Ryan Kargoll – Sunken Cities – Album Review
What a freakin’ magnificent musician!
Not even kidding…I wouldn’t say I’ve been stalking Ryan Kargoll online so much as doing my normal research and poking around to write a music review, but I will say I’ve had the chance to watch several clips of the dude playing stuff outside of what I’ve heard here on his new album Sunken Cities, and I gotta say, you can’t find a video out there of this guy that doesn’t confirm just how much talent he has. The collaborative spirit is strong in this one too…he’s got a whole bunch of featured guests throughout this lineup of tunes, which are sometimes instrumental, sometimes with vocals…all organic & natural as they are skillful & complex…I really dig what Ryan’s got goin’ on throughout this record and how diverse the material you’ll find truly is. He seems to have gone wherever the music will take him without limitations of any kinds, no rules, no specific genre you could pin him down to…the only guidelines he appears to follow are making sure every single thing we’ll hear sounds spectacular from performance to production – but as to WHAT each song is going to sound like or what’ll occur, he’ll keep you guessing.
And can I just say…I love that? How could you not? In so many ways, a record like Sunken Cities completely embraces what music should always be about at its core…that wonder & magic your ears, mind, body, and soul are craving exists within the depths & layers, instrumentation & vocals, ideas & imagination that adorn this record…just listen – it’d be impossible not to hear it, or feel it just as much.
Like you just can’t miss the beauty in the instrumentation and the way that Ryan plays a guitar, it’s just so present, so wonderfully expressive, and so well-played that it deserves the spotlight it gets on the opening track “Lion City” – moment after moment as this song progresses, he’ll seriously wow you with innovation and impressive musicianship throughout. It’s certainly clear that the man can rip it up on the axe, there’s zero doubt about that after this one experience – but just like with a great vocalist & how it’s not just about what’s being said but how it’s being communicated, LISTEN to the way Ryan communicates through his guitar and how much emotion, melody, passion, expression, and skill is there. You can hear him play with timing, with layers, with heart, with skill…with imagination, expression, and IDEAS – oh good LORD, the IDEAS that you’ll find on this record…don’t even get me started! Right from “Lion City” alone, you can tell that Kargoll isn’t going to just lay down another typical experience – this is part Indie, part Jazz, part Rock, part Progressive…you couldn’t pin this dude down to just one genre. Do I want MORE of that incredible moment around the 2:18/2:43 mark like, a million more times throughout the song? OF COURSE I DO. Who wouldn’t? Not only is the musicianship seriously impressive, but it just sounds absolutely sparkling, incredible, and engaging – I mean, sign me UP for Sunken Cities! “Lion City” has more than enough innovation and instrumentation to quickly pull people in to listen and makes for a fantastic gateway into the entire record to follow, which immediately shifts directions & reveals just how diverse this experience will truly be through the song to follow, “Prelude.”
Like…sometimes I wish people could see the other side of the screen here where I’m typing this stuff. You have NO IDEA just how badly I want a coffee right now – and to further that, you have NO IDEA just how amazing the song “Prelude” would have to then be, to have me still sitting here typing out more before I get one. But straight-up, full-stop, “Prelude” to me is the kind of song that absolutely deserves your respect & full attention – this is a seriously extraordinary moment on Ryan Kargoll’s Sunken Cities; my coffee can wait. The piano on this song is incredible…from the mix to the mood, to the eventual accompaniment of the strings & atmosphere that creep hauntingly-yet-comfortingly into this song…it’s just purely stunning as stunning gets. Which in itself is stunning, considering we’re introduced to Ryan’s music via the guitar-laden magic of “Lion City” at the beginning – just like I was tellin’ ya at the beginning, it’s best to expect the unexpected with Kargoll, because he’ll always turn left instead of right. Making a massive switch in style & sound like this so early on in a record could be a risk for many artists out there, especially depending on what comes afterwards to support it – but I can’t imagine all of our ears not coming to the same conclusion about “Prelude” – this is a breathtaking moment in time. I think I love this the most because, I could never really tell for sure one way or the other, which emotion “Prelude” seemed to express the most…there’s mystery, there’s beauty, there’s melody, there’s eerie tension as well, and exquisite serenity…it was the fact that Ryan could somehow accomplish all of these things and add all of these elements into a song under two-minutes in length that truly amazed me.
