By Tiger Shadow
Leeds' Tiger Shadow have a very distinctive sound, but for a point of reference, think somewhere between Skindred and Gorillaz at their most hip hop, with some Faithless thrown into the mix. In practice though, Tiger Shadow are far more eclectic and free-thinking than any of the above.
Their debut full-length opens with attention-grabbing genre-bender 'W'Happen,' a song that somehow manages to make your skin crawl, whilst being pretty funky.
Komla MC's rapped vocals are steadier and altogether more considered-sounding than many of his contemporaries. His vocal contributions are something you'll either love or hate, but there's no denying their individuality, and the socially-aware, street punk lyrics are even more hard-hitting, because of Komla's no-frills delivery.
'W'Happen's backbone is a funky drumbeat that sits surprisingly easily next to the song's tortured slide-guitar and rock-opera synths. It really shouldn't work, but it does, and things only get stranger, with the introduction of some gorgeously mournful synths that really wouldn't sound out of place on an indie-flick soundtrack.
'W'Happen' is the coming together of many different styles and influences, to create something exciting and new.
Tiger Shadow are at their best when they keep things dark, and 'What Do You Know About It?' follows in 'W'Happen's dark, urban-anthem footsteps.
Starting off with a steady, bass-heavy boom trimmed in a flat electronic buzzing, Tiger Shadow then proceed to roughen the listener up with grating undertones and hard-hitting lyrics. A particularly cutting example is "there's no need to bear arms / unless you want to end up on your best friend's arm / as a tattoo."
The abrasive undercurrent occasionally gives way to a flesh-crawling guitar wail that unfurls slowly through that dark, bass-heavy stomp, and will have every hair on the back of your neck standing on end.
'What Do You Know About It?' is a softly-padding panther of a song that aims to get its message across by scaring the listener into paying attention.
If 'What Do You Know About It?' and 'W'Happen' are album highlights on the virtue of being unsettling, then 'Narration' is an album highlight simply for being so lyrically masterful.
At first, it just seems like Komla is tossing out whatever rhymes with 'narration.' However, halfway through the song it becomes clear that there are streams of thought hidden away in his mock free-styling; it just all happens to rhyme with the song title.
That Komla manages to express anything with such a rigid lyrical structure, is amazing in itself, but, even more impressively, his sentiments are politically-charged. For example, he chants "legislation, participation, ramification, election" and "liberation, expectation, one nation." But, it isn't all serious, with a quirky lyrical nod towards Channel 4' 'Location, Location, Location.' Lyrical wizardry, politically-minded statements and kooky humour, this song that really does have it all.
Another interesting feature of this album, is its uneasy relationship with mainstream rap and hip hop. While Komla's vocals are clearly influenced by both genres, his lyrics are more socially-aware and his vocals more passionate than we ever see in these genres' mainstream incarnations.
In 'Terracotta Blues,' Komla addresses his relationship with mainstream rap and hip hop head-on, lashing out at the predominance of crunk rap-style lyrics about "crack and guns" and appealing for more diversity in the scene. It's a commendable sentiment, and extra kudos to him for paraphrasing an archetypal crunk rap lyric as "motherlovin' bling!" Indeed, 'The Rise of The Tiger Shadow' makes a point of avoiding bad language (although I think I caught one "crap" in there somewhere) which makes them stick out like a sore thumb in today's hip hop scene - which, let's be honest, is a good thing.
The sex, commercialism and violence-centric world of mainstream rap and hip hop is an emotive subject, and for the first half Tiger Shadow are careful not to make too much noise, lest they distract from the lyrics. A synth-encrusted drumbeat is pretty much all you're getting, with a bit of groaning bass and starry acoustic flourishes as only occasional accompaniments.
However, Tiger Shadow roar to life for a hard-hitting, last-minute blowout of thumping drumbeats and riffing, punctuated by impassioned cries of "enough!" Here, both music and lyrics combine in a rallying cry for a shake-up of the hip hop scene, that'll leave a lasting impression on the listener.
As if it wasn't already crystal clear that Komla is a man on a mission, we get 'That's because it is...,' where he addresses society's ills. While socially-aware lyricism is far from new, Komla's lyrics have a practical slant that sees him acknowledge society's problems, whilst remaining positive about the future. The mixture of realism and optimism, is a charismatic one.
'That's because it is...' is very simple, relying mostly on the drums to provide the music. However, the drums' loose groove is punctuated by the occasional, military-tinged rattle, so we're never lulled into apathy by a repetitive beat, and consequently allow the lyrics to wash over us. A final sprinkle of starry acoustic strains give this song a fittingly wide-eyed appeal that perfectly complements the lyrical content.
'Star Chaser' and 'Escape' are notable in that they follow a more electronic route than the rest of this album.
Initially, you'll wonder what Tiger Shadow were thinking with 'Escape' as, following a melodic opening of plodding drumbeats and electronica-encrusted chords, 'Escape' gets swept up into a whirl of electronica, and it all goes a bit mad. After a brief, electro jig, Tiger Shadow blast out a very Transylvanian-sounding organ effect, and then loop this short sequence to within an inch of its life.
While you'll suspect you could make a similar noise just bashing away at a keyboard, it's amazing how firmly that bit of electronica silliness gets fixed in your head. Switch this CD off, and it'll still be dancing around your skull, and you may just find yourself playing 'Escape' again and again as a result.
'Star Chaser' has a more slick, dancey slant. Coasting along on a jangly backing back, 'Star Chaser' slips between verses of Ibiza chillout anthem-inspired keys and starry synths; and beautiful, expansive choruses. During the choruses, Komla makes a typically skewed appeal to reason with "if we leave, we could see the bigger picture" while space-aged keys swirl like dizzy stars. It's a trippy, oddly mournful sound, and when those keys kick back in for the verses, the contrast will leave you uplifted.
At the other end of the scale, 'Iron Filings' is Tiger Shadow at their most conventional, with choruses of angular indie guitars; and emotionally-charged instrumental choruses of stompy keys and darkly reverberating slide-guitar. It even features a whining, classy-sounding guitar solo. It's an emotive build-up from jerky indie rhythms to a darker, fuller sound, and Komla's vocals, as ever, ensure that Tiger Shadow ooze individuality, even at their most conventional.
Album-closer 'Hold On Tightly' is all juddering drumbeats with a springy synth boing-ing away in the background. It's a lurching song, with a wickedly hooked edge thanks to that elastic synth and, of course, Komla's vocals are always going to be a major draw. 'Hold On Tightly' expires on a more rock-orientated note, as brooding riffs ring and reverberate across military-tinged drumbeats. The only criticism it's possible to level at 'Hold On Tightly' is that it doesn't quite bring the album to the hard-hitting conclusion you'd expect.
'The Rise of The Tiger Shadow' is a unique blend of styles and influences. Hip hop and rap vocals, with sensitive lyrics that never stray into maudlin territory. When Tiger Shadow embrace the darker side of their sound ('W'Happen,' 'What Do You Know About It?') they're thought-provoking and unsettling, and when Komla discusses the genres that he used to be so fond of, but has since lost faith in, you'll have difficulty not agreeing with every word he's saying. While it's difficult to imagine a certain type of person who'd listen to this, perhaps that could work to Tiger Shadow's advantage. They're an eclectic band, who just might garner fans from all sections of society, many of whom would usually give anything vaguely hip hop a wide berth. And this, you sense, is exactly what they're aiming for.