Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #4

Astral Realm: An Alternative Roundup #4

A sleepy summer special...

Welcome to Astral Realm, where Clash staff writer Shahzaib Hussain navigates the cosmos of the newest and most essential releases. Each month’s roundup features a Focus Artist interview, a Next Wave artist Q&A, a breakdown of his favourite songs and projects and a retrospective highlight revisited through the lens of dewy-eyed nostalgia.

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Focus Artist: Deem Spencer

Queens-raised, Brooklyn-born Deem Spencer has never shied away from conveying a bruised and brittle side his work: 2017’s ‘we think alone’ was coloured by grief in the aftermath of his Grandfather’s death and on 2019 album ‘Pretty Face’, a cumbersome collection of songs scored the breakdown of his relationship just as he was ascending as an artist.

Over ten transitory tracks, ‘Deem’s Tapes’ builds on its predecessor’s recipe of mining truth from intimate relationships, but this time round, a sense of optimism and high-spiritedness permeates. ‘Deem’s Tape’ is a richly rewarding listen, quixotic with none of the saccharine aftertaste. What it lacks in immediacy it makes up for in a lilting tapestry of coruscating piano chords, grainy jazzy interludes and subdued vocals that are as blissful as they are lulling.

Never one for sweeping gestures and grand epiphanies, Deem Spencer continues to tread multiple lines in his work; future rap distiller, indie romanticist and soulful serenader.

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What was a young Deem Spencer listening to? Who were you early musical stimuli?

I knew all the hits from 2000-2010. I would watch 106 & Park with my mom every night. I loved 50 Cent, he was the biggest thing in the world and he’s from where I’m from. I loved Eminem a lot as a kid, I loved the way he rhymed every syllable.

Your sound has been described as “lo-fi”, “muted”, “understated”. How do you feel about those describers?

Throughout the years, a lot of people have told me that they aren’t sure what I’m saying in some songs. Since I know exactly what I’m saying, it’s hard to consider that someone else might not. I wouldn’t use those descriptions personally, but I understand it.

‘Deems Tapes’ is a meditative record reconciling your past with the future you envision for yourself. Sum up the experience of creating a body of record with deeply personal anecdotes.

I made a lot of lists. I reviewed my goals, my growth and my personal responsibilities. I realised how much I have to be grateful for. It was a healing process. I love myself for real. This project touches on growth and setting boundaries. It helped me to get to a point where I can live in the present and really enjoy my days.

In what ways does this record differ from your last release, ‘Pretty Face’? If I’m right there’s more light and levity on this record but it feels like a natural continuation…

‘Pretty Face’ was a sad guy who drinks and gets high and acts like he isn’t sad, but ultimately realises it doesn’t work. ‘Deem’s Tape’ comes two years later: it shows a man who learned to love himself, a man who knows better and is in a much better place.

Familial ties, matrimony and domesticity are prevalent themes on this record – all of it tied together by a kind of dreamy romanticism. What does this phase signify?

I moved into my first apartment last year. It’s my ideal living situation, it’s something I’ve always wanted so I was very grateful and I’m proud that my music got me here. I’ve always been a homebody, I love my alone time, I love taking time to myself for listening to music and writing uninterrupted. I also love being in love. On ‘Deem’s tape’, I touch on walking the line of keeping myself to myself versus sharing myself.

The sound design for ‘Deem’s Tapes’ is soporific, lulling the listener into a kind of suspended state. Talk me through the sonics…

Big Flowers and Coach Wave worked closely with me to come up with an interesting feeling for these songs. I love how it feels. I had a few versions of my project; one was all produced by me, one was all Big Flowers. One was mostly Coach Wave.

With that in mind, which artists were you listening to when making ‘Deem’s Tape’?

I didn’t pull any inspiration musically but I was mindful of what my next project could do for my career. I knew I wanted this to be a breakthrough moment like ‘Section.80’ or ‘Acid Rap’. I needed niggas to stop playing with me.

What is the emotional centre of ‘Deem’s Tape’ and why?

‘One Hundred Seasons’. It’s about being 25, being in a different place in my life, outgrowing certain influences. There’s a lot of rise and fall within it. That song breathes; it feels like relief.

You’ve never shied away from singing, but this time your vocals are foregrounded and modulated. How was it tapping into that side of your artistry?

‘Pretty Face’ showed me how many people love my music. I wanted to break free from the “I don’t know what he’s saying” stuff. My team really encouraged me to open it up. It took a lot of back and forth but it’s better because of it. I think the positive reception reflects that.

I want people to follow me. I want people to join me on this journey and be excited for the next one.

What’s next for Deem Spencer? Will there be more visuals this era?

I’m going to do all that can be done with ‘Deem’s Tape’. I’m going to create hella visuals and I want to perform it around the world. Then, when the time is right, I’ll give the world a new, true masterpiece.

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Next Wave Recommendation: John Glacier

This month’s Next Wave recommendation is an icy enigma operating on the fringes of alternative rap. Bar a few intermittent SoundCloud drops and recent collaborations with the likes of Dean Blunt, Ragz Originale and LYAM, Hackney’s John Glacier has cultivated an air of inscrutability around her but now, with the release of debut album ‘SHILOH: Lost For Words’, she arrives fully-formed and in command of her powers, ready to take names.

Glacier centres her origins: a cramped mistiness and a pluralistic culture clash informing the 12 tracks. Backed by a narcotic fever dream rendered by main collaborator Vegyn, Glacier coasts along with poise and detached imperturbability as if she doesn’t wish to be disturbed. Navigating homogeneity, intentions, night time rapture and the mundanity of life, John Glacier’s autodidactic confessionals pierce through the noise and distortion; this is pioneering, anomalous rap for the outliers.

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Who is John Glacier?

John Glacier is big sparkle boss energy. I make music to rebuke and evolve. In all seriousness, music for me is an outlet which I use as a tool of expression – I make to feel and feel to make.

You’ve collaborated closely with Vegyn on this project. Describe your relationship?

Vegyn is my cousin on my Mum’s side. He’s also a sick producer that welcomed me to record. Growing up he had a dog that I used to watch.

The single ‘If Anything’ launched your debut era. What’s the narrative that drives this track?

It’s a song with many meanings, but here’s one: The narrative behind that track is wondering how you fell but finding the humour in it; it’s about falling into a trance of self and breaking free. It’s about insanity but awareness and owning who you are. - It then progresses into talking about being a drug that you keep tripping on and thinking that you’re trapped and weakened by your mind-state, only to find that you’ve grown and evolved stronger, not to mention the fact that you’re now equipped to deal with anything.

Your album is titled ‘SHILOH: Lost For Words’. What’s the meaning behind it?

Shiloh means peace and “lost for words” because I am. It’s also humorous (to me) as it’s for a project that’s full of words and feeling. The best bet is to google it as it’s a place as well as a person…it’s a word with many religious faces.

Thematically what are you exploring on this record?

Freedom, peace, evolution and the closing of a chapter.

What’s the emotional centre of the record?

Living life and closing doors. People often talk about opening doors but it’s also important to close a few doors before opening new ones so that you don’t leave room for bad energy to follow you onto the next stage of your journey. Like I said, rebuke it and evolve.

On tracks like ‘Icing’ and ‘Cryptomnesia’ there’s a feeling of disenchantment with the industry and the “game”. Who or what are you critiquing?

It isn’t necessarily about the industry but reality. Many people hide behind the face of the industry, forgetting that they are human. I’m basically over people and the troubles they wish to bring but I rebuke it.

‘Icing’ is about people that pretend to like me but I’m aware of the fact that they don’t, but it’s also me lowkey taking the piss out of traditional song making. The overall hook is about people failing to see and respect me as human but wanting to be like me and people like me. ‘Cryptomnesia’ is about getting lost in it all, trying to find meaning - only to find that life has no meaning and that anything you’ve lost wasn’t meant to be. It’s about people thinking that you’re the one who’s insane when you’re the only one that’s being their true self. It’s about there being no opposition if their operation is bound to fail.

Has the experience of recording your debut been a cathartic experience, now that you’ve let it go?

I needed to make a project and it just so happened that the timing fell into the hands of 2020. I don’t usually like explaining what my songs are about as I like people to take what they want from it. Once it’s out of my hands, it’s out of my hands. It’s like a buffet, it’s all there just take what you want and if you don’t like it, refuse the serving. I know the true meaning behind it all and that’s good enough for me. 

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Projects

Chiiild – ‘Hope For Sale’

The poster child for easy listening, Chiiild, real name Yonatan Ayal, commits to world-building a nirvana of promise and sanguinity on new album ‘Hope For Sale’. Speckled guitars, soaring string sections and warm, honeyed harmonies form the base of a purifying listen for both artist and listener: throughout the ten tracks, Chiiild gleans tales from his life, offering up wisdom without ever devolving into banalities.

‘Lotus’ is widescreen cinematic soul, the emotional tenor of Chiiild’s voice ringing true and deep; ‘Wasting Time’, is a stadium-sized strum through disaffected young love, ‘Weightless’ is just that, an airy piece of psych-rock. Album closer ‘The Best Ain’t Happened Yet’ recalls prime Coldplay, an anthemic projection of unabashed joy.

Bluestaeb – ‘Giseke’

An album for Sunday melancholy. Released on Jakarta Records, the reputable German label known for disseminating works by Kaytranada, IAMNOBODI and Mura Masa, ‘Giseke’ by Berlin beat producer Bluestaeb fuses the crate-digging wizardry of Dilla, Knxwledge with the sun-soaked, vintage soul stylings of The Internet.

An extension of 2019’s collaborative album ‘She’, Bluestaeb streamlines his sound further with soft-focus hip-hop and afterhours jazzy grooves. ‘TTWL’ featuring neo soul vocalist Jerome Thomas, is a Maxwell track reimagined for a new age, the iridescent NDO-assisted ‘You Do’ switches from earthy funk to a space-aged fantasy; ‘Phantom Pain’ marries submerged chords with kinetic drum loops. With various guests supplying conversational overtures and intimate anecdotes, Bluestaeb threads his production needle with expert-level precision.

Peyton – ‘PSA’

Houston, Texas continues its tradition of cranking out star-rated talent, with Peyton Booker stepping up to the mantle as the next prog-R&B upstart. Indeed, much of debut album ‘PSA’ is imbued with the spirit of Space City: it’s entrenched black gospel and choir traditions, it’s metropolis-like highways and architecture, and of course Third Ward, the heart of Houston’s black culture and history.

With ‘PSA’, Peyton evokes her community through a tripped-out escapade through the galaxy. Signed to Stones Throw, whose roster includes the likes Sudan Archives and NXWorries, Peyton’s guileless and wide-eyed lyricism is a refreshing detour from the nihilism and caustic realism that brands much of the contemporary sounds we consume. Through vivid technicolour soundbites, Peyton holds out her open hands to the world: ‘Don’t You Wanna Fly’ is an shimmering invitation for the dreamers to continue dreaming, the 80s sophisti-funk shimmer of ‘Perfect Peach’ is an epicurean delight and a reworked version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s ‘Pure Imagination’ wafts by in willowy bursts of soft-psychedelia.

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Singles

Charlotte Dos Santos – ‘Away From You’

Norwegian-Brazilian paramour Charlotte Dos Santos is an artist who never disappoints: 2017’s samba-inspired ‘Cleo’ and last year’s cosmic special ‘Harvest Time’, filtered affirmational lyricism through a languorous, orchestral soundscape, appealing to all the spiritual wayfarers in the world. New offering, ‘Away From You’, is summer romance in song. Produced by Dos Santos and Tom Henry of Gotts Street Park, it abounds in romp and misty-eyed amorousness; a celebration of modern love and the curative power of touch and intimacy.

Surya Sen – ‘Jessica’

An early contender for dance song of year? I think so. North London, British-Bengali producer and rapper Rana Ali aka Surya Sen (named after the famed Bangladeshi revolutionary), coaxes us out of our collective lassitude with this rousing four-to-the-floor party starter. Over a low-end thrum and hissing hi-hats, Sen roleplays with a rallying cry to leave the distractions of a digitized world and enter his rave-only house haven. Announcer or romantic interlocutor, Sen asks that we recalibrate ourselves and give in completely to the motion.

Gabriel Gifford ft. Maya Law, Freya Roy – ‘Cold Too’

Berlin-based, Bristol-raised producer Gabriel Gifford paints in dusky, grey hued strokes on the nu jazz-tinged ‘Cold Too’, featuring Maya Law’s smoky mainline vocal. A soundtrack to a noirish thriller, a tearstained lament about lost connections and fraught entanglements, Gifford’s score-like precision throughout is praiseworthy, but special mention goes to the closing moments; static, amplified chords and deft harmonic layering unleashing a final devastating blow.

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Retrospective

Sade – ‘Cherish The Day’

If I had to choose ONE track to typify the quintessence of Astral Realm I’d choose ‘Cherish The Day’ by Sade. Released this month, almost three decades ago, ‘Cherish The Day’ was the final single from the band’s fourth opus ‘Love Deluxe’, an album often cited as a foundational release; a substratum of programmed soul and R&B, often imitated but never duplicated.

A serene piece of ambient soul, the song’s weepy, pirouetting guitar lines, minimalist trip hop backing and Sade’s unmatched vocal clarity both overwhelms the listener and frees them. In the accompanying monochromatic video, Sade sings from the rooftop, the New York skyline mirroring the surround sound glory of a track that implores you to embrace life’s possibilities, before it passes you by.

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Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Udoma Janssen

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