Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: "Synesthesia" by Asif Illyas

Generally speaking these days, when you hear an artist has made an album and played all the instruments his or herself, there are a couple scenarios that come to mind. One is some dirty hippy playing an acoustic guitar with a harmonica strapped around his neck and cymbals attached to his knees, stomping his foot on a slab of plywood while singing about the quarry, the mill, or trains. The other is the equivalent of a video gamer who rarely leaves the house, doesn't own a proper synthesizer, or any instruments for that matter, yet has some really slick tools and software that allow his ADD a place to permeate itself  into some fairly run of the mill bleeps and blops.

In seriousness, I offer some respect to folks who fall into either of those broad do it yourself categories, but what if you had a cat who was a formally trained musician and could not only play more than guitar, bass, and drums, but play them with considerable technical competence? Then what if that same dude could use those magical musical skills for good and not evil? That is, an ability to write really clever, heartfelt, and singable songs that showcase superior musicianship without getting buried in it. So, turns out, I know a guy.

Blogs rarely have to qualify too much because the medium allows for any big mouth like me with a keyboard to rant about music or things of far less relevance. In this case, I wanted to start with some quick background. I went to high school with Asif and from what I can remember our initial meeting of the minds came to fruition upon standing next to each other at a high school dance when Rush's "Time Stand Still" came on. I might be wrong on these details, but it's already a pretty great sounding story, so let's stick with it. I do remember us hitting it off thanks to a shared passion for music, and whenever our paths have crossed over the years it has usually been at a gig or in a record store. In addition to being terribly talented, he is extremely modest and likeable. If he ends up reading this, I hope he's prepared for the genuine flag waving I am about to subject him to.

Synesthesia is a solo effort from Asif after various interesting projects over the years, including Halifax based rock outfit Mir, and for those of us who remember, Big Picture from Asif's super early pony tail phase. I have always been interested in the music he was making and this record feels like the album he has always wanted to make. It could also end up being, for my money, one of the most solid records released in Canada or beyond this year. This is an ambitious musical project for a full band to take on, let alone a talented lad mostly all on his own.

Right away there are a bunch of things I like about Synesthesia. Ten proper tracks (if you exclude acoustic and other bonuses that fill side four of the vinyl). Ten is the perfect amount of stories an artist should be able to tell in one sitting. I almost want to propose legislation to this end. This is also one of the most modern sounding, eighties influenced albums I have ever heard, and not the least bit derivative. The liners speak to the artist wanting to make the type of record he used to enjoy listening to when he was younger. Coincidentally, we liked some of those same albums. This has bass runs and drum fills that feel like The Police all over the place, but it is unquestionably a 2013 album, even with warm familiar analog production. Maybe it's the saxophone, but this also has tones of Haircut 100 and English Beat, but that might be a pleasant accident for my ears. There are plenty of eighties influenced records floating around, but few to none that lean on this particular sound set.

The title track lines things up with a groove that flows and runs with a natural progression, without any unnecessary crescendo. These are some of the most complicated and clever pop songs I have heard in quite some time. Every track including the lead one, has subtle little bits of cymbal or keys tossed in almost haphazardly to fascinating effect. The tempo shifts are reminiscent of Rush, but far less obvious. There is a feeling of fullness not only in the mix, but in the combination of sounds, without ever venturing into the land of "everything but the kitchen sink". There is a feeling that what needed to happen on each song did, while resisting that tinker bug so many artists fall prey to. There is no self indulgence here. Only really fluid, concise and focused songs, all tracking at less than six minutes. The songs are refreshingly precise while not being the least bit sterile.

"Just Keep Movin'" was the song that caught my ear most on first listen. The bass pushes the song along with almost ska like drive, and the soprano sax drops in all the right places. Asif's voice has always been very engaging and for my money this is the most polished and mature his vocals have sounded to date. He has a perfect sense for his own range and where background harmonies work best, especially on this track and "Electrical", another stand out. The lyrics have a "just say what you mean" sincerity that also keeps the songs from flying away too technically. The tempo drops back some on "Rising Up", again with a lazy groovy bass line carrying the load, and setting the stage somewhat for a slightly, albeit barely noticeable less upbeat end to the record.

Finally, in keeping with the theme of making a record that recalls a time of total listener experience, the album packaging for this project is absolutely gorgeous. Double album, with white vinyl, bright photos and illustrations, and an inventive way of presenting and listing the song titles through periodic elemental table representation and flow arrows. At least that's what it looks like to someone without even an inkling for grade eleven chemistry. The songs and the package make me want to find a cozy place to sit, near my turntable, and to settle in for undivided attention listening like when I was a kid with far fewer grown up distractions.

I like bands who are able to strip away all the polish and embrace any version of a punk type esthetic to convey what most of us would sound like in the garage completely unaltered. I also like bands who are not ashamed to showcase the skills and chops they have worked really hard to hone over the years, even if their songs drift and become and bit self aggrandizing. Oh and yes, most people know I troll the intertubes and record stores for well crafted jingle jangle type pop songs where bands have the nerve to leave the song to stand on its own. Synesthesia gives a listener like me bits from all of these sound buckets. This is a world class record, by a talented veteran songwriter who continues to have interesting things to say in interesting ways, that feel familiar, new and fresh all at the same time.