Nga Han and The Hi-Flyers: Emergence Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Nga Han has gone from strength-to-strength recently. From his sophomore album The Living Stream Chapter One, to the vinyl release Tek A Chance with The Co-Operators, he’s proving what a refined artist he is. And with the addition to the Pauzeradio shop of yet another vinyl album, Han has cemented his status as an artist to watch.
Emergence, released via Bon-Fi Records, is a collaboration between Han, Belgium-based producer Kingston Echo and band The Hi-Flyers. The 12” limited press vinyl consists of eight tracks, four on each side. Across Emergence, you firstly get a real feeling of synergy and the positive vibrations between all those involved. This is of little wonder, when you realise the backstory to the project.
Echo told Pauzeradio:
“I first got to know Han’s work through a mutual friend from Philadelphia, US called Anders (he runs a Sound System and online record shop called Brotherly Dubs). I met up with him in New York when I was there on holiday during the summer of 2018. Anders played me a couple of tracks off the David Stone album, and I was very impressed with the work. This led to Anders connecting the both of us. At first, we collaborated on a single track, titled “Way Out”. Me and the rest of the Hi-Flyers recorded the riddim at my studio here in Antwerp and Han voiced the tune at Anders’ place.
We were both so pleased with the result that after a couple of phone calls, we decided to get Han over to Belgium in the summer of 2019 to work on more tracks. I also booked a couple of performances together, of which the highlight was a performance at the Reggae Geel festival.
Han stayed at my place for almost three months, during which we wrote and recorded what would become the “Emergence” album. During this period, Han also stayed at the Earthworks studio for two weeks, where he met Uta and thus the seeds for the “Living Stream” album were sown. In this sense, “Emergence” is either Han’s second or third album, depending on your perspective as it was the second to be recorded, but the third to be released”.
What also stands out about the album is that Echo and Co recorded and produced the entire project using analogue equipment, specifically 16-track tape. This has created a sound which is rich, almost ‘as live’ that’s rare in modern music now – and allows each instrumental line to come through. Echo told Pauzeradio:
“The “Emergence” album, like all my productions, was recorded in a 100% analogue way, meaning that everything was recorded straight to tape and mixed from tape as it would have been done in the 70s, with no computers involved in the production process whatsoever. This results in a slightly older school sound, which is a bit less polished compared to a lot of modern digital productions, but does preserve a certain excitement in the performance (or that is my belief, at least)”.
So, with a friendship that quickly blossomed and some very traditional recording and production techniques to boot – how does Emergence shape up?
It opens with the title track: a funky, forward-moving Roots affair if ever there was one. Traditional musical devices are littered throughout – from the keys’ bubble rhythm to the guitar’s delicate and intermittent skank. But it’s the bass which is the first dominant feature. It is slightly more embellished than is usually seen in Roots, avoiding a straight one drop and instead hitting beat one on the second bar of each phrase. It runs a combination of dotted and straight notation, and uses that post-Rocksteady style of working around its own melodic line as opposed to arpeggio chords. Meanwhile, drums run an almost Steppers line – because the kick hits every beat, while the snare and hi-hats are more syncopated. Horns are sparsely used, but to good effect – jutting in with some harmonised refrains. Additional percussion, like rattling tin drums and bongos, add a traditional feel. And the use of some nicely placed synths and samples brings in elements of Dub. Emergence’s chord progressions are also very effective – with their basic progressions on the choruses and verses, but then moving into something more soulful on the bridges. Han gives a persistent performance, unrelenting in his approach – keeping the dynamics fairly static which marries well with the constant forward motion brought by the bass and chord progressions. Overall, Emergence is a strong opening to the project.
Can’t Stop I n I Progress moves the album’s feel forward, further – delving into rich, brooding Roots. The chord progressions here are lusher and fluid, creating a different sound to the title track. Then, drums revert to a more prominent one drop, with the snare hitting the two and four and hi-hats on consistent quavers through the spaces in between. But the bass refuses to play into this – having an interesting arrangement, which hits the one on the first bar of its phrase, but skips it on the second in some instances, and on others during the fourth bar. But that first bar is crucial to the feel – as the first note is a semibreve, before it breaks out into something more syncopated. This ebbing and flowing movement marries well with the chord progressions. Meanwhile, keys run a bubble rhythm, a guitar skanks and some engineered kette (or similar) provide something Rootsy and thunderous on occasion. Horns are more central to Can’t Stop I n I Progress, too – running a harmonised melodic line as a response to Han’s main vocal call. Three quarters of the way through there’s a glorious Dub break and the track’s ending almost verges on the Funky Soul. Han’s performance is more diverse, here – as he winds a fairly complex melody with nice use of dynamic light and shade and good attention to detail across note clipping and extension to marry with the lyrics. Overall, Can’t Stop I n I Progress is pleasing and affecting.
