Sugar Loaf Walker – Benign Penny – Album Review
In a way…it’s kind of like an album that’s been at least twelve years in the making…
…and it’s not all that often you’ll find something like this that was so well worth the waiting.
I have absolutely loved every single solitary second I’ve been able to spend on Benign Penny by the artist known as Sugar Loaf Walker. If you dig on your instrumental guitar-based records, you gotta listen to this…and for those of you out there that love hearing personality in the music you listen to, same applies – Benign Penny is about to prove itself to be an album that your playlists all need to contain this year.
As I understand it, these songs all trace back to the demos that Sugar Loaf Walker had created long ago, back in 2009…that’s their origin story, in a nutshell. Not only did SLW live on an entirely different continent at the time, back in England before an eventual more to Jordan – but at the time, it sounds like the man was fairly on his own. In polishing these songs up over the pandemic year at long last – good ol’ Sugar Loaf has enlisted a team of all-stars to help assist in bringing these songs to life, including the talents of Arjun Raghuraman on the bass, and Vinay Ramakrishnan on the drums. Make no mistake – keeping up to the undeniable talent of Walker was not going to be an easy task and I’m sure that it probably wasn’t – but these three players combined would never let ya know it…everything you’ll hear on this record sounds like it was purely meant to be. However they connected, however they found each other – the proof is in the pudding, as they say – this entire record slays from start to finish, 100%. Special shout-outs to Jake Naugle who will also make an appearance later in the lineup, and take over the drum throne for “Strange Land,” to Kevin Carafa for kicking ass on the mixing & mastering – and to both Penelope Lakshmi Ayer, and the memory of Penelope Ruth Corbett, for whom Benign Penny is dedicated. I highly recommend hitting up the link to the main site below and read the full story on how this whole record got put together, who inspired it, and of course, to hear it for yourselves – all of you.
While you will tour through the many different ways that instrumental guitar-based tracks can make an impact in sound & style – you’ll notice that personality, character, and charisma are gonna lead the way in this sonic odyssey we’re all undertaking, instantly as the first cut “The Late Summer” starts to beam out its upbeat vibe. I loved the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re all gathered here to listen to some Sugar Loaf Walker jam out some guitar for us – and the very first thing I noticed was actually the serious groove in the bass-lines and the crisp snap of the snare. That alone should tell ya something – yes these are Sugar Loaf’s songs – but in these final results, you’ll hear an unbreakable combination of unity in music that brings out the best in all three of the record’s main players – and that starts immediately. “The Late Summer” will go on to reveal your first significant dose of the skillful way that Walker slides in, out, and around the rhythm section with his guitar work so smoothly, and bring verifiable hooks to your speakers that are as interesting to the ears as they are intricate to play. You’ll get an excellent sample of what’s to come without the full story being given away whatsoever – “The Late Summer” gives you a mere taste of what’s gonna follow, allowing you to ease into this experience like a hot knife cuts through butter. I know I won’t be alone in my assessment – all of our ears can hear what genuinely compelling & captivating music truly sounds like, and right off the drop, Walker & his crew prove fully ready to supply.
Sliding his way into a stellar groove that merges the realms of Indie-Rock & Blues perfectly – “Capers” keeps it tight at just over two-minutes in length, but still gives ya everything you’ll need. If you felt like you didn’t quite get enough Sugar Loaf in that first Sugar Loaf tune – I hear ya – but I also promise ya he more than makes up for it in the quaint vibes of “Capers” and its spectacular mix of welcoming & warm sound. That first major shift in direction around twenty-seven seconds in…I mean…it’s just straight-up stunning, and makes the full impact it should on us as listeners. As we absorb these notes bending time & space around us as they play, you get a ton of soul & passion & sincerity in “Capers” that completely hits the mark along the way. There are really fantastic, proficient, and profound players out there in this music-scene we share – and Sugar Loaf is one of’em…I could listen to this guy play the guitar all day long & twice on Sundays – and I’m ready to do it all over again this week, clearly, by having this here album posted up today on a Monday in review. “Capers” is a subtle Blues-inspired song that isn’t ever too Blues for you not to just love it & wanna turn this right up…heck, I’d argue this song even has a truly inspiring & uplifting vibe right at its core if I’m being honest with ya. Inspirational Blues – is that a thing?