If you tuned in to the recent episode of the SBS Podcast, you’ll have heard the next two tracks in a double-shot from when we played “Reilly’s Song” and “Days Passed” on the show the other day. I’ll go into this a bit more by the end of this review – but it was a tough choice on what to play; honestly, I feel like I could have played anything at all – that’s the strength of the material on this record – but at the same time, I knew no one song would give a full representation of what this album is really all about. And given that it contains both instrumental moments and music with vocals, I wanted to give ya an idea of both those sides of Kargoll’s music…”Reilly’s Song” and its spectacularly chilled sound & precision instrumentation was a natural fit for my ears, so I figured it’s gotta be for you listeners out there too. While I’ll fully admit, “Reilly’s Song” is probably one of the more laidback tunes you’ll find on Sunken Cities, it’s also got a seriously cool, hypnotic & relaxing vibe to its movement & sound that’s endlessly appealing. This was the cut that had me feeling most like Kargoll’s music could be compared to something like Tortoise out there in the music-scene while I was scrambling trying to figure out the best reference point I could supply you all with sound-wise…and I stand by that comparison, I think you’ll hear that through the musicianship & composition of a track like “Reilly’s Song.” Excellent shimmering rhythms & sounds from Ryan’s guitar work, awesome atmosphere floating through the mix as well, and a noteworthy guest appearance from Matthew Eschliman on the saxophone, who also lent his talent & time to the vocals on the first track, “Lion City” to get this record started off on all the right notes. There’s something really professional, cool, and controlled about “Reilly’s Song” that absolutely satisfies on every level…it’s so smooth, it’s entirely interesting, and ultimately, it’s a seriously tight track overall.
The opening of “Days Passed” has gotta be one of my favorites on this record, if not of all-time – the musicianship! Good lord man! I can’t take my ears off the way this guy plays a guitar! You add in the way that featured guest vocalists Angela Klemm and Jake Edwards bring such vibrant personality & charm to this tune…and you’ve really got yourself an artistically designed experience that hits the mark. Each brings something spectacular here individually, and combined, this is a collaboration that turned out so colorfully expressive and catchy, they all should be giving each other high-fives for this performance STILL to this very day. Hands should be SORE by now, you feel me? Ryan’s guitar is incredibly intricate and full of beautifully warm & inviting tones – Angela is remarkable throughout her vocals, a great combination of Indie spirit & a hint of jazz in her sparkling melody on the mic – and as for Jake, equally cool, switching it up between spoken-word-ish moments and rich harmonies when singing. When we’re talking about anti-typical or artistic design though, “Days Passed” is perhaps one of THE BEST examples you’ll ever find in your LIFE…personally, I think what they’ve all got going on throughout the wandering beauty & poetic design of the verses is as charming & enchanting as it is wonderful & enticing to listen to – and in my heart of hearts, I certainly hope they get the recognition a unique effort & writing like this deserves. All that being said, Angela and Jake make the absolute most out of the melody and hooks in the chorus of “Days Passed,” contrasting that more niche design of the verse with a moment in time that’s all-out accessible in every possible direction you can think of. Between them, Angela & Jake bring this chorus to life with a purely refreshing energy and spark that reveals their authentic connection to the words & to the vibes created by Ryan in the music…everything works here.
Put it to you this way, the least sure I was about any song on this record was “Ghosts” and I still love it. I’m just really, really well aware of my own limitations knowledge-wise/timing-wise/composition-wise and 100% know when something is written beyond my full comprehension is all. There’s a good chance this one’s flying right over my head, despite knowing that I dig it, deep down. So don’t get me wrong, I know that I DO like “Ghosts” and what I’m hearing – I’ll just be damned if I could tell ya HOW or WHY. Like if you listen to this song on a surface level and just kind of float along with it, I think “Ghosts” works no problemo at all…I think in fact, it’s quite easy to chill out with the sparkling sounds of Ryan’s guitar and the subtle & subdued slickness this song moves with. Towards the middle though, I’m not entirely convinced that this idea doesn’t somehow start to roll a bit off the rails, even it’s doing so at a fairly slow pace; if you dive deep into the complexities under the surface of “Ghosts,” and how each layer interacts, you’ll be amazed that it DOES work at times. Again, that might just be me…I’m just a simple man, Jenny. I’m more than fine with a concept, theme, or idea flying right over my head as long it sounds great in the process…that’s where “Ghosts” seems to hold the line, rather effortlessly really. The natural flow and subtle nature of sound that “Ghosts” works with definitely works with a translucent feeling really well, this whole track floats & glides along with ease…it’ll be a tough one to stand out in comparison to the rest, especially coming after the vibrant enthusiasm & character of “Days Passed” and the all-out riot that “Dwarka” will become right afterwards…but nestled in between, “Ghosts” offers a sweet reprieve and quick moment to catch your breath, collect your thoughts, and relax for a minute, before things get seriously real and wickedly intense on the song to follow.
“Dwarka” is going to be the clincher for many listeners out there. I mean look, I can fully admit that, Ryan’s not exactly designing songs for the masses for the most part…this is musician’s-musician type stuff that us real music-heads truly appreciate…artistically-inclined songs that focus on something much more substantial than just another catchy hook…I get that. And “Dwarka” ain’t gonna fill that hole with any kind of radio-nonsense either – but dear readers, dear friends…if you were either unsure of the awesomeness in the potential you were hearing or were looking for something a bit more fierce to light up your speakers – Ryan’s gonna give that to ya here, BIG TIME. Michael Marius Ernst…oh boy…where do I start with this guy? ESSENTIAL. Absolutely essential. The power this guy brings to the microphone on this one song along could supply an entire village with electricity for the year. You can hear there’s something decidedly different in the tension & atmosphere of this tune that builds from its very first moments…bonus points for the bass-lines kickin’ up a storm in the thick of the mix on this tune as well, and of course, the thundering drums you’ll find on this cut too. Michael immediately adds to the experience along with Angela Klemm’s return throughout the verse, focusing on the mystique & melodic-side of this song, before Marius Ernst decides to throw the switch into a slow-burning rage that sets this whole tune on fire in all the right ways. Maybe more impressive than anything else is how they go from that first sonic burst of pure fury right back into the most serene, atmospherically-inclined, and gentle moments for the second verse…brilliant use of dynamics and shifting energy on “Dwarka” and all-out MASSIVE results. Damn good chance that this will be the highlight cut on Sunken Cities for many listeners out there…and I can’t say at all that I’d blame them; one way or the other, whether it’s Kargoll’s ear-catching solo heading into the fourth-minute, or the blazing heat or the scorching chorus and intensity provided by Michael Marius Ernst – “Dwarka” is going to leave a mark on ya and make an impact you’ll remember long, long after the music stops playing.
