Tash Sultana is the definition of the 21st Century self-made musical star. The Australian multi-instrumentalist and ex-busker has risen to fame on the back of her online self-releases and YouTube videos, marketed on the grounds of DIY integrity. Flow State is her long-awaited (for some) debut album, and while in some ways it can be seen as a statement of her own talent and complete musical control, it also acts as a warning of what can happen when an artist chooses to self-indulge without any third-party perspectives.
With complete artistic control comes the potential for something pure and individual, as well as the potential for bad judgement and self-indulgence. Flow State has a bit of all of this.
Sultana plays every instrument on these thirteen tracks, as well as producing it herself. It’s an impressive feat and certainly results in a clear picture of how she crafts her music, but it also seems like more of a marketing point at times than a way to get the best result from her ideas. With complete artistic control comes the potential for something pure and individual, as well as the potential for bad judgement and self-indulgence. Flow State has a bit of all of this.
The understated Seed (Intro) is a simple and slight opener, which now stands out as a minor highlight after having finished the album that follows. Over a single electric guitar we’re introduced to Sultana’s impressive if over-flaunted vocal talents, as she hits notes flawlessly and with a youthful disregard for anything approaching restraint. Her voice is great but the delivery is overwrought, mangling every syllable and ringing every word dry for any drop of ‘soul’ it might contain.
After the intro, the following three tracks settle into her standard fare of smooth summery soulful pop, and are listenable enough without being memorable. The let-down feature on each, however, is her guitar playing when it comes to the solos that take up the final portion of most of the tracks, almost as though they’ve been tagged on as a requirement. Lengthy spaces are filled with generic, classic-rock-by-numbers solos that not only fail to display any exciting or original flair, but don’t fit with the rest of the musical landscape at all. At some moments (second track Big Smoke being the worst) they even sound like listening in on scale practice. Cigarettes follows in the same vein with what could almost be a copy and pasted solo from the previous track. Next up, Murder To The Mind makes it three songs in a row to follow this exact structure, though this one at least has an enjoyable main section, good hook, and lovely touches of brass. I’d say that the album would be better off with a guest guitarist, but to be honest these lengthy solos are completely unnecessary in the first place, reaching for an intensity that just isn’t present in the laid-back urban grooves.
The biggest sufferer of this jigsaw-like compositional approach is the mess of an instrumental Seven... It gives the impression of someone randomly arranging factory-setting loops in GarageBand and giggling at the result.
This urge to mix-and-match musical features for novelty’s sake rather than musical effect is another feature of the album. The biggest sufferer of this jigsaw-like compositional approach is the mess of an instrumental Seven, which spends five minutes flowing through random and jarring changes - a spacey synth beat, a solo harp section by someone who clearly doesn’t play harp, a dramatic action-movie instrumental, a violin solo, a puzzling staccato piano build-up, etc. It gives the impression of someone randomly arranging factory-setting loops in GarageBand and giggling at the result. Following that, it’s almost a relief to hear the otherwise forgettable Salvation, which at least sounds like it has some kind of direction, even if it brings back the guitar solos.
Then, suddenly, in the exact middle position of the track listing, comes a surprising redeeming highlight. Pink Moon strips the instrumentation down to just a lo-fi strummed guitar and Sultana’s lonely reverb-drenched vocal. For the first time, her voice sounds genuinely emotive and soulful, allowing her to soar and hold notes dramatically without it coming off as unnecessarily flashy like it does elsewhere. At almost seven minutes long it could do with losing the entire last quarter (which just about ruins it with yet another bland and ill-fitting guitar ramble), but I’d rather have to listen to seven minutes of this than most other songs on here.
Sadly my wish isn’t respected - the penultimate Blackbird stretches it’s self-indulgent mocking attempt at Spanish acoustic guitar playing to a torturous 9:35. Even the echoing, over-compressed sound of the acoustic guitar is painful, let alone the attempt at flashy playing. When we finally reach the end it’s only to find it’s not over yet, as the closing instrumental Outro is merely another two minutes of basic structureless guitar scales, like you might hear drifting out of a high school practice room window at lunchtime. Showing off is one thing, a thing which can have a great place in music - showing off without anything of distinction to show off with is another. Also, as if the guitar in Blackbird wasn’t enough, this song is the only incidence I’ve ever heard of a humble tambourine produced so badly as to sound physically painful - a harsh tinny spike with all mid frequencies completely removed.
In fact, the production is another puzzling factor of the record, with Sultana again handling everything herself. While the fundamentals of modern pop-soul production are all checked off satisfactorily (punchy bass, clear drums, smooth vocals and some great synths), the production choices inflicted on the guitar are bewildering, especially coming from someone who has allegedly played it since age three. Despite aiming for classic-rock smoothness, most of the solos are delivered through super-tinny distortion, with a strange electronic ringing reminiscent of the cheapest of beginner’s distortion pedals. The clean solos sound plasticy and over-processed.
Mellow Marmalade shows her reggae influences on summery acoustic guitar, and is sung great (even with the adopted Jamaican accent.) Mystik benefits from some lovely trumpet playing, injecting some interest into a decent, enjoyable piece of reggae-influenced pop (and reggae-referencing - “There’s a natural mystik in the air”.) On a lesser note, Harvest Love takes the overdone soaring vocals to what I find hard to believe aren’t self-parodying heights, especially for a gentle acoustic guitar piece. It’s both physically impressive and stylistically awful.
Flow State has some nice moments, but nowhere near enough of them to justify an hour-long playing time. If every aimless guitar solo was cut from the album, along with a bunch of the worst tracks (Seven, Blackbird, Outro, Harvest Love, Salvation), it would result in a nice concise bunch of simple soul-pop tunes. It would be an easily enjoyable, though unremarkable, album. But the fact is that Tash Sultana displays a strong ambition to go beyond that, and even though here it has resulted in, well, a bit of a mess, I would always rather an artist went into a project with massive creative ambition, as she is doing, than just settle for a run-of-the-mill approach, which she could easily do successfully. What’s needed is some judgement alongside that ambition, which might have to mean someone else’s influence bringing some restraint to her big ideas in the future.
Still two stars though, because there’s some nice tracks on here, and the less-overdone, more straightforward moments are perfectly listenable pop songs. Or at least for each of their first three minutes.
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Released: 31 Aug 2018