After springing up out of nowhere with no backstory or profile to release two of the best albums of 2020, UNTITLED (Black Is) and UNITITLED (Rise), London collective Sault has returned to present its latest opus, NINE. The group has remained shrouded in mystery since inception, the identities and numbers of its members remain a source of much debate amongst red-eyed music obsessives searching for a sense of myth and legend which has been missing for decades. The few members confirmed thus far include Mercury Prize-winning singer Michael Kiwanuka and producer Inflo, who has worked with Little Simz amongst others. The combination of gritty, raw soul, warped electronics and a powerful message on racial equality at a time which required it offered the group the spotlight but they remained in the shadows. Now that some of the dust from the tumultuous summer of 2020 has started to settle, NINE emerges from the clouds with a collection of hard, weird and tender songs to make sure people keep filling those digital columns with baseless speculation. To add an unnecessary extra layer of intrigue, this project will only be available to download for 99 days. Playing around with the widely accepted album format is a dangerous game, but Sault scoff at danger from their cloaks of anonymity.
NINE provides all of the elements which shot the previous albums to countless Top 50 of 2020 lists, but the formula is altered slightly. The heavier parts of the album bang with more ferocity and at a higher velocity. The soulful parts are expansive, beautiful and experimental. The funk-driven parts are pure dancefloor fuel and will doubtless leave a lot of living room carpets smoking before lockdown is done. In staying true to the core sound, enhancing it in some places and expanding on it in others, Sault has dropped an album which represents an organic progression for the band, evolution without scientific meddling. In essence, this is the exact right album needed in the current climate, with the people facing a fresh set of problems with a very familiar feel.
Its action stations out the gate with opening track “London Gangs”, which utilises two of the main attractions instantly: the drums and the bass. The beat channels Questlove’s ability to crack rim shots off your very soul and the bass is distorted and fuzzed up exactly as it should be. The vocals from London singer Cleo Sol have a real 80s new wave feel to them and it complements the more straightforward thrust of the beat like a dream. While previously focus has been on attacks from outside communities, on “London Gangs” the lyrics address those who attack them from within.
“London gangs, it's a fight for life
No one's doing it right
It's a different price
London gangs, RIP postcodes
Revenge is all you know
They did your big bro”
“Trap Life” is a beautiful mess of contradiction which somehow accomplishes the feat of combining lyrics that could belong on a Migos single, a classic funk and soul sheen and a quintessential Britishness which is intangible but undeniable. The lyrics show a different side to the drug dealing lifestyle demonised and glamorised alternately in the media, depending on their angle. They speak from the perspective of someone disaffected with That Life and seeking a quick escape, fearing that the longer their stint in the game, the lower their life expectancy.
“Fear” is another track with the rhythm section dominating, only this time it feels like the drumstick is being applied directly to your eardrum. The robotic vocals writhe under a current of vocal effects, the bass slaps like Rick Flair and the use of a repetitive rap mantra is inspiring. Little Simz lends some very capable assistance to the track “You from London”, probably the most straightforwardly hip-hop track on NINE. The music sounds like classic G-Funk mixed with French lounge pop, interspersed with hilarious samples of an American woman reeling off classic English stereotypes, at least half of which are true. Little Simz treads her usual ground of worldliness and relatability, all wrapped up in her calmly unwinding flow.
“Smokin' on that Mary Jane
Broke, but got ambition
We don't care 'bout what we up against
Left the party in a state
Ain't no thinkin' twice when you're living life the rebel way
Huh, we don't know LA
You ain't knowin' Shoreditch overground, 'bout to run away
Nitty on the corner wantin' something for his veins”
It is this mix of grassroots social commentary and otherworldly sonic textures which drives the release. The song “9” gives the album a playful nudge into the realms of psychedelic soul and it works as well as anything preceding it, a paean to universal love full of flowery melodies and “positive vibes”. My innate cynicism necessitated those quote marks but as the refrain “I am made of love” hangs in the air, it is hard not to get swept up in it all. The album closes with “Light’s in Your Hands”, which continues the love-in indefinitely. A luscious piano-led ballad which plucks every heartstring and snaps a few, leaving us on a message of empowerment.
“Don't ever lose yourself
You could always start again”
NINE is another stacked addition for Sault’s oeuvre, a journey through space, time and funk which remains rooted to real world issues at all times. The music skips between styles so effortlessly it’s not inconceivable that Sault has a team of specialists for every sub-genre, fine-tuning each microscopic detail. The joyous naivety of classic soul is mixed with a vicious bite which can only come from living in the world as it currently stands, and the sound breaks free of its influences at times to progress beyond our limited scope. Sault is a band for the future in more than one sense. Their forward-thinking experimentation and refusal to interact with social media combined with their ability to tackle social issues in an engaging way represent a future I wouldn’t mind seeing. This sheer power of their conviction and music has actually imbued this jaded writer with a sense of optimism, however misguided that may be. The album is only available until October 2, grab it here before it gets called up to the cloud.