Slow Down the Pace then does what it says on the tin – winding Emergence back a notch, both in terms of BPM but also arrangement – and in some respects, in time too: merging Roots with something almost Synthwave. The use of a rasping synth horn, which has been laced with decay running across it, makes for an ominous vibe. The stripped-back rhythm section focuses on the keys staccato bubble rhythm, that guitar skanking again and a sparse bass which is heavy on the one-drop. The drums play into this, keeping it simple with their winding, dotted-note hi-hats, intermittent snare and barely audible kick – but with the occasional military-style rolls across the snare. The use of an electric organ adds to the otherworldly vibes as it strikes chords, as does what sounds like a bell bottle synth running an occasional melodic line. Pattering blocks also weave in and out. But occasionally, Slow Down the Pace’s arrangements swells across soulful chord progressions – before winding back again. Han is perfectly match to this musical backdrop, treading legato notes with some well-controlled vibrato and a softer tone than previously seen. The backing vocalist is also glorious – complementing Han perfectly. And overall, Slow Down the Pace is haunting, effective and a clever merging of Old Skool genres together.
Then, Emergence picks up the motion once more with Liberty. In some respects, it expands on Slow Down the Pace’s musical ideas. Roots devices like the keys’ bubble rhythm are still present. But certain elements from the previous track are expanded upon. The electric organ’s role is increased, as it runs a heavily vibrato’d and persistent, chord-led but winding melodic line in the mid-range of its register – acting as a counterpoint to Han’s vocal. Then, the synth horn from Slow Down the Pace has been replaced by a melodica; it too running a countermelody to the main one, high up the treble clef. Dub is also an influencer once more. Rhythmic reverb is added at points across the keys – and a pointed, extended break serves as a bridge where the instrumentation is stripped back, plenty of reverb is added and everything feels otherworldly. Han’s vocal feels more pointed than what’s come before it, as he makes use of more staccato notation, along with some well-arranged backing vocals that work in a falsetto register. Overall, Liberty is a fitting close to the A side of the 12” vinyl – as it represents a merging of the sounds that have been toyed with previously, summing up the first half of the album well.
Side B of Emergence opens with Anew – and it represents ‘a new’ sound compared to side A. Gone is the heavy Roots arrangement. Instead, the sound has been stripped of the main drums entirely – which immediately brings both musical sparseness but also a more unsettling theme with that rhythmic direction being removed. Keys still run a bubble rhythm but their role is expanded – interestingly, running a melodic riff in the bass clef (left hand) at the end of every second bar (versus more traditional Roots where this would be in the treble clef, right hand). The bass does a drop-beat rhythm in the most part – which is particularly picked in style creating more sparseness. Pattering bongos/djembe and a bass drum are the only real drum contribution – which are complemented by a tambourine. But an electric guitar is perhaps the stand-out instrumental line, as it weaves a fairly complex, lilting melodic line filled with bending and the occasional blue notes. It generally runs responses to Han’s vocal calls – and the two work beautifully together. He is restrained, here – delicate in his delivery, almost to the point of a whisper, conveying something reflective and thoughtful. Overall, Anew is a fascinating beginning to side B, as it smashes what’s come before it – being haunting in simplicity but evocatively so.
Versatile sums up its music well – as here, Roots and Steppers meet to create a frantic, pacey track that barely stops for breath. The dominant four-to-the-floor kick cannot be escaped, as can’t the stuttering snare and hi-hats arrangement. These give the drums a forthright feel and dictate the other instruments’ roles. The winding, melodically intricate and rhythmically rapid bass is quick but smooth – gliding quickly across the track. A guitar does a mixed-up skank which interestingly works across a Dancehall clave rhythm at points. The keys’ role is somewhat reduced, to just an intermittent bubble rhythm. Horns also play their part – doing punctuated harmonised riffs that jut in and out at points. Additional bongos/djembe patter in the background. Then, Han finishes this intricate, smart arrangement off perfectly – as he too gives a punctuated performance, making good use of the rhythmic backdrop, employing precise and crisp enunciation across a dynamically forthright line. Excellent works.
