No slump in sight, Ishmael Ensemble’s sophomore album is an elegantly crafted record that pays homage to their hometown, through its collaborators and sonic influences.
Ishmael Ensembles' debut album, A State of Flow, received critical acclaim; herald by the likes of Wire Magazine, Mojo, and The Guardian, who dubbed it their contemporary album of the month. Yet the Bristol-based collective’s newest offering, Visions of Light, expertly surpasses it. At the helm, producer, and saxophonist Peter Cunningham creates a full and ambitious sound that feels cinematic. But it is their moments of restraint that set Ishmael Ensemble apart from the rest, revealing a command of their instruments only great musicians possess.
Side A of the record begins with ‘Feather’, a song that would feel right at home in London’s new wave jazz scene. Vocals from Holysseus Fly (pronounced holy-see-us) are backed by transcendent harp glissandos, but when they become warped beyond recognition on the dub infused ‘Wax Werk’ it becomes clear that this jazz is not like the others. Throughout the first side of the record, the sound becomes darker and more experimental, fusing electronica, acid jazz, hip-hop, and psychedelic dub, just to name a few. Cunningham’s confident saxophone performance neatly ties the multi-genre musings together and, when unleashed for a solo, furiously drives them forward.
Visions Of Light's sonic descent is halted with the standout track ‘Empty Hands’, which was penned by Holysseus Fly, real name Holy Wellington, after finishing a year-long treatment for Breast Cancer. Drum machines and squelching synths backdrop the raw, poignant lyricism, to create a track reminiscent of 90’s Bristol Trip hop, an ode to their roots. Wellington has commented on her experience of writing the track:
“As well as holding elation and euphoria in one hand, in the other, I was experiencing a lot of emotional pain as I started to process what had happened… Writing the lyrics, I was envisioning standing in front of God and laying it out plainly, ‘ok so I’m still here, now what?' This body has been through so much. Do with me what you want, this all must be for something, I’m here and I’m ready.”
Side B sees a reset in tone; unlike the first half of the album the instrumentation is bright and optimistic, but the deftly crafted beats are just as infectious. It also continues paying homage to their home city, this time by allowing local Bristolian talent to take center stage. STANLÆY provides beautiful, Bjork-Esque vocals on ‘Looking Glass’, while composer and multi-instrumentalist Tiny Chapter showcases his impressive vocal range on ‘The Gift’.
Just like Ishmaels Ensemble’s debut album ‘A State Of Flow’, contemporary artists are left trailing in the wake of Vision of Lights. With their latest release, Ishmael Ensemble have cemented their mark as a very important player in the UK jazz scene; injecting some much-needed innovation for the genre's propulsion.
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