Stone: At Last Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
UK homegrown talent is always exciting to hear, especially when the Reggae industry can be dominated by the bigger names from Jamaica. So, does East London-born Stone’s (formerly known as ST1) latest album represent a worthwhile addition to the UK scene? Absolutely.
Stone At Last, released independently, sees Stone tread a classic Reggae-derived path. He’s utilised a multitude of producers and riddims across the project – but keeps a remarkable synergy throughout. Classic in its construction but often thoroughly modern in its detail, At Last shows the wide range of this exciting artist – with the majority of the mixing and mastering coming from Beats AMR.
It opens with One Day. Production from Lion Riddims across the Old Vibe Riddim is classic in its formation, with the rhythm section driving the track’s vibe. Keys run a bubble rhythm which is old skool – in terms of the left hand hammers out chords, while the right hand delicately tinkers around riffs, focused towards the end of each bar. The rounded bass is on a one drop rhythm, skipping the first beat but quickly coming in on the following off. It licks across a syncopated rhythm that melodically, like the keys, is old skool – working around the root triad. Meanwhile, drums actually avoid a one drop – with the kick hitting the downbeats and some offs in between, hi-hats run a dotted rhythm and the snare hits the two and four. The sum of these parts is the creation of momentum, despite the fairly slow BPM.
Additional lines, such as a horn section which mimics the main melody and wah-wah’d guitars which alternate between skanking and riffing, build nice layers into proceedings. And a stark bridge, stripped back to just drums and bass, then keys, is all a bit Rub-a-Dub. Overall, One Day serves as a brooding and unsettling opener for At Last – with Lion Riddim’s deep production, focusing on the lower kHz, accentuating this and fitting the thematic content well.
Next up is Where Were You? It’s a delicious and direct move into almost Revival territory from NBeats, across the Pista de Reggae Riddim. Rudimentary Roots elements have been morphed into more complex compositions. For example, the keys work on an embellished bubble rhythm: instead of hitting just the offbeats, they double hit the first and third, creating an increased sense of stuttering. The bass is stripped back further, doing a double drop rhythm which misses the two and three on most occasions. Drums are sparse in terms of instrumentation, with the focus being on open and closed hi-hats, the snare and additional tom-tom rolls. Extra percussion in terms of chimes and a vibraslap enhance the Revival feel – as does the inclusion of a haunting synth theremin. A lonely horn finishes off the stark sound, running a lonely countermelody to Stone’s main one – and the whole thing is a melancholy, higher kHz-focused dive into the sound made famous by the likes of Protoje and Chronixx. Wonderful.
You’re Gonna Miss Me is almost a response to Where Were You’s call. Produced by Reggae Vibes Music on a riddim of the same name, it’s classic Lover’s Rock with heavy dollops of Soul thrown into the mix. Gloriously unfussy, guitars skank as well as running delicate riffs and arpeggio chords just out of earshot, with pleasing levels of bending at times. The bass is heavily syncopated, dropping the third beat on occasion and working around diatonic melodies. Drums are kept straightforward, doing the first one drop of At Last with the addition of the snare working off rim clicks. The inclusion of a vibrato-heavy electric organ hitting brief chords brings in Soul, and the lovely use of some raspy synth horns, across a whining countermelody, is almost New Jack Swing. The overall production is sympathetically done, too – focusing on the lower kHz to give a rich, Soul sound. And it’s a perfect track for Stone’s voice – as he transcends Roots sensibilities to deliver something more Atlantic Records. Glorious.
Producer Asher D brings Ba Ba Boom with the Goliath Riddim. It moves At Last into Funkier Soul-led Reggae territory, and the mixing and mastering from A1 is very strong. All the basic devices are present, with the keys again running a classic bubble rhythm which is the driving force. The bass, more picked than on previous tracks which creates a strutting feel, drops the two. It’s a delicious compositional move, as it accents the word “Boom” which starts each bar of the chorus. Those rasping synth horns are back, working around stripped-back rhythmic motifs of the main melody but using melodically different patterns – and on occasion offering up responses to Stone’s vocal calls. They’re perhaps the most intricate part of the composition from Asher D, and are extremely well orchestrated. And the bookending, with a grandiose, Funky Soul intro and outro, is brilliant. An excellent foray into something smooth and swaggering.
Gimme That, across the Shanty Town Riddim, sees Stone go back to basics with some classic, Sound System-esque vibes. Unfussy, uncomplicated but thoroughly feel-good, the basic chord progressions (root-major fourth-major fifth) set the perfect palette for the rest of the stripped-back instrumentation to work off. Keys do a bubble rhythm; guitars skank; the rich, resonant bass works around the tonics of the chord and drums do a one drop. The inclusion of some rattling bongos and the use of reverb just add to the summery vibe. And the infectious melody sticks in your head long after the track has finished. Gimme some more of ‘That’, please Stone.
At Last moves into more refined, smooth vibes with Reggae Night (video featured below), with production from Sinky Beatz and the Happiness Riddim in play. It’s a mix of Reggae and Dub, with the latter featuring across samples and the nice use of some elongated reverb. Upbeat and full of joy, the track oozes happy vibes and carefree thoughts. The additional electric piano line works extremely well, bring some smooth soulfulness to the cut. And additional synth horns are a nice touch, too. It’s a perfect family party anthem – immediately making you smile.
So In Love With You, across a riddim of the same name, is an ingenious nod to both the Revival movement and 80s Synthwave-style compositions. Production from Ghetti Lava is brilliant, combining Reggae sensibilities with some embellishment left, right and centre. The inclusion of some high-passed and EQ’d synth horns is a particularly nice move, as they transport you back about four decades and give an otherworldly vibe to proceedings. Meanwhile, the electric guitars are pure Cali: whining, to sound like the mid-to-treble on the amp has been turned up, they have a real Revival feel about them. An electric organ returns, with plenty of vibrato, and the cymbal roll at the end of the fourth bar of each phrase finishes off the arrangement well. But Lava has also done an excellent job with the production: the engineering of not only the kHz levels but also the attention to detail with the dB gives So In Love With You a dreamy, blissed-out quality which fits the lyrical content perfectly. Quality, quality works.
Next, and This One’s For You sees Sinky Beatz return with the Roots and Culture Dub Riddim. The emphasis here is on the “Dub”, as various devices come into play to accentuate the genre. Across a bubble rhythm, one drop, skank and drop-beat bass line, Beatz has included some great samples – not least a delicious gaming ‘one up’ sound and a klaxon. But they’ve also ingeniously arranged the horns, with some lovely light and shade in terms of the dynamics, which flow in waves. Beatz uses the reverb extremely well, setting it to peak and trough rapidly, often across just one bar (note the use on the keys’ bubble rhythm). The smooth, bending electric guitars compliment the horns well – and the two lines bring smoothness to the underlying choppiness of the rhythm section. And Stone’s vocal is particularly stand-out, as he mixes vocal with elements of singjay across an impressive syllable rate. It’s a smart, cleverly-arranged composition which shows the potential of Beatz as a producer.
Soulfyah brings the Change Riddim to Leave Me Alone. It’s a well-arranged cut – rich in timbre and classic in its sