It takes all of 3 seconds to realise you’re in new territory. Reality swells in with throbbing strings and wordless choir, instantly sweeping all before it like an avalanche. A pulsing, linear work of superb structuring and minimalist provocation, Sault’s sixth album in three years not only breaks the genre precedents the collective have set for themselves but also manages to sound like nothing else in the contemporary landscape.
Sault’s bold statement on Air is to re-cast their own legacy and to prod at received notions of music history. Previously setting turntables and the radio waves alive with fuzzy, inspired takes on Funk, Disco, Soul, R&B, Hip Hop and pop musics in service of a vision that seemingly, broadly described the black experience in contemporary culture and society (the band’s two most powerful album statements surfaced in the immediate aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement), Air often nods to a tradition of music often seen as “European.” The power of Air is its re-framing of these musical languages, highlighting the Black voices and talents that inspired so much of it. Opening with lush orchestration and wordless, percussive vocal, the layered harmonies feel cinematic in their twists into dischord. Tonal blocks of dissonance may recall Ligeti’s use of choir but unlike the Hungarian composer’s bloody minded-tonal consistency Sault’s music dazzles with quick shards of light and glimmer. Listening to a lot of Air it’s hard to dismiss the influence of Julius Eastman, whose re-discovery and evaluation recently has been such a treasure trove. Through Air’s frame, Eastman’s innovations – a kind of high-drama minimalism that circumnavigates the rigidity of someone like Steve Reich – are transmogrified into kaleidoscopic aural landscapes. Repeated vocal motifs on the title track are criss crossed with joyful colour in the shape of the strings, a solitary female vocal riffing over the top, recalling Basil Kirchin’s I Start Counting era. It’s almost like Sault are performing a sort of alchemy, using these musical strands to forge a huge, heart-felt, tribute to a possible future.
The influences on Air are so cleverly mixed in they become a whole new soundworld of Sault’s or, more specifically, bandleader and director Dean Josiah Cover. The strings can be so rich and sumptuous you’re reminded of Scott Walker’s legendary string arranger Wally Stott’s work, or on Heart there’s a late 60s, Age Of Aquarius optimism that bleeds through with the ever ascending choir, lifting and gaining elevation up to the heavens. Add some louche drums here and there and we’re in Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul territory (albeit without a touring baritone leading proceedings). If Sault’s music has been informed by protest and social conscience in the past it’s tempting to see this work as a roadmap to better tomorrows. Perhaps it’s the choices Cover makes through-out Air: the sweeping choirs remind us of Star Trek soundtracks, a feeling of 60s togetherness and in truth Air plays with these references, constantly on the verge of falling deep into a nostalgic version of a past that never was, a past of abundance, co-operation it’s almost like a satire of the hippy dream in places. Even the use of mellotron-sounding instruments adds to this effect.
What separates Air from simply a masterclass in music history is the shining earnestness that pervades every track. The epic centrepiece Solar, clocking in at over 12 minutes uses waltz-time and Galactic-scale production. Big brass instruments paint a celestial sound poem almost like a 21st Century Ode To Joy, with Cover’s use of repeated vocal motifs imaginging that presiding figure Eastman somehow, like that misunderstood genius of contemporary music was conducting an orchestra so full of love as to be fit to burst. It feels like this is how best to approach Air. Informed by the history of his ancestors, Cover’s album is almost like hagiography of experience, a grand love letter dedicated to not only his influences, not only to the social history of the black movement and its struggles, but almost like an earnest ode to life and living. If that sounds overblown then really you have to surrender to this remarkable vision.
“In a dramatic departure from their previous output, the UK collective taps into the spirituality of choral music and contemporary classical in an uplifting, celebratory, utterly gorgeous album.” – Pitchfork
1 – Reality 2 – Air 3 – Heart 4 – Solar 5 – Time is Precious 6 – June 55 7 – Luos Higher