wrong & don’t get it twisted – I’m not at all saying they’re not both good tunes as well – they are – they’re just not…THAT…you follow me? To me, a track like “Say My Name” is nearly universal in terms of its appeal – almost even despite its Punk inclinations…the power of the hooks they create on that song are strong enough to snag anyone, no matter what it is they would normally listen to. Songs like “Orange Purple Skies” and “Turn Around” I suppose would be more for the fans of listening to really well-assembled & well-played music – interesting stuff, where flashy hooks aren’t necessarily the primary focus. It’s all there in the instrumentation & the professional way they play…like I’ve been saying all along, I’ve got all the confidence in the world when it comes to the musicianship of these three core players on Niels’ new album. Whether or not “Turn Around” is strong enough to rock in a lineup alongside a song like “Say My Name” might be up for debate – but what they put into their music, is not. The band still puts in a lively performance for sure, but in terms of that stand-out moment that can’t be denied, “Turn Around” doesn’t quite ever deliver that significant highlight we’re searching for, so much as an even balance of their strengths & skills on display. As a result, it’s a good tune…but not quite up to the standard they’ve already set along the way in terms of having that defining element that’s gonna bring us back to listen.
I honestly get the same spine-tingling sensation of listening to something savagely special from both “Say My Name” and also in “Space In Between” as well, which is odd because there is a country-mile’s worth of difference between the sound of each song. Design-wise though, you’ll find a similar approach to the way they shift from verse to chorus, and yet another significant highlight from Katie in that spot as well. I like the simplicity in the main guitars as it starts, I like the thickness of the bass-lines supporting it, and I like the way Johnson sings as “Space In Between” begins as well…everything seems to come together in a really organic way, but like…Katie’s giving this track that extra artistic texture through her tones, akin to someone with the depth of Kristen Hersh, but like…with added instincts, melodic flair, and power of a singer like Brandon Flowers too…it’s an undeniably impressive combination, however you choose to define it, or whoever you might compare her to in that regard. The bottom line is, Niels H and his cohorts have proven several times already that they can shift a song from good to great whenever they choose – “Space In Between” is further confirmation of their remarkable capabilities; I think you’ll love what you hear in the verses to start, and find that same level of addictive sound pouring out of your speakers from the chorus echoes the very best parts of this set.
While Katie’s vocals will mask this fact a bit on “Wonderland,” the real meat & potatoes of this situation is that they’ve got a cut straight outta the early RHCP cloth & catalog with this track. We’re talkin’ bout pre-Blood Sugar Sex Magik days for those of you out there that know you’re stuff & where things changed for that band along the way writing-wise. You still find hints of the enthusiastic spark & Funk that used to drive their early records on their stuff that’s post-Blood Sugar…but let’s be real here, you gotta dig for it much harder now than you used to when they started out. ANYWAY…you can’t bet on the fact that with any real RHCP comparison to be had, that you gotta bring that BASS – and there’s no doubt that you get a brilliant highlight from Joey in the way he brings the bounce to the strings here. The significance to the timeline of RHCP and similar vibes you’ll find here…is simply to point out that those early records yielded much deserved attention, but if we’re being real, only the occasional hit that stood out. Good songs, almost all of’em really…and different at a time where music needed it real bad – but in terms of mass appeal, obviously it was the later stuff in the Chili Peppers’ catalog that would cement their legacy in the hearts & minds of millions around the world, which was the result of simply tweaking things in a more decisively accessible direction. They lost a bit of the exploratory & expressive fun you could have with’em in their earlier days…a track like “Wonderland” lets you have a little of that back & still gives you a solid display of unified musicianship & a meaty structure to absorb along with it.
I’m gonna advocate for “Vampire” being one of the bigger surprises on the album. I ain’t gonna lie to ya – I never expect to like much when it comes to this theme overall, because it’s just never been my jam. I freakin’ love me some Frankenstein’s monster, I seem to put up with the Mummy in a million incarnations, and I’ll generally watch just about every horror movie from The Entity to the Saw series & not complain – as long as it doesn’t have vampires, because in that case, I’m usually out. So consider this beating the odds supremely, because I felt like they really pulled this track off from the concept on up – “Vampire” hit the mark with its slick dose of superbly cool sound sliding, sparkling, and oozing out of the shadows of your speakers. A prime example of how it’s not what ya play, but how you play it – I shouldn’t have liked the theme, but I did…and same with what’s a much more tried, tested, and true approach to the main riffs, which draws entirely on the history of Rock since people have been rockin’ – yet I liked that as well. To me, it’s like the whole band of players knew exactly what the goal was here, and that “Vampire” was going to inherently be a departure from the bulk of the rest of this set overall – rather than shy away from it, they embraced it instead, sank their fangs into it, and reaped the rewards.
