Contemporary, Electronic Music
Self-release online. Purchase from website.
Reviewed by Michael Hannan, June 1st, 2014
Strange Days on Earth is a stage name adopted by singer-songwriter Andy Downer. On Sign of Life, Downer does all the singing and programming on what is essentially an electronic pop album, A few other musicians appear on several of the tracks and Grammy Award-winning engineer Bob Katz was contracted to do the mastering. Downer chose Katz because, unlike many mastering engineers who aim to achieve uniform loudness, he masters for dynamic range.
Sign of Life could be construed as a concept album. Certainly from a lyrics perspective it charts a roller-coaster journey of emotions and spiritual issues. It begins in a dark place with Underground. An ostinato-based dance music groove is blended with sustained background soundscapes. Fittingly a low voice carries the hook, but there is a range of vocals including a breathy intoning of the verses and a counterpoint of multiple high and low lines. Some of the synth sounds grow seamlessly out of the vocal timbres. On Nothing Downer is joined by Scott Hills (drums) and Jeremy White (guitars). Sustained synth backing and jangly guitars accompany a despairing lyric of lost love.
There is some optimism in the atmospheric title track in the form of a question (“Is there sign of life to hold you there?”) The melodic design and overall sound is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Breathe. Constantly evolving synth textures are anchored by White’s acoustic rhythm guitar and some inventive electric guitar soloing from Paul Archer.
The vitriolic Disease is supported by an aggressive dubstep groove, jerky synth rhythms, dark bass-end bands of sound, a fierce synth solo by Paul Searles and imitation helicopter effects. The text vacillates powerfully between the singer’s need to rid himself of a woman and his feelings of self-loathing.
Despite the title, War provides a wistful contrast, at least initially. This dirge-like ballad about futility, fear and impotence is backed by a slow bass riff and moving string lines. A new section near the end features aggressive military snare and bass drumming, dramatically supplied by Scott Hills, leading to the punch line “Now it [the war] is beginning”.
The next two songs, Sometimes and Enough of This both have lyrics about being “fed up”. Each features very effective choral vocal harmonies. The backing vocals of Sail are also notable, the “concept” of being attributed to Paul Searles. Built on a drum and bass groove, the song about the isolation of someone with dementia uses a complex of falsetto vocal lines, minimalistic techniques and a variety of effective soundscapes.
A Naked Light, a short reprise of some lines from Sign of Life, is followed by Passage at Arms, labelled an “instrumental” in the booklet, although it has prominent vocal elements including Indian-styled vocalise and the chanting of what sounds like nonsense syllables and backward masking. These are combined with sustained synth textures, sound collages, and improvised lines.
Hollow, a lengthy song angrily addressing God, ends the album. Oriental touches including tabla rhythms and shakuhachi licks combine with instrumental solos and collage of medieval chant and church bells.
A feature of Sign of Life is the complexity of the textures created through programming and overdubbing of voices and instruments combined with the polish that has been achieved in the playing, engineering and mastering. Highly recommended.