Sand – A Handful Of Sand – Album Review
I tell ya folks, I might not know a whole bunch about life in general, but I was definitely raised in a household that held the music of bands like ELP and Yes in massively high esteem…and I practically went to sleep on many nights and/or woke up to Frank Zappa playing on the stereo. These are giants of Prog and names I was taught to respect & revere in equal doses. So to see those names listed on the page in reference to what we’re in-store for on Sand’s debut record A Handful Of Sand…well…those of you out there as familiar as I am, or more-so, knows full-well that a lineup of influences like that suggests a style of seriously adventurous music and ambitious ideas to follow. A project from the musical-mind of Suki Kuehn, whom we were first introduced to last year in a completely different project going by the name of The Two’s with a single from their Push On EP called “Lullaby” – Sand still has his cohort from that band Ruby Pendrag at the helm to produce A Handful Of Sand, but any comparisons would start/stop right there. Sand reaches as far into the realm of Progressive music as a project could potentially go.
Playing the role of the “electron wrangler” – Suki goes on to create the colorful smorgasbord of sound & skill that you can always count on this genre to provide. Clearly as well-versed in the history of that style of music as he is with the instruments he plays…I highly recommend having a read of the biography you’ll find on Sand’s social-media to get the full-scope of the remarkable journey he’s been on to get where he is today. Dude knows the roots of the genre inside & out I’d bet based on all & read and heard – you’ll hear the genuine respect Sand has for the freedom of creativity to be explored in Prog-Rock on A Handful Of Sand…it’s stamped all over the place throughout this record and starts immediately with the vibrant bounce of “Cruel Joke” to start it all up. This is engaging and lively stuff y’all – and the stunning level of innovation & experimentation to be found within this first cut alone could fuel the ideas of most band’s entire careers. Ain’t that what great Prog is all about though folks? Moment-to-moment, you get a whole new set of ideas coming at ya…a whole different twist on the sound…an entirely unique avenue for the music to cruise down next…”Cruel Joke” immediately displays that immaculate ability to morph & change with bold complexity appearing damn near effortless for Sand! Definitely the kind of opening you want…”Cruel Joke” comes leaping through the speakers with personality, character, charisma…and of course, a whole range of ideas and sounds to slide right into the genre with and claim Sand’s rightful place in Prog in 2020. Great tune to lead with though…”Cruel Joke” is arguably one of the album’s most accessible cuts overall, yet still reveals a ton of the creative courage applied to this whole record as well; Suki won’t give it ALL away here, but he’ll definitely prove he’s here to have fun too. Through the vast expanse of distance he manages to roam through in less than four-minutes, you can definitely tell that the tunes on this album at twice the length are going to be one hell of an adventure.
Full disclosure, my dad’s been in a Canadian Prog-Rock band for years now, and he’s been playing keyboards and synths of all-kinds throughout my entire life. Listening to the playful and mischievous way that Sand plays “Same Plot Of Ground” was like an instant wave of nostalgia…again, I’d quite often awake to the sound of my old man jammin’ on wild riffs similar to these here, lost in the moment almost frozen hypnotically in-place until the song or idea was eventually finalized. As this particular title somewhat implies…you get a more malevolent groove here to start up “Same Plot Of Ground” – which admittedly, could mean just about anything…but I think when you hear this twisted little ditty you’ll understand where I’m coming from. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it sounds threatening…or like a song where you’d have to put every light on in your house just to listen to without being frightened…but there is a more decisively darker thread that seems to run freely through the vibes of “Same Plot Of Ground.” For myself personally, I thought this track absolutely worked…perhaps even more-so than the opening track…”Cruel Joke” is without question an impressive beginning – but “Same Plot Of Ground” really seemed to take that extra step into a highly artistic design that was audibly badass…and gripping.
Ever a fan of the melodic-side of Prog or just about any other category of music I can think of, hearing the opening of “Day Off” was instantly appealing…and hearing Sand bend the sound towards an creative blues-groove afterwards got me even more stoked about this tune. “Day Off” has a genuinely epic & subtle build to it that is bulletproof strong…the pace, tone, & musicianship are freakin’ spectacular here; it can be tough for a slower-jam to fully get its due credit when a wilder Prog song will tend to reveal so many things going on – but it’s tracks like this that display just how incredibly in-control Suki really is. Time after time of repeating my way happily through this album, I’d reach this more somber & moody tune from A Handful Of Sand, sit here, listen, and just marvel at the mesmerizing way this song works its magic so slowly, precisely, methodically, and professionally. You hear “Day Off” and you know you’re listening to music from the top-shelf, you feel me? Listen to the tone & mood at the outset of “Day Off” – it should be everything you need to convince your ears of what I’m sayin.’ In this particular time we’re all livin’ in right now in lockdown…I mean…just try to tell me this isn’t what your never-ending “Day Off” sounds like in the back of your mind! The hazy & sly way that this song is structured at the beginning of this track immediately feels like what we’re all collectively going through right now…you’ll get a slight break in the clouds as it perks up towards the three-minute mark, but it’s really not that long until we’re back under the weight of this emotionally-crushing cut. The atmosphere is heavy, the sound is atmospheric – and all-in-all, I felt like the pacing & space used throughout “Day Off” was every bit just as much of an important factor in the results of how incredible this song came out as the notes & tones that range & roam throughout. Well-composed and played with real composure…this is a massive win.