“Me 4 Me” is nearly a minute & a half longer than any other track on the record, and it was interesting to hear what Niels H & his team went on to do with the extra space. I’ll say this…I don’t know that it was entirely necessary…but I do think that this particular track gives a lot of people out there a bit more to hang onto in terms of accessibility in the main hooks & the memorable potential to be discovered there. Sounds like one real heavy foot on the kick-drum if we’re not in fact using a double-kick in this instance, which I’d assume they are here…LOTS of beats in this tune happenin’ from the throne – and generally speaking, it’s when that subsides that the clarity gets revealed along with spectacular doses of charisma & character added in through the bass & guitars. “Me 4 Me” gives you a more noticeable dose of a verse/chorus/verse design in comparison to some of the rest I suppose, with its additional length – it wasn’t a bad decision by any means…you still get a solid sample of the instrumentation & musicianship that has made this record great as well, just perhaps not as much as you might have expected to find, considering how long this cut is in comparison to the rest of the lineup is all. I like the positive message at its core…”Me 4 Me” is kind of like a self-love-song…and the empowered spirit of the lyricism is perfectly presented by the energy in the chorus & the way that Katie rises to the occasion to take it on.
What’s often really interesting to listen to are the choices being made when it comes to the structure & what we hear…much like I felt about “Let You Go” earlier on, sometimes it’s a moment, a piece, a mere fragment of a song that’ll keep you coming back – which is probably what kept me just onboard enough for “The Otherside.” Up until that point…the bridge that takes place around the 1:45-ish mark…I was right on the fence with this track – again, not a bad performance by any stretch of the imagination, just material that didn’t quite stack up to the heights of this record’s most monumental moments. But then you hear this bridge…and you’re kind of awestruck by the fact that Niels H can get something like this within the framework of what we were listening to already, and you gotta admire the ambition & effort – that’s not an easy transition in terms of sound, but these pros make it seamless and flow fluidly & freely right on into it, like they could do it all day, every day. So I dig the dynamics when it comes to that aspect of the writing & execution for sure…they all play like a unified force, and that’s a huge strength. With its mid-tempo energy, “The Otherside” will likely have a harder time making that major impression on the masses in comparison to much of the set…but there is still plenty to keep you engaged through the passion in the way they play, and the genuine highlight they create in the bridge of this tune as well.
Katie gives you a smorgasbord sampling of her palette & talent when it comes to singing “Maybe Tomorrow” – you can hear she’d be a perfect fit for anything Country, Soul, Pop, R&B, Rock – I mean, she’s worked in real hybrid vibes into this whole cut and given it a tremendous shot of versatility. Musically, it’s a bit more bendable & flexible in that respect as well…”Maybe Tomorrow” does a solid job of brightening-up the sound of Orange Purple Skies as it heads towards the finale & final cut. I’m not gonna go overboard here and say it’s the song that makes the record, but I do think it plays a significant role in keeping us engaged as we head to the end of this experience with its uplifting atmosphere. Strong hooks in the music, strong hooks from the microphone as well…I personally dig the diverse way this track plays out, but I’m also realistic in hearing the challenge such creativity tends to create for listeners out there as well. Ultimately, I think the main hooks are gonna be enough to be memorable in the ears of the people listening…and chances are, that’ll win over the roaming through such expansive terrain in bridging the gap between multiple styles & sounds at the same time…at least, I think it will be.
This ending though! Talk about generating interest right from the drop! Love the combination of bass & guitar here between Joey & Niels, and the vocals from Katie are as sleek, soulful, and stylistic as ever on “Breathe.” A fantastic example of how to create seriously captivating sound through a much more subtle approach than they’ve typically taken to the amped-up vibes of the majority of this record – this final track is pretty close to how I felt about that one spot in “Let You Go” earlier on – I think the blueprint & pathway forward for Niels H is illuminated through tracks like this one right here at the end. And if that’s not the way you wanna go out, I’m not sure what else could be! “Breathe” is beautifully detailed in its haunting lyricism, and equally rivaled by the spark in the performance & production along with it all…spectacular job on the vocals as well…it’s a genuinely flawless gem, and a true case of a little less becoming a lot more. By comparison, “Breathe” would arguably have less ingredients, but perhaps more refined ones as a result of such careful selection as well…in any event, by any measure, it’s a stellar conclusion to Orange Purple Skies and a stunning & soulful final dose of versatility to be found in the hybrid lineup of this record that really works brilliantly in their favor. Lots of positives in what Niels H is doing with his music so far…and tons of hint at the potential for his future within the tunes he’s got on Orange Purple Skies…the more artistic & ambitious the design of the song seemed to be, the better the results seemed to become, even when stripped back like “Breathe” at the end here. I’d be taking my cues from that if I were Niels H…he might be born to rock, and finally rocking at full-speed at long last – but he’s also proven to be highly capable of bringing a lot more to his music in depth & dimension. I like what I hear already in Orange Purple Skies, only three records into Niels H’s career – and I’m definitely looking forward to what this collaboration could come up with in the years to come for sure.
Listen to more music by Niels H at Spotify here: https://open.spotify.com/artist/5MKyfgV1ksbZq8BV8Ww6eQ
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