Aruba Red: Shadow Work EP Review – Steve Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
The resurgence and reinvention of Neo Soul within the Roots and Revival movements has been somewhat of an under-recognised, and misunderstood, phenomenon. So, it’s all the more exciting to come across a UK artist owning the genre as their own, without deviation. Enter Aruba Red.
Aruba Red Shadow Work EP, released via Travelling Child, is the latest EP from this multitalented musician. It’s been publicised as a collection of songs about a journey to freedom in response to personal trauma. And Red has certainly poured her heart, soul and the width and breadth of her experiences into the EP. It’s a curiously enthralling fusion record, mashing-up genres and at times almost creating a 21st century Neo Soul sound all of its own.
The EP begins with Blue, which sets out Red’s stall perfectly. The ambient, otherworldly opening with its heavy use of reverb, and just organ and vocal lines, feels a person coming ‘round after falling unconscious (metaphorically, much like the narrative Red is lamenting). But the focus then shifts into a swaying, almost staggering Soul-Waltz. As a composition, its deft. While Blue seems like it’s been scored in 2/2 time (the chord changes and the kick after every two beats are an indicator) the drums incessantly use a triplet formation, lending the track to a 3/4 or 6/8 time. This not only drives the track forward but expands on the slightly dazed, unsteady inferences drawn from the intro. The organ has a layer of elongated reverb added, while the electric guitars whine in and out.
But it’s Red’s lyricism and performance which project the track to a higher level. The narrative is skilfully delivered; taking the trauma of a relationship break-up and starting to turn it into a positive: “make sure this blue is used for painting”. And Red’s mournful, yet gradually building in confidence vocal is sublime. She makes clever use of phrasing, positioning her breath control to ensure that the gaps in her voice fit the lyrics. Switching between drawn out, beamed enunciation and finely clipped, almost staccato vocal runs (note “sailing”), serves to add to the metaphorical Smorgasbord of emotions. Her vibrato is slow and purposefully used, and Red demonstrates an impressive, technically strong range between high-end alto and mid-range soprano. A glorious, albeit unsettling, opening.
Release Me shifts the EP into more musically upbeat territory, but the narrative is less positive, more frustrated at a person’s inability to move on from a relationship. The track in the main feels almost like a post-Britpop cut. Because the smooth, subtle structuring of the delicate verses is in contrast to the driving, angry chorus; both are sandwiched between a slowly building bridge. In this respect, the keys go from being almost absent, to coming in on the downbeats, to playing a full, slightly frantic counter-performance to the main melody. The Fender guitar whines briefly at the end of bars, as it’s acoustic cousin tinkers a gentle riff. But the latter goes full chord-strumming in the chorus. Those triplets are back again, making the track swing – but more focused via the bass riff during the chorus. It’s an extremely clever composition, which fully reflects the peaks and troughs of the emotions that inspire it.
It’s possibly Red’s most intense performance of the EP. Beautifully controlled, she’s devastatingly gentle during the verses, “It’s been two-years since I’ve been physically free”. Her London twang slips in as she growls on the bridge “kicked me out the car when I was eight months gone”. And then she explodes during the chorus “you’re living rent-free in my mind”. It’s a raw, unabashed but also remarkably delivered performance – managing to tread that tightrope between ‘one-take’ honesty and well-thought-through construction. Devastating, yet paradoxically empowering at the same time.
Next up, and Change shifts the dynamic again. It enters a kind-of Peter Gabriel Prog Rock dimension, but dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Heavily synthed strings open, with a piano tinkering in the high treble clef area. Then, the track moves forward suddenly. The drums are incessant, on a constant, sparse rolling riff – which is then embellished for the chorus. The distorted, unsettling bass does the heavy-lifting for the pace of the track, going from a kind-of clave on the verses to more syncopation on the chorus, assisting with the sudden (triple time-feeling again) swing. Then, the inclusion of a Hammond-sounding organ, and the heavily layered backing vocals drive the track into Soul territory.
But Red and her team have also incorporated what sounds like a CS-80 synth into the track as well, with simple chords on the downbeat; although unless they’ve been on Ebay it’s probably a far more up-to-date piece of kit. But this throwback vibe, coupled with the incessant, almost African drum rhythm and accompanying bass, and the heavily layered vocals on the chorus all bring to mind that 80s, heavily UK-based Prog Rock sound: a genre defined by incorporating styles and influences from around the world. And Red has done a sterling job of bringing it bang up-to-date.
Trust is different, again. It has an almost anthemic feeling, building on the African-influenced percussion of Change and taking it further. It’s more complex in its arrangements, with shakers, washboards and more focus on djembe-like drums and a rounded kick. Those keys are back again, downbeat chord focused at first but branching out on the chorus. Strings return, performing sweeping, crescendo-laced breves across whole bars. But there’s less focus on the claved bass, which lifts the track and also gives Red’s vocal room to breathe. And, nothing’s as straightforward as it seems – as a curious, unexpected minor key bridge almost transports you properly to somewhere in the MENA.
Again, Red shows her technical and performative range. Gone is the frustration and anger, replaced with a more staccato, pointed yet positive delivery. Her technical range is expanded somewhat, as she slips into a warm, whispering alto but still with the glass-shatteringly crisp mid-high soprano. Once more, it’s a musically intricate, deftly delivered piece.
The EP finishes with Butterfly. It’s pure 2020 Neo Soul with that CS-80 back and nodding to its musical roots. And the track is the perfect final flourish for the EP. It’s a gorgeous, smooth creation – incorporating numerous musical devices. The cleverly arranged percussion is absent on the verses, which leaves that CS-80 to perform downbeat chords – again, drawing the focus fully in on Red’s voice, with just a faint acoustic guitar riff almost out of earshot. The bridge then layers up, with the drums coming in slowly, and the bass just dropping a brief riff at the start of the bar.
On the chorus, all this is expanded upon. The percussion performs a rapid hi-hat/snare semiquaver combo, with the kick on the downbeat. But the sequence is finished with a buzz roll – which immediately nods to the current Grime/Drill phenomenon. The keys run a counterpoint line to the melody, doing a call and response. Even more layering occurs on the second run of the chorus, with sweeping strings, more frantic embellishment on the percussion line and some of the most complex vocal arrangement of the EP. If you wanted a comparison, Butterfly at this point verges on Jungle: the frantic, Reggae one-drop inspired percussive arrangement, heavily organised vocals awash with reverb and filters, the introduction of a sax, horns and flute, and the bass focus on the upbeat. And Red’s vocal truly shines – passionate, covering the top-end of her soprano range with ease. It’s probably the strongest and most masterfully composed track of the EP – and is a glorious ending to both the musical and thematic journey.
Shadow Work is another triumphant release from Red. Musically progressive, it takes styles that have come before it and drives them into new territory, creating a thoroughly modern, Neo Soul sound. The joy of Red’s compositions is expecting the unexpected, and the utterly fresh sounding project doesn’t disappoint. Moreover, she is a highly skilled lyricist, delivering compelling narratives with her lyrics. Vocally, she has a rich, expressive and well-controlled voice, which could easily turn its hand to Jazz.
But it’s the thematic construction of Aruba Red Shadow Work which also impresses. Red takes you on a journey with her, from the initial moments of despair, via stark realisation, to acceptance, flourishment and eventually metamorphosis. All of these emotions are skilfully reflected in the musical composition and arrangement, fitting together in perfect harmony. It’s a remarkable project from this remarkable talent. Red has indeed used her blue for painting. And it’s a masterpiece. Aruba Red Shadow Work EP Review By Steve Topple (18th March 2020).