Review Summary: Big Phrase hangs the DJ and strikes up the band.
At this stage of his career, it's to be expected that Mark Webster – better known in the hip hop world as Phrase – is going to be somewhat of a risk-taker. As a matter of fact, it seems like it's only when he is doing as such that he's been given the attention that he deserves. It would certainly explain why his debut, 2005's Talk With Force
, went largely unnoticed; and its sequel, the quasi-conceptual Clockwork
in 2008, would bring him critical acclaim and some major festival appearances. The former, while certainly a passable record, had none of the depth, aggression or versatility that was to be found on Clockwork
– sampling an old Dusty Springfield record, incorporating a full-band sound on several tracks and even using some collaborators outside of the hip-hop realm, including Kram of Spiderbait and RSL favourite Wendy Matthews. It was the effort that Phrase made towards breaking from the pack that paid off significantly in his favour – and with his third LP, Babylon
, he's clearly hoping that lightning can strike twice.
sees Phrase bring in a live band on a permanent basis, ushering out any need for either a DJ or a sampler. Needless to say, such a dramatic shift in dynamics is certain to isolate many fans – and it's not entirely guaranteed that there will be new fans to pick up the slack, either. Those willing to spend some time with the record, however, are sure to be rewarded – in spite of its flaws, Babylon
is an admirable effort. For one thing, the musicians that Phrase has assembled on this record are excellent; a cohesive unit that can shift between genres as if it were simple as changing the radio station. “Apart” and “Shut 'Em Down” waste little time, bolting out of the gates with driving rhythms and meaty rock energy; while slower tracks like “Faithful” and “Chase the Sun” allow for a more introspective and honest Phrase to step forth, perfectly setting the scene with simple acoustic guitar and ominous keyboards. With complete creative control over what Babylon
should sound like, Phrase is able to match the style of his flow with the style of the music; and it's the boldness of his ambition that makes this work predominantly in his favour. It's certainly still a trial-and-error process – see the schmaltzy “Never Enough;” or notice the fact that the run of tracks from “Shut Em Down” to “The Book” all use exactly the same drum beat. When the compositions work on Babylon
, however, they stand proudly amongst Phrase's finest work.
It would be amiss to discuss Babylon
without mentioning its guest stars – especially when they provide some of the highlights of the entire record. The gritty grooves of “Velvet Glove” would have been a stand-out of Babylon
even without Jimmy Barnes lending what's left of his pub-rock screech to it, but the fact that Barnesy just trail-blazes through the chorus certainly ups the ante significantly. Elsewhere, the lilting croon of Sparkadia's Alex Burnett is exactly what “Faithful” needed, accentuating the song's emotional context by shifting the lyrical perspective from Phrase's third-person to Burnett's first-person. Even Guineafowl, hamming it up with his usual melodramatic Bowie impression, manages to make things interesting on “Dreamers on the Run.” The only fault one could point out may lie within the tracklisting, pushing all of the guest spots near the front of the record and perhaps distracting listeners from the second half. Even so, it's nigh-on impossible to fault Phrase's eye for collaboration, no matter how out-of-the-blue it might seem.
remains Phrase's best record, Babylon
is certainly his ballsiest. Traditional hip-hop heads are certain to flip out, internet forums are certain to bitch away and it's not even certain that this will hold any water with radio, either commercial or community. In a way, though, it could be argued that this is exactly what Phrase wants – he's taken the biggest risk of his career to make exactly the kind of album that he wanted, and not what anyone else expected of him. Which direction he takes next is anybody's guess, but he's in too deep to go back now – Phrase has scored himself a new lease on life with Babylon
, and he'd be wise to use it carefully.