What I will say is this…Prog is just about one of, if not THE, hardest genres to find its crossover audience, which has always been odd considering the wide-array of sounds. Structurally, it’s always a challenge for the everyday listener & fans of the ol’ Top-40…and of course, with these songs being instrumental, it’s probably even harder for those same very people to sing along with Sand throughout this album. So do I expect everyone out there can hang with such a frantic ride through radiant vibes like you’ll find on “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version)?” Hell nah! Of course not! But neither would Suki. I’m a firm believe that anyone out there making Prog-anything makes that style of music for the true love of the game – and it’s that genuine interest of a fully-invested artist thriving in the freedom of their own creativity that you hear on songs that can’t seem to sit still like “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version).” I think we all have to appreciate that the process of making a song like this beginning on a Monday morning could very well have you waking up the following Wednesday without realizing where the time had even gone; you can audibly tell how many different routes Sand is both capable of creating for itself, and willing to go down. You get about thirty-five or-so seconds into “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version)” before the chilled-out intro transitions into radiant sound sparking to life all around you. Different elements of the music of Sand tend to stand out from track-to-track of course, that’s natural…and when it comes to “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version),” I’d say it’s probably high-time we shouted out the endlessly inventive bass-lines you’ll find on this song. They’re more than there and a presence on these other tunes as well, but when it comes to “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version)” you can clearly hear the impact they make overall in strengthening the sound of this song, and also how they allow the keys & synth sounds to roam even further towards the fringe as a result. Sound-upon-sound, it stacks up big-time as it plays on, spreads out serenely around the 4:20 mark for a stunning breakdown, and of course ramps itself right back up to play on for another two-plus minutes afterwards. I make no illusions about a song like “Rabbit Taboo (2nd Version)” being a taller ask for the everyday listener out there – it is – but for the rest of us, this is what this genre is all about, and it fully supplies the wild dose of versatility and meaty ideas your ears are seeking out. Plus I mean, c’mon…the beginning & ending of this tune are freakin’ gorgeous too, wouldn’t you say?
You can definitely hear that inherent playfulness and adventurous influence of bands like ELP and Yes on “Munroe Penrod” for sure. Complete with giant gong sounds to accentuate the combination of the wild & weird together as one, the instrumentation shines brightly here for sure – absolutely stand-out composition and a performance to match, the entertainment never stops coming at you on “Munroe Penrod.” Armed with a more welcoming & inviting sound at its melodic core, deep rhythmic bass-lines, and a tremendous amount of ideas being pounded out into this cut from the drums as well – “Munroe Penrod” reaches successfully for a vibrant odyssey in sound and achieves the mission it set out to. You get a really insightful balance of personalities on display in this tune that hit the mark bang-on in terms of contrast…listen to the way it starts…you’d likely never assume that only moments later you’ll end up in such friendly, warm, and inviting sound. At the very beginning and scattered throughout this tunes are excellent moments of frantic intensity and illuminated insanity that spring to life as a result of being juxtaposed with the other bright & sunny vibes in between. I’ll comment more on this kind of all-inclusive attitude in the music and how that plays a role on this whole album later on in this review, but suffice it to say for now that the multi-dimensional approach that Sand takes to “Munroe Penrod” is not just successful on its own, but it also serves a pivotal function for the entire album with its versatility.
