We need to do something a bit different we said. We need to change things up a bit we said. What we really need to do is relinquish all control, we said. Yes, control free, that would be good. Just for a while.
Fear set in. No control? Then who shall set our electronica sextant, who shall man the Vader helm and guide our synth powered vessel through the storm to pastures new? Sylvie Hill.
It was obvious. A woman to man the helm. A woman unafraid of, well….seemingly anything. Braced for action, ready for dance, party prepped and verbally primed. The bullet strewn delivery is infectious. And so, we asked Ms Hill to take over Vader Evader and introduce an artist she feels passionately about.
She isn’t shy at being forward, so it’s just as well she arrived with Blockhouse Bay and an entourage shrouded only by darkened corners and dry ice. Welcome then, Sylvie Hill and her review of the brand new Blockhouse Bay album, ‘Duality’. As an aside, we’re loving the ‘Return to Oz’ slant of ‘Temple Garden’…Sylvie – your stage.
BLOCKHOUSE BAY GIVES IT GOOD
London-based indie-electro, disco-noir gems entrance you to dance, take you to higher ground through sound
Blockhouse Bay is well endowed. Throbbing dance beats, strong melodies, sensuous vocals and lyrical girth empower this London (UK) band’s debut electro-indie album, Duality, with an undeniable sexiness in synths and swagger that pleases the senses. And that’s saying nothing of the visual stimulation off the band’s urban grit-chic aesthetic of contrasting graffiti album art next to the slick-suited band lead, Rhys Hughes, toward whom you may find yourself dually aroused and afraid, simultaneously.
Reflecting the album’s title that Hughes chose for the record, a sense of ‘duality’ itself permeates sound, style and singer. Sound – at once a solid mix of dance music but infused with an indie-rock sensibility, enriched by vocal ingenuity. Style – a blend of disco-noir intense, yet uplifting or redeeming, and not downer. Singer – a multi-talented musician who is an alternative-rock guitarist first, keyboardist second.
These combinations colour Blockhouse Bay’s album with inventiveness, debunking flat comparisons to “the 80s,” techno or exclusively metrosexual. While tracks like the pre-released “Borderline” and “One of Us” are luxuriously atmospheric and similar to new-wave synth music, Hughes pulls in bass, electric and acoustic guitars, along with cello on “Temple Garden” and a saxophone and percussion on “Worlds Apart.” This redefines an electronic sound resistant to easy classification.
“This project came together to produce a set of songs that people would want to dance to,” says Hughes. “I focused on strong melody lines and wasn’t looking for a sparse modern-electro sound, but rather a more classic, full, dance/disco feel.”
Blockhouse Bay is Hughes’ first solo project after playing guitar and contributing backing vocals in several London-based bands with his current producer, Blair Jollands. The first incarnation was as alt-bluesy/indie El Hula, reviewed favourably by UK press, and signed to Boy George’s label, More Protein (2002). Following that, the boys morphed into the alt-country Thin Men, and then alt-indie/electronica as Lotus Mason (co-produced by Hughes), all with full albums under their fashionable belts.
After much success in the Jollands camp, Hughes found himself holed up in his own fort with some time off. He started fiddling around with an old Juno with a TR 606, copying some easy Casiotone dance beats. His “unsophisticated keyboard abilities,” as he calls them, seemed to fit the bill. Triggered by a melody that he would record to whatever device was handy, he started writing a few more songs. On playback, he’d discover it was sung in a “strange language” with few discernable English words. He’d then go about filling in the gaps.
Blockhouse Bay professes it is not creating cutting-edge music. Neither was Madonna and she sold a record or two. At least Hughes can be credited with writing his own music, even while admitting his lyrics are in some places, cheesy.
Owing perhaps to the machoism of his robust native South Pacific New Zealand roots, or the suave style honed at his now-home of near 20 years of London, England, Hughes’ potency packs its punch in the precision of what he purrs in peculiar or pretty pronunciations, cheesily or otherwise.
He does not mince words. His razor-sharp sentiments, jeer: “you’re the monster on the waterline /you order the ebb and flow / and I have always thought you Borderline / they’re coming to take you home / next trip’s always back in time.” Wince. Cringe.
Icy articulations through provocative probes, such as: “I’d like to know you feel it’s over / a four-leaf Clover now, it’s a wonderful lie / you’ve got to hide / something inside” tap into our spurned selves, cheated when our luck magically ran out. And the “Waterworlds” sing-songy hook, “Ouu, all the love you’ve got to give it’s gone and left you far away” singles us out as the solo sad one, but we’re not pathetic, “Because we’re damned if we do / damned if we don’t.” So leave it alone, move on.
Hughes is strict with us, but always offers pleasant release, like in the album’s finale, “Enough is Enough.” He woos: “It’s these rules that make us old / gotta let it fly,” cajoling our freedom, seductively. “It’s the fools that make us go through the stormy skies,” he soothes on; consoling words for those who have been fucked. And not in the right way, proper.
