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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stevie Chick

Sault: Air review – a daring act of creative rebirth pays off

‘Their grandest, wildest visions’ … Sault.
‘Their grandest, wildest visions’ … Sault. Photograph: Sault

Not until you’ve listened to Rakim on a rocky mountaintop / Have you heard hip-hop,” mused poet/MC Saul Williams on his landmark 1998 polemic Twice the First Time, relocating the art form from the urban context that birthed it and challenging us to reconsider its possibilities. The startling and often brilliant sixth album from Sault is a similarly daring act of creative rebirth, swapping out the kaleidoscopic, razor-sharp funk/soul/rap/dub/whatever of their previous boundary-breaking work for an entirely new and unexpected paradigm.

Though notorious for their love of mystery, it is now generally known that Sault are led by Dean Josiah Cover. Better known as Inflo, the producer of award-winning albums by Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz, Cover will probably live comfortably off his contributions to Adele’s 30 for the rest of his years. Fittingly, the total volte-face of Air feels like the work of an artist who, having proved themselves within the pop realm, decides it’s time to pursue their grandest visions.

Sault’s earlier music balanced shapeshifting, detail-perfect production with lyrics that translated the realities and revelations of the Black Lives Matter era – police brutality, systemic racism – into addictive, electric pop. Air, however, is mostly wordless, Sault’s regular collaborators – Kiwanuka, Simz, Cleo Sol and Kid Sister – absent. In their place are the voices of the Music Confectionery choir (who have previously sung with the likes of Ellie Goulding and Dave) alongside an ensemble arranged by Rosie Danvers of string-section Wired Strings. The music is orchestral and beatless, the group’s hitherto faultless grasp of groove consigned to the cupboard. Its seven pieces range in length between four and 13 minutes. There are few precedents for the music of Air within Cover’s previous output – perhaps the spacey, unhurried glide of Kiwanuka’s Black Man in a White World at a stretch.

Sault: Reality – video

Unabashedly widescreen and cinematic, Air’s gracefully expressive symphonies and bold use of the choir-as-instrument suggest classic scores by Herrmann and Morricone, its dramas writ larger-than-life. Elements of minimalism and contemporary classical surface, as do African and eastern influences – in particular, the electric interplay between orchestra, chants and strummed and plucked stringed instruments on Luos Higher. More pointedly, Air harks back to a certain visionary era of Black music. Throughout, there are echoes of Alice Coltrane’s string-laden spiritual epic World Galaxy and of McCoy Tyner’s under-appreciated excursion into choral jazz, Inner Voices. The deft maximalism channels late producer/arranger Charles Stepney’s work for soulful psychedelicists Rotary Connection, and especially Come to My Garden, the cosmic debut by Rotary Connection singer Minnie Riperton. Air places Cover firmly within this lineage, its questing, ambitious music possessed of similar courage and inspiration.

Only one track, Time Is Precious, has lyrics: the celestial harmonies and symphonic wall of sound give way to a soulful vocal group singing a simple but affecting message to not waste “the only time you’ve got here”. The titles of the remaining tracks mostly deal in the elemental: Reality, Heart, Solar, Air. The music is unrepentantly uplifting, hopeful and escapist, but, like much creativity by Black artists in the Black Lives Matter era, the shadow of the reality it is attempting to escape – and the knowledge of the injustices its essential sense of optimism is seeking to overcome – lend Air a deeper resonance. The music often unabashedly emotional, the blossoming horns of Heart – equal parts rousing anthem and swooning Motown ballad – sounding notes of cautious optimism.

Cover’s considerable ambitions peak on the epic Solar. Across 13 riveting minutes, it draws into its orbit repetitive synth arpeggios and inventive choral work suggesting Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air and North Star-era Philip Glass; soprano voices singing melodies that evoke John Coltrane’s Naima; and passages of star-gazing orchestral music that recall the sublime, soulful gospel of Donny Hathaway’s I Love the Lord, He Heard My Cry. This fusion of unlikely elements creates an earthy pocket-concerto that’s cerebral and creatively adventurous while harbouring potent emotional power. It’s a trick Air pulls off again and again.

There was little within Sault’s first five albums to prepare the listener for what occurs here, and with such bold creative risks come the inevitable backlash. But Air eminently repays those risks. This is music for the rocky mountaintop that invites the listener to place themselves in the humbling context of a wider cosmos. Following a compass resolutely his own, Air sees Cover ascend to the realm of the similarly spiritual visionary Kamasi Washington. Where that compass takes him next, only a fool would guess – but the wise will follow.

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