Then, One Drop Analogue Style refines Emergence’s sound further – moving the album into Rock-influenced, richer and more fluid Roots. A ‘one drop’ is kind of central across the drums, but interestingly because the bass always hits the first beat of the bar it isn’t overwhelming. Meanwhile, other Roots devices like a bubble rhythm and skank are also present. There are wonderful, sparse and ethereal Dub breaks filled with reverb as well as some soulful backing vocals. But what does stand out across the track is the interplay between the guitar and trumpet. They almost perform a call and response pattern between them: the whining electric guitar offering up a melody, with the lilting, delicate but slightly dampened trumpet then replying to it. It’s a glorious, vocal-style arrangement that works as a duet on top of Han’s main vocal line. He matches the two instruments well, giving a thoughtful and considered performance that’s delicate, flowing and full of dynamic light and shade. All this makes One Drop Analogue Style an evocative track.
Emergence concludes with Way Out. It almost builds on the previous track while cementing the album’s Roots basis and providing a fitting conclusion – amalgamating some of the previous track’s elements. Everything plays its part, here. The rhythm section consists of the keys’ bubble rhythm, a skanking guitar, drums on a non-one drop arrangement (with a busy kick line) and the bass’s drop-beat rhythm, which generally misses the first beat – providing the feel of a one drop. But it’s the additional layering of other instrumentation which enriches the track fully. Another electric guitar riffs and whines throughout, covered in reverb with good use of bending and some blue notes. An electric organ complements the keys’ bubble rhythm by doing similar. What sounds like the return of the bell bottle synth from Slow Down the Pace treads a delicate melodic line. Additional bongos/djembe patter; a synth horn runs a rasping line while samples create some Dub evocativeness. This complex arrangement serves Han’s vocal well – as he is at his persuasive and pointed best, delivering a performance something akin to a sermon: forthright but not overbearing; fluid yet clipped where necessary and highly engaging. It’s a strong conclusion to the album and has created a timeless sound.
Lyrically, Han has created a body of work that consists of individual narratives – which when viewed as a whole paint a broader picture. The title track serves as a fitting opening, as Han gives a rousing appraisal of modern-day society in terms of the awakening many of us are experiencing – notably Rastafari. Can’t Stop I n I Progress builds on this, as he discusses how Babylon cannot hold back the advancement of the Rastafari movement, its influences and people’s personal faith and resolve – despite the system and its proponent’s best efforts. Slow Down the Pace brings more reflective thought processes into play – as Han muses on the “war” Babylon constantly rages upon us on various levels – and how we need to sometimes stop, reflect and regroup before continuing on our own, righteous path. Ending side A, Liberty follows on from the previous track as he discusses emancipation and how we can achieve it in the face of the system’s constant, intentional adversity.
Side B opens with Anew’s stirring message of Biblical birth and rebirth, paraphrasing scripture in the process and focusing on Haile Selassie and the notion that this world will eventually be reborn into Jah’s image. Versatile is a pleasing look at the Rastafari faith, both practically and spiritually – while One Drop Analogue Style pays homage to Roots music, its spiritual basis and how it can serve to affect personal and social change. Emergence’s closing, Way Out, is almost a Song of Praise as well as a sermon on the importance of righteousness and faith in the modern world – serving both as a conclusion to the album but also a broader message that feels like Han has not finished what he wanted to say just yet. When combined, all the individual narratives across the album merge as a broader picture of finding faith, maintaining it and then applying to everyday life in the face of adversity and Babylon’s persecution: a veritable lesson in living a spiritual life.
Overall, Emergence is a strong offering from Han, Echo and everyone involved. Musically the album is intricate and interesting, with excellent variations on its Roots base. The use of purely analogue equipment is especially pleasing and has created a rich and powerful overall sound. Han as a performer is once again gifted, showing great versatility and depth. Lyrically, the album represents a clever fusion of individual narratives which merge into one – and overall, Emergence is a solid body of work that will please many. Worth adding to any collection.
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Nga Han Emergence Review by Mr Topple / Pauzeradio PR Services (11th October 2021).