He’s playing hot and cold with us; the bad-ass bearing the hard news we need to hear about the end of a relationship and challenging it at the same time (“we’re calling a ceasefire, but did you care enough?”). But whether speaking to human relationships or an era, Hughes is the good guy also saving our skin and telling us we’ll emerge from an emotional underground to soar again (“this Higher Ground / it’s higher than anything we’ve found / it’s all above / this energy and light that we love”).
Blockhouse Bay’s soundscape give us the luscious ooze and lulling ouu’s upon which we can project our own personal life and make sense of all its glorious duality.
When the most boring criticism may be against the simple beats, Blockhouse Bay recovers quickly through Hughes’ artistic arrangements and the magic pulsating from the way he and producer Jollands layer the vocals.
“As this is my first album taking the lead in singing, it really helped having Blair (Jollands) producing,” says Hughes. “He has a natural flair for, and love of, recording vocals, so we were able to build up the songs with multiple vocals tracks and harmonies that has created quite a unique sound, albeit one that will be difficult to recreate in a live setting.”
The stunning effect is all over the album, and pronounced from the get-go in the druid-like intro for “Supernatural.” To deliver the lines, “It was ten thousand years ago when they first came / and captured the sun / that dried your tears away / underground,” singer and producer pair a magisterial crisp vox track atop a soft echoing deeper hue, where the bass resonates to your inner core. Here, Hughes moves inside you.
“Music is at its most emotive through vocals like we get with indie-alternative,” says Hughes. “And dance music makes you feel good.” Blockhouse Bay marries the two, producing a vibe that draws comparisons to the feel of Ben Watt’s remixes of Beth Orton’s oomphed-up “Central Reservation” or Everything But the Girl’s iconic “Missing.”
Again making magic with his vocals, in “California,” Hughes goes more Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) than George Michael like in “Water worlds,” when he growls and wails an epic chorus of “I’m calling your hand / I’ll take you there tonight / West-Coast alibi.” This is delightfully trip-hop, while pulling from meatier stock.
Because of that indie-alt reverb, it is irresponsible to parcel Blockhouse Bay as completely “New Romantic” even when songs like “Clover” return you to VISAGE’s “Fade To Grey” territory. And while the track recalls Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys,” the bass and pump of Blockhouse Bay’s electronic keys-driven dance beats give it balls more characteristic of Trent Reznor’s intensity than Simon Lebon’s yelp. Here, Hughes penetrates.
So what is Duality really all about? Hughes admits his lyrics don’t relate to any particular relationship. His writing style isn’t to put poems to music. But if good art reflects the blood and guts of life’s emotional core, Blockhouse Bay has succeeded in nailing our hearts right proper to Jollands’ Glowb Studio wall for our examination.
Unfortunately, in typical singer-songwriting tradition, the autobiographical nature of the story sometimes sags, leaving the listener on the side-lines. But in Blockhouse Bay, there is a truly eery feeling that Hughes is singing straight at you and you and you. As with the heart-throbbing chorus of opening track, “One of Us,” Hughes tells you as much: “I’m gonna give it all / gonna give it all to you, and you, and you.” Impossible to not to feel welcomed into the ‘Bay from the start, regardless of where your ship’s anchored, or adrift. This man has heard your code “red” and he’s answering your call through song.
It’s in this foreign inclusivity of Blockhouse Bay’s song lyrics, such as: “They don’t want to be like the other ones / give them time to feel like they’re one of us,” that Hughes pleads in this same track to take some of us away to a special place. With all the us/we/them in Blockhouse Bay songs, impossible not to feel the band has got our backs. Like a good lover, Hughes gives you your time on centre-stage.
In all, Blockhouse Bay beats dance you to a euphoric ‘sweet spot,’ while Hughes’ histories wrap you in redemptive warmth, or a rich-reeling in reminiscent wallow and lush personal masochistic memories. Your choice. Either way, Hughes’ honest-every(wo)man lyrical observations in his smooth croon caramelized in booming hues, will melt you out of your miseries. Duality, through a nostalgic lens but modern sound, and with these universally relatable sentiments, transport the listener to a good place, emotionally and musically. And are we not all due for a good trip?
Of course, the orchestral angelic choir chorus swirled in cello in “Temple Garden” of “a long, long road, it’s time to go /we’re never coming back again” may induce tears. Again, that is the signature charm of this album, with its dual message to leave the past behind, and move forward beyond the history that you’ve created while taking time to marvel, but carrying on upward toward your natural beauty, and the starlight…
Beyond Hughes on keys, bass, guitars and vocals, the following musicians were involved in the making of Blockhouse Bay. Siggi Sigtrugysson produced the drums and plays keys. Idris Rahman swirls the sax on “Worlds Apart.” Abby Holden sings soulful on “Higher Ground” and “Waterworlds.” Sarah Wilson stuns with cello on “Temple Garden.” Johnny Hillier and Andy Richardson play bass on a couple tracks. And Simon Grainger keys up the synthesizer solo in “Temple Garden.”