I might make an argument that, where my own interest is sparked instantly through “The Late Summer” – I think it’ll be “Miser Rosy” that determines how quickly the rest of ya join me in digging this record. What’s the difference? Really just accessibility and a shinier main hook is all – the actual musicianship isn’t gonna let ya down, nor will it on any of these songs – Sugar Loaf is damn good at what he does, the talent surrounding him is of equal caliber & commitment – and you can hear it as they stomp through the fun that “Miser Rosy” generates, together. It’s got a real playful riff that fuels its heartbeat – and I can’t imagine anyone out there not finding it as irresistible as I do – there’s lots of great stuff happening throughout this short timeframe of 2:32, but it’s that main guitar hook & drum-beat combo that’s bound to snag everyone. This track really kind of has it all in the most remarkable ways…the core in the rhythm section is purely unbreakable and plays with resounding confidence, opening up the doors for good ol’ Sugar Loaf to put the honey into your speakers with a syrupy-sweet set of guitar tones that can’t help but brighten your day through the uplifting vibes and highly accessible hooks – “Miser Rosy” is fantastic!
It felt like there was a decisive shift that occurred at that point in the record as well…if we’d all been enjoying ourselves so far, then trust me when I say, “Miser Rosy” becomes a beacon of the awesomeness that’s yet to follow as Walker finds even more ways to express the personality and character of his music on this album. “Hip Pop” would probably be up there with my own favorites for sure…I really think the world of this tune and the hybrid vibes it has – I mean, straight-up, this is the kind of song with the exact strength required to pull in those people that think they can’t get into instrumental music and retain them as permanent fans now ready & willing to explore the whole genre. Not only could I sit there & listen to Sugar Loaf find his way up & down the fret-boards all day long and be extremely happy to do so – but this whole band makes an incredible impression through their efforts and skills…everyone shares the spotlight brilliantly throughout “Hip Pop.” The drum sounds & the inventive beat this track has is already worth the price of admission – you factor in the stunningly smooth tones from the bass & the impeccable solo…the guitars from Walker soaring through the mix…I mean…”Hip Pop” should have all your ears wanna hear & then some honestly – it’s audible perfection. To me, it’s the overall sincerity & the combination of passion & emotion on display that might even be more moving than anything else…you really can’t lose when it comes to what you’ll love about this song.
Armed with a bit more length & space to create, we end up in the “Pink House” next – and you’ll once again be pleased with what you discover here. As it begins, it has the hallmarks of a pretty subtle but stylistic Blues-style cut coming atcha – but believe me when I tell ya, the switch in this song is more than significant, it’s a straight-up sonic revelation and ends up taking this track to the next level it deserved. When they originally kind of kicked into gear just past the thirty-five second mark, as I so often do around these parts of the studio on this side of the screens & speakers, I thought to myself “Oh…alright – that’s what this song’s gonna do. Cool enough.” And then by the time this track burst open in the transition around the 1:45 mark, I had to laugh in realizing how very, very wrong I was. Sure you get tiny little sparks of life in between the beginning at that point, but nothing like how this song comes ALIVE afterwards. Brilliantly fueled by the rhythm track laid down in the background – that hook alone would be enough to snag the majority of us listening – yet we still get SO MUCH MORE in the badass way that Sugar Loaf twists this tune from the Blues into some sort of crazy Pink Floyd-esque level of atmosphere & exciting sound by the end. In terms of where a song starts and where it all ends up, “Pink House” is bound to be one of the most impressive and surprising cuts that listeners will find on Benign Penny.
While you’ll kind of expect to find that switch occur somewhere along the lines of “Last Chance” to follow – the band is on a different mission with entirely different goals and ambitions for this particular cut. If you can’t somehow hear the extraordinary musicianship to be found from every player on display, you’re listening to this album upside down…and somewhere there inside of ya, you’re missing something – sorry. “Last Chance” will remain a lot more stoic & steady in its overall vibe, which is actually built of a seriously impressive of subtle Reggae & Blues combined for the most part…not really two sounds I’d associate together typically, and that already made this an interesting experience for me as a result of this clever choice in style & sound. But the instrumentation! Good lordy the instrumentation! At a slow pace like this track has, you get the opportunity to absorb every sweet morsel of sound comin’ atcha – and this is where the man Kevin Carafa deserves an extra shout-out for the amazing mix he’s got on a cut like “Last Chance.” The band is so in the zone here, I maintain that any set of ears could hear it – for as subtle as it all may appear, these players give you the complete razzle & dazzle through what they do, making it damn near impossible to highlight one element as any better than the other, or any more crucial. I hear the drums on this cut and I’m blown away, truly. Then I start to notice the exquisite bass-lines and I’m certain that’s the standout aspect. And then of course, there’s the main man himself, good ol’ Sugar Loaf to consider too, who’s obviously firing on all cylinders with remarkable tones, textures, technique, and relentless creativity & craft beaming through his guitar. We’re spoiled for choice on “Last Chance” when it comes to spectacular musicianship, that’s the facts.
Listen to the precision & strength in a track like “Hitchhiking” – no joke, it’s spellbinding. Vinay has such incredible technique on the drums that it continually blows my mind, it truly does. In terms of a full-on assembly of talented all-stars to support him, Sugar Loaf has built this record with bulletproof players that don’t just play these songs, they feel them just as much as Walker does – and you can HEAR that. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can ever find from the talent surrounding you, is that authentic level of commitment & dedication it takes to fully realize someone else’s material…this might be Sugar Loaf’s stuff from way back in the day, sure – but it’s this entire band that has brought it to life in the present. I listen to the variety of vividly colorful sound & intensely rhythmic & melodic skills on display in a track like “Hitchhiking” and there’s not a single doubt in my mind that, were I any of the three main players in this band right here, I’d definitely have found every reason to want to keep this combination of exceptional talent going on in the future to follow. Because that IS going to happen – right? Someone out there tell me this band is gonna keep on making more music so I can sleep tonight at some point, will ya? I absolutely love the way these guys play together, and tracks like “Hitchhiking,” prove they’re capable of thriving in yet another different gear than we’ve heard in the past. Do they get a bit wilder & color a little outside of the lines on this song in comparison to the rest, or beyond what the masses can genuinely stick with? It’s not outside the realm of possibility…but for those of us looking to listen to music with true sonic expression, clever timing, and undeniable skills – heckin’ EAT UP, because there’s a smorgasbord of it all right here for ya. You might even find the occasional jarring tone or two throughout “Hitchhiking” in amongst the beauty flowing through the main atmospheric vibe it has – but we’re talking minimal moments to the nth degree, and it strengthens the audible proof that these guys are willing to go with their creativity wherever it leads them…to be present, and focused in the moment. Overall, what you’ll hear is simply sensational musicianship that should be stood up for, and applauded.
Credit to the man Jake Naugle, he sits right down on the throne and comes in like he’s right at home here too. I ain’t gonna lie to ya, after all I’ve heard from Vinay throughout this whole record, he had some HUGE shoes to fill – and I’m more than pleased to report he holds his own solidly with jazzy style to his approach that gives this subtle cut a deadly groove in tandem with the stellar bass-lines supplied by Arjun on “Strange Land.” For nearly five minutes, the stay right in the pocket of this lean & mean lil’ ditty – it’s a stylistic dose of superbly controlled, effective, and efficient levels of cool – a track that we can all feel as we listen. The opening fifteen seconds will have you bracing yourself for what might be to follow, but I assure ya, you’ll be met with some of the most mellow vibes & grooves you’ll find on Benign Penny…they work with a genuinely mesmerizing & hypnotic approach to this track, and the results come out tailored perfectly to that design, that’s exactly how it sounds to us, as listeners. You get lost right into the thick of a track like “Strange Land” because they play it with real unity and relentlessly tight musicianship that’s as exploratory as it is precise. Note for note, beat for beat, we’re captivated by cuts like “Last Chance” and “Strange Land” that put high emphasis on the extraordinary talents they possess, and dole it all out to us with a stellar mix that can’t seem to help but slide right into your ears with ease.
Arjun! You magnificent beast of the bass you! Listen to this guy come out gunnin’ on “Return To Magrathea” will ya? He’s absolutely crushin’ it as this second-to-last starts up and brings the energy rushing back into the record – and from the sounds of things, it’s like he’s got the rest of the band inspired to their own energetic best to meet the challenge. There are a lot of truly great songs on this record, as I’m sure you’ve already gathered by now – but make no mistake folks, “Return To Magrathea” would be up there with the very best of them all, if not end up being the main favorite for a great many of you out there when it comes to the lineup of Benign Penny. Not only does it have the energy and the consistently high quality & caliber of musicianship you wanna hear, but the ideas and creativity, skill and imagination all stands out equally on “Return To Magrathea” – essentially, it’s as artistic in design as it is entertaining & addictive to listen to. As the stakes continually raised to the end in a fireworks display of their extraordinary musicianship combined and Sugar Loaf’s guitars soaring out into the stratosphere & far beyond – I ain’t gonna lie, the first thought that crossed my mind on that initial spin was, “if this ISN’T the finale to this record – then what the heck IS?” The whole band sounds absolutely deadly throughout this adventurous cut…the production is perfection, the performance is arguably the liveliest you’ll find anywhere on Benign Penny…”Return To Magrathea” was built and designed to catch your attention, and it’s played in a way that sincerely earns it. The longest track on the record – give this crew some credit y’all – for 5:34 straight, there’s not a solitary second that you’ll find yourself bored.
Mind you, in my opinion, that’s a truth that applies to this entire killer lineup of songs on Benign Penny.
Am I happy to hear MORE Sugar Loaf Walker after the epicness of “Return To Magrathea?” Did the album itself NEED another song? The answer to the first part is universal by now – you get to that first strum of sensational harmonics from Walker’s guitar and it’s like he’s had me at hello all over again – but the answer to the second part is so much trickier…and I’m not entirely sure I can vouch for that. I suspect it’s not an issue of the album having too many songs – I think “The Flying Disc” could pretty much found a home almost anywhere inside of this lineup and our ears would have accepted it without hesitation – perhaps with the exception, of the very end, where it is. Where it might have been a song that strengthened the set-list earlier on, here after the highlight finale of “Return To Magrathea,” it’s nearly like “The Flying Disc” has been relegated to the ‘turn the lights on, the show’s over, and we all start filing out of the coliseum’ type vibe…the denouement, after the real climax of the whole story, you feel me? So don’t get me wrong, don’t get it twisted – I told ya from the very start of this review pretty much that I’d sit & listen to Sugar Loaf & his crew of talented cohorts jam all damn day, and when “The Flying Disc” comes on, it gets just as much of my attention for the groove in the bass-lines, jazzy drums, and seriously stunning, inventive, and innovative guitars from Walker – I’ve been getting right into this record all week & I’ve got no real plans to slow that down any time soon – Benign Penny was completely my jam, just in case I somehow haven’t made that clear. Do I think they could have given you that feeling where you absolutely HAVE to repeat this record with “The Flying Disc” at the end? That’s much more debatable…as much as I dig the songs, I can’t help but think that having the explosiveness of “Return To Magrathea” would have given the people out there every inclination to immediately hit repeat to take the whole ride all over again without a moment’s hesitation. As it stands, if you don’t end up having a second, third, fourth listen etc. to Benign Penny, you’d be crazy…but yeah…I suppose I had to find SOMETHING to give them to consider in the future when they make that next record, so there you go. Layout. Maybe it works for you & maybe I’m musing on something entirely irrelevant…I dunno.
Just say that there IS gonna be more coming from Sugar Loaf Walker one day – that’s all that matters to me – this record was wild to listen to & experience, and I already cannot wait for more outta this band.
Find out more about Sugar Loaf Walker from the official website at: https://www.sugarloafwalker.com
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