Review Summary: Right place, right time- with solid follow-up, Phrase looks set to explode.
The shift in demographic of what sells in Australia’s music scene is baffling, to say the least. Ten years ago, were you an Australian hip-hop act, you would have not only been laughed at, but you would have been completely ignored. Who’d want to listen to that crap, right?
Right now, it’s a different story for hip-hop in our fair country entirely. The past few years have seen an explosion of acts achieving mainstream success: the Hilltop Hoods, Bliss N Eso, Downsyde, Drapht, Butterfingers, Pez and True Live...and that is only naming a few. All of these achieved radio airplay, chart success (the last Hoods album, The Hard Road
, went straight to #1 and is the highest selling hip-hop album in Australian history) and high public opinion, often resulting in enviable spots atop the annual Triple J Hottest 100 poll.
And then…there’s Phrase.
Phrase might not seem much of a familiar name, and this can be attributed to him being in the right place at the wrong time. His debut record, 2006’s Talk With Force
, had solid production and tracks that were more than capable of becoming club and festival anthems. Unfortunately, due to the overwhelming popularity of the genre at the time, Talk With Force
was lost in translation amidst a mass of other mammoth releases, and thus wasn’t nearly as successful as it had the potential to be. Phrase subsequently took the high road and broke away from hip-hop for awhile. When he came back, he had a killer concept and a master plan ready for his follow-up album. This has finally come to fruition in Clockwork
- a cautionary tale of deceit, distance, monotony, faith, friendship and the human condition. So is Phrase in the right place AND the right time in 2009? As far as Australian hip-hop is concerned, you’re goddamn right he is.
First impressions are vital, even for a second album. Thankfully, Phrase kicks off this record with a string of confident, engaging tracks that don’t so much call for your attention as grab you the scruff of your hoodie and demand you listen to every word. “Burn It Down” marries synth-brass sirens and a driving bass-snare rhythm with commanding lyrical imagery and a soulfully sung chorus. The album’s title track follows, nailing a story of a solitary man with a bird’s eye view of his city, as the horror dawns that “Life is but a cycle”, and that every day is exactly the same as the one that preceded it. Bringing in a funky full band, “Spaceship” showcases how versatile and speedy Phrase can get as an MC as he keeps up with an upbeat rock shuffle with a variety of flows and pitches, culminating in the chant of “Let’s build a spaceship!” in the anthemic chorus.
As the record progresses, it becomes increasingly more evident just how introspective and personal these songs are to Phrase. Sure, one could easily fault him as a lyricist for lacking subtlety and metaphor in his addressing of the various issues in his songs. This, however, would be to miss the point of Clockwork
entirely- this is straight from his mind, heart and soul and onto a page and into a microphone. There’s no middle man and no bullshit
Perhaps the strongest examples of this are “Day You Went Away” and “Chains”. The former samples the Wendy Matthews track of the same name, as a story of a man caught in the middle of a long-distance relationship unfurls- naturally, a tell-all about Phrase’s relationship with R & B singer Jade MacRae. The sample is certainly unexpected, but the fitting nature of the lyrics (“There’s not a cloud in the sky/It’s as blue as your goodbye/I thought that it would rain/The day you went away”) tessellate impressively with the subject matter.
Meanwhile, “Chains” is a conversation with a close friend of Phrase’s, one Nathan Smith, who passed away unfortunately the year before. Rather than let the death drag him down, it has inspired Phrase to continue on with his career and give it his all- after all, he believes, that is what Nathan would have wanted him to do. Whilst Phrase’s lyrics are deeply personal and given forceful, emotion-driven delivery, it is the chorus from long-time Phrase collaborator Daniel Merriweather that is truly the song’s centrepiece, as he soulfully calls out “Break your chains, young man/And run away” atop a gorgeous acoustic guitar line and thunderous, echoing drums.
On the topic of collaborations, Phrase has assembled quite a team on Clockwork
. Whilst MCs such as Bliss N Eso and Illy blend in considerably well, it’s the left-of-centre guest spots that really make their mark. Spiderbait drummer Kram nails a bluesy vocal hook on “Skylight”, whilst alternative-jazz-funk-electro-whatever-pop duo Jackson Jackson pay a visit on the outstanding “Paradise”. With rollicking flows, a snappy beat and Avalanches-flavoured instrumentation and scratches, this group effort seems destined for high radio rotation.
This is a very exciting release indeed. With a truckload of ambition, substance to match style and friends in high places, Clockwork
could well be destined to be one of 2009’s Australian success stories. This is a record for anyone from any background of hip-hop- chances are you’ll find something on here worth your time.