Even in the shortest of his songs, like “Prelude” earlier on, or “…To Other Worlds” entering the final third of Sunken Cities, Ryan has no problem whatsoever finding something that’ll catch our attention in some way, shape or form. “…To Other Worlds” makes spectacular use of ambiance & space, just as much as it does texture & sound, creating a compelling experience in a real short amount of time. This particular cut seems to go for a more spiritual vibe than the melodic course that “Prelude” takes us on, but another verifiable sonic journey all the same on “…To Other Worlds” – Ryan’s a master at truly taking us somewhere mentally other than where we are physically with the music he creates.
Like personally, I could listen to “Homage To The Homeless” all damn day every day – Ryan’s guitar & musicianship on this song and the mix it has…jaw dropping, yet again. Not only does the guy have incredible skills when he’s playing, he’s got a real grip on how to use space and atmosphere to his advantage – and he maximizes the potential of that combination on this song. “Homage To The Homeless” is just the man and his guitar, straight-up, on the rocks; it makes for a genuinely captivating and noticeable moment on Sunken Cities, where it’s like all the sound has been stripped away and we’re right there with Ryan for an intimate & isolated performance one-on-one. You get to hear the real heart of a musician on “Homage To The Homeless” and just how far his passion for guitar has taken him in terms of skill, technique, and tone – while some players know the right notes to hit, Ryan proves that he knows how to PLAY them…performance and skill are both considered at all times – that’s what a real communicator can do, even without a single word at all. You can truly hear the passion and love for the craft in the composition of a song like “Homage To The Homeless” – smart use of harmonics and space, beautiful tones and melody…I mean, once again, it’s ALL there for ya, even in this stripped-down sound he’s working with on this song. I’m tellin’ ya people, you won’t be able to take your ears off the guy.
I remember when it came time to pick the playlist for the last episode of the SBS Podcast, where we played two tracks off this record and ranted a whole bunch about what Ryan’s been up to here on Sunken Cities…it felt like a completely impossible decision to make. For the first reason being, just like I mentioned on the show, no one song would ever be enough of a snapshot of this record to do it all justice – and secondly, I mean, if you sincerely like & dig what you hear, and it’s all different, and it’s all equally strong…well then how on earth do you go about picking your favorites at all? You don’t, and you ultimately can’t…that’s what makes a record like Sunken Cities such a tremendous listening experience – I could have chosen any two tracks from this album and been more than happy with my choices; it’s a record built on innovative ideas & skillful musicianship…this is the kind of music that truly lasts over time. “Taklamakan” was probably the cut I debated over playing the most – I absolutely love this tune and think it’s an awesome conclusion to the entire experience; I didn’t want to give away the ending to Ryan’s story of Sunken Cities on the show though, so I left this out for you to discover. But a STRONG candidate for something I’d play without hesitation, there’s a smorgasbord of cool stuff for you to hear on “Taklamakan.” The violin, provided by Joshua Fennor, is spectacular…what…a…sound! I can’t even remotely say enough about what he brings to this final song and what a complement his playing is to what Ryan’s created on “Taklamakan” – much like Michael Marius Ernst was earlier on “Dwarka,” Joshua is 100% essential to this tune. What I think I really love, perhaps above all things…is that THIS is what being a featured guest star should be all about, all the time; it’s not just about providing the hook or singer’s taking the easy way out by having someone else come in to relieve them – it’s about finding the perfect player to suit the needs of the song. You couldn’t ask for a better ally than what Ryan’s found in Joshua here on “Taklamakan” – he’s the right fit and fills in the atmosphere surrounding them insightfully with the way he plays violin…adding to the music, not dominating it…finding impressive ways to play inside of this idea and draw out its curious & inspired sound even more. Ryan himself, displays like, Steve Vai-like abilities, instincts, and ideas in his solos & tones thoughtout this tune as well. Love the instrumentation, innovation, and imagination you’ll find on “Taklamakan” and throughout this entire record – Ryan Kargoll & his crew of featured guests have truly done a remarkable job on this set of songs on Sunken Cities & proved that clever writing can captivate just as strongly as any catchy hook could do.
Make sure to find out more about Ryan Kargoll by takin’ a stroll on over to his page at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RyanKargoll4
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