Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Author: Sam Seliger
On their first full-length album, Australian singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Tash Sultana came to play, not just on one instrument, but on all 15 that can be heard on the album. The Melbourne artist honed their sound busking on the city streets after going into rehab for drug addiction at age 17. Sultana first gained notoriety on YouTube in 2016, where they racked up millions of views.
Photo courtesy of mediamarket.de
With “Flow State,” Sultana, now 23, casts their net wide, crafting an album that is rich, diverse and emotive. They blend countless genres and styles (jazz, reggae, folk, neo-soul and hip-hop, to name a few) to craft a sound that is consistent and unique.
The first track, “Seed,” opens with a waterfall of guitar arpeggios before Sultana begins singing, their voice emotive and precise. With a sparse arrangement of just guitar and vocals, Sultana is able to show off their chops, which are both exact and effortless on both instruments. The song’s free-flowing melody feels almost improvised as Sultana sings through low lines before jumping up in their voice to hit surprise high notes. Sultana is well-suited for this type of modern R&B: their voice is smooth but has plenty of character and can easily carry a song, while their jazz-flecked guitar playing forms a sophisticated but not overly-complex framework over which their voice fits perfectly.
Sultana has drawn from such a wide range of styles and fused them together that even the folksy “Harvest Love” and “Mellow Marmalade” sound perfectly in place on the album. Both of the tracks show off Sultana’s vocals; they pair a unique, beautiful croon with simple folk-pop acoustic guitar chords vaguely reminiscent of Post Malone’s “Stay.” “Mellow Marmalade” blesses the listener with a short, jazzy, acoustic guitar solo and Erykah Badu-esque frills in multiple octaves. Meanwhile, “Harvest Love” builds into a powerful a cappella belt before diving back down to start the second verse.
Another stand-out track is “Murder to the Mind,” which is dominated by a simple, vaguely funky keyboard groove. For the first three minutes or so, Sultana lets their vocals drive the song, as they expertly work their way through one of the simplest melodies on the album, although that is not to say it is any less appealing than “Seed” or “Mystic.” The chorus is punctuated by jazzy horn lines that sound like George Clinton meets Wayne Shorter. The song finishes with a fuzz-coated guitar solo, where Sultana shows they can hold their own against any of the rock greats.
On a small part of the album, however, Sultana is content to use their voice as an accessory piece, letting their grooves, chord progressions and instrumental arrangements do the bulk of the work. This works well at times, such as on the poppy instrumental “Seven.” Sultana builds slowly on a simple string and keyboard riff, before venturing into faux-EDM bounce, only to take it all away and build into a new, more driving riff and bring both together at the end.
Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone
Other times, this instrumental experimentation can become self-indulgent, essentially the album’s only drawback, namely on the nine-and-a-half minute “Blackbird.” The song opens with intriguing Zeppelin-esque modal folk-rock guitar before segueing into a highly-complicated acoustic-tapping sequence that goes on for nearly two minutes: far too long, even if it is interesting. When Sultana finally begins to sing, the listener cannot help but pay attention, and it is unique and emotive as always, even if the high-intensity climax feels slightly cliché in the world of contemporary alternative. But after only two minutes of singing, Sultana returns to their folksy wanderings for another four minutes, which becomes repetitive and boring.
Aside from that lone misstep, Sultana closes on a good note. the funky vibe of “Mystic” follows the folk-R&B duo of “Harvest Love” and “Mellow Marmalade.” A guitar-powered funky riff gives way to rock-flavored, soulful, seducing vocals over a drum and bass line that comes as close to pop as Sultana gets. Further, “Free Mind” is a neo-soul workout that evokes parts of Tyler, the Creator’s album “Flower Boy.”
With “Flow State,” Tash Sultana establishes themself as a unique artist able to blend soul, folk, rock and more with a jazzy sophistication to create a sound and style that is thoroughly unique in today’s music landscape.