If the Bruising Storytelling of SAULT's 'NINE' Doesn't Captivate You, Their Rhythms Will
Published Jul 07, 2021SAULT's new album, NINE, will only be online for 99 days. Making their new album temporarily available is merely the latest in the acclaimed but anonymous band's string of unconventional moves. While mysterious British R&B act eschewed most publicity for NINE, they at least detailed its 99-day availability via Instagram, and followed that with a post about the childhood trauma of the disenfranchised. They did even less than that for their 2019 albums 5 and 7, and 2020 breakthroughs Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise), posting only cryptic photos and clips on Instagram. Once that earlier music was discovered by critics and listeners, it was widely praised, even though SAULT left the faintest of online footprints with it.
And while SAULT have yet to reveal its members' names, it's clear on NINE that those players have eclectic tastes and abilities. Over these 10 new tracks that amount to a mere 34 minutes, SAULT explores a multitude of genres, styles and moods. Closing track "Light's in Your Hands" is a spare ballad with a foot in gospel and the other in pop. "Bitter Streets" and "Alcohol" both build on the storied Soulquarians sound with a dash of Amy Winehouse's timeless cabaret flair, with the latter song also taking vocal cues from Erykah Badu.
Intoxicating as those back end tracks are, the album's earlier songs are less indebted to SAULT's influences. Take key track "London Gangs": its dark musical tone — snarling riffs, ruggedly ramshackle percussion, what sounds like a vocalist's imitation of a police siren — contrasts snugly with a vocalist's high pitched staccato verses, not to mention the climactic bridge where they hold on to notes for dear life. Then there's LP opener "Haha," which instantly seizes attention with what sounds like hand drumming, along with a hookier-than-Velcro chanted chorus. While these numbers are more distinctive than tracks like "Bitter Streets" and "Alcohol," they also are lower-fi, helping NINE span a spectrum between polish and grit.
The album's eclecticism is also best captured on "Trap Life." It begins with nothing more than skittering percussion propelling hypnotic chants, which is more than enough. Then, tough as that is to imagine, the song becomes even more compelling by taking a whiplash-inducing turn in its final quarter, including an electronica soundscape that wouldn't sound out of place on an MIA or Little Simz album (which makes sense, given that the latter's collaborator Inflo has been credited with production on all five SAULT records, and Simz herself contributes ever-reliably nimble rhymes on the breezy, sax-laden "You From London").
Powerful as all that is, the messages behind the music pack even more bruising punches. From the refrain of "the pain is real" on "Fear," to the melancholy metaphor of gang life as a dysfunctional relationship on "Bitter Streets," to the mistrust of the police described on "Trap Life," the album brims with social consciousness about Black British life. And when the music and lyrics stop entirely for spoken word interludes about oppression and trauma-addled childhoods, listeners will be compelled to revisit those tracks as much as the album's catchiest songs.
Much like how, decades ago, Marvin Gaye used R&B to sing about "what's going on," SAULT carry on commenting about those still-relevant issues with vivid lyrics about injustice wrapped in captivating rhythms. (Forever Living Originals)