You’ll find the layout of this album plays a significant role in how this whole journey in sound unfolds, like how the final moment of separation between “Munroe Penrod” and “Not Going” acts not just to put space in the middle of two songs, but also like it’s punctuating the end of one moment and encouraging the next to bring it on. And when it comes to “Not Going,” Sand certainly will. I’ll admit…the beginning, probably a bit wild in the sound selection for my own personal taste…definitely a few liberties being taken with the freedom of Prog happening there – BUT…by the time I was two minutes into this song, I was almost always convinced it was one of my favorites on the record. Sand makes a series of highly melodic and outright stunning moves, ever-laced with colorful sound that has an uplifting energy that seems to never let go through the whole cut. Tunes like “Not Going” really bring out the personality in the synths & keys…you really can’t escape from the impressive layers of instrumentation that roam so freely throughout this tune. Listen to how the synthetic-bass tones bounce and interact with the piano keys as they dance & sparkle between the two-minute & two-thirty mark for example – that’s magic right there! “Not Going” is a solid cut through & through, played with the remarkable commitment & passion that Suki has put on display throughout this whole record once again. Like many a Prog-inclined tune out there, you’ll find awesome moments, like the transition around the 3:50-ish mark towards the end, almost come & go too soon…but hey man, that’s the world we’re living in, and that’s the essence of Prog in action right there is what that really is. And besides…you’ve got a repeat function to get back to your favorite parts, favorite songs, or spin the whole record again…which I highly encourage you to do; “Not Going” is as much of an example as the rest of these songs would be in the sense that, the more you listen to them, the more I can promise you you’ll get out of them. I’ve been listening for a week or so in writing this review like I do with most records, and I honestly still feel like I’m just scratching the surface of it. That’s how great music works dear readers, dear friends – you don’t absorb it all in one go.
Raise your hand if you’re like me, and find that, even with as much magic as the Prog-Rock community at large is capable of creating in their massive songs…ain’t it quite often the shorter cuts that end up making the biggest impact sometimes? Weighing-in at three-minutes and thirty-seconds, “Assyria” is damn near an interlude’s length when we’re talking about this particular genre – but all poking in the ribs aside, this track jams with a really radiant theme that’s got an audible neon glow to it. LISTEN to this dude hustlin’ them electrons around the three-minute mark on the way to the finale will ya? That’s how you wrangle’em partners, just like Suki’s album credits promised he would. The beginning with the organ & percussion sounds sent me back to memories of crying the haunted house at New Orleans Square in Disneyland when I was a kid…always amazing when a song can fish a memory out of your head like that. “Assyria” goes on to be another savagely hybrid tune, livening up the sound and brightening up the vibes before plunging you back in deep into the darkness…playing coyly with eerie sounds that meet somewhere in between the middle of the Halloween series and X-Files scores. Taking care with the depth of sound and making sure to even out this cut with moments that’ll keep you from turning all your lights on & calling a friend to come over – I love that the punch in this track has the depth you’d find on a record like, say Steve Vai’s Sex & Religion…who yes, of course learned many of the intricacies of his own craft via Zappa…there’s that kind of electricity & vibrant spark running through the production and sound that makes it have a really engaging pull towards it all. And talk about bringin’ it HOME – “Assyria” has one of the best endings you’ll find on any cut on this record.
Credit to Ruby as well…when you hear just how impeccable the mix on a cut like “7d1” is you really have to acknowledge the work that’s been put in on both sides of the studio boards for the stellar results we continually discover throughout A Handful Of Sand. There’s so much to love about this particular song in my opinion…I personally felt like this might be the biggest gem on the album almost every time I heard it come on again. It’s just…MAN…Suki’s nailing this song y’all…it’s a tough one to describe, because it’s like the kind of song you can just feel within your soul…you KNOW in your DNA that this came out perfectly, you feel me? The drums are extraordinary on this cut…and I absolutely love the way the cymbals are mixed as they splash into the mix…and good lordy…it doesn’t matter where you seem to turn in this near-nine-minute epic, you’ll find high-doses of brilliant melody, masterful musicianship, incredibly inventive ideas, and a balance of strengths between really tangible moments that everyone out there can dig on, while also still finding a way to get the explorative-side of Sand’s music in there too. “7d1” and its main melodic threads that run through the song are fantastic, dreamy, adventurous, and so much more – I wouldn’t go as far as to say this one’s heading straight to the mainstream airwaves of course, but the Prog-stations out there should be picking this track up & putting it out there for the fans to hear. Great tune; more emphasis on the melodic-aspect of Sand’s music to be found here leads to a wider degree of accessibility that keeps us engaged for nearly nine-minutes straight. And if you don’t think that’s an accomplishment & an achievement in today’s era of the two-second attention span, you are straight-up crazy & there’s not much I can do to help ya out…”7d1” came out flawlessly. The clarity is absolutely spectacular…hearing this song drive its way into that first minute is spellbinding – I love the way the bass came out on this cut once again and the extra punch it adds along the way. Digitally speaking, “7d1” makes extraordinary use of an array of enticing sounds that flow beautifully and boldly throughout this tune, creating a stunning charm & allure to the music that no other song on this record captures quite as exquisitely as this one seems to. What I also love, is that with all these moments that’ll make an undeniable impact on ya that take place throughout this huge tune, they all have a high degree of accessibility or personality that could reach all kinds of people and become a real gateway into the entire genre for them. Not only is Suki potentially broadening the audience for Prog with a song like “7d1” – he’s doing it in a highly inventive way that still keeps his artistic integrity intact.
The album’s title-track reaches into the realm of a more mysterious & melodic sound that spreads out with spectacularly expressive ideas & space working to the advantage of “A Handful Of Sand.” Another strong candidate for the best of the best on this album, Sand has done justice to the title-cut and created a tapestry of sound that’s woven together expertly through texture & tone – and it’s also another remarkably understated example of an entirely different atmosphere that works perfectly. Obviously when you’re listening to Prog-inspired music, you give it that grain of salt & freedom to roam – or at least you should be…the whole genre is like a smorgasbord of sound that can genuinely take you to completely new & exciting places in your mind as you listen. It’s the kind of music that makes your brain dance, or become enveloped in thought – and one way or the other, that’s entertaining. But what’s truly remarkable about records like A Handful Of Sand is how willing we become as listeners to go with the flow, which is totally the case. In a way, you’d almost assume songs like “Day Off” or “A Handful Of Sand” would potentially belong on an entirely different record full of more hauntingly melodic vibes…but here in the confines of this lineup of highly-diverse ideas & instrumentation, we readily accept that each track is wildly different than the last and it somehow never breaks the cohesive, all-encompassing sound & spirit that fuels the album. With Sand having reached in just about every direction your brain can imagine within the colorful realm of Prog from Blues to Rock to Jazz & beyond – it becomes easy to stick with ideas & songs that might be normally far, far out of your normal listening experiences. And that’s a bloody great thing if you ask me. Again, I personally really dig the lower-key moments and more eerie vibes that songs like “A Handful Of Sand,” “Day Off,” or even “Same Plot Of Ground” all have to some degree…but I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m not exactly complaining about the rest either. It’s adventurous & ambitious stuff without question, but every moment is interesting and offers something unique to the ears…ultimately on the grand-scale of things and all the records out there in this world, there really aren’t too many that came say that for themselves, and this one can.
If you’re a fan of Prog-anything, I’d suspect you’re fairly like myself and keep your eyes open for small clues that’ll tell ya what you’re in-store for. Tunes like “7d1” and “Dekm” – these are classic examples of almost unmistakable titles that wouldn’t likely be found in any other genre out there, save for perhaps electro-music, which all-in-all, isn’t nearly as far removed from Prog as people might think, especially in a case like this with all the keys & synths comin’ at ya with their neon tones like they do at the end of this record. “Dekm” finishes this album on what is perhaps its most definitive declaration of being Prog – you know, JUST in case you haven’t noticed what’s up by this point…you couldn’t miss it in the versatile structure of this last nearly ten-minute tune. Listen the piano breakdown around the four-minute mark! Listen to the drums rip it up right after that, or the surge of synths that come in to warm up the sound with the warm glow right after that…you get the idea – or at least you should if you’ve been listening; Sand will bend, shift, morph, and transition through tons of ideas and melodic moments that are bound to catch your attention as you finish off A Handful Of Sand with “Dekm.” Mesmerizing work on the keys once again here…Suki can wrangle electrons with the best of’em I tells ya. But like, notice spots like around the seven-minute mark too…the selection of sounds on “Dekm” plays a huge role – you’ll find a lot of exceptional piano moments will guide a significant portion of this tune and increase the accessibility of this cut whenever it shows up…but you’ll also find the relentless spirit of creative inspiration flowing throughout this song as well, taking it in multiple directions. I love moments like the 1:30 mark where you can hear how the bass comes in to strengthen the song even more – and then of course, almost acts like a cue or a challenge for the rest of the sounds surrounding it to liven-up even more, which immediately goes on to happen as “Dekm” continues to brighten-up and flex wild, radiant instrumentation. The rewards of listening to a journey in sound like this are immeasurable – there are more ideas than you can possibly count within this one tune, and it’s the kind of innovative finale this album truly deserved. A Handful Of Sand is definitely one for the Prog-fans out there in the world and doesn’t even remotely attempt to hide it or be anything else than the colorfully explosive, celebratory, all-inclusive, creatively courageous, and endlessly inventive style the genre is renowned for. Nor should it! Sand has designed a record for the real fans of exploratory & adventurous music – I know the ears on my face appreciate it, and I’m sure there’s a bunch of you out there that’ll hear what I’m hearing. True imagination and creativity always have an allure to it – this record, has all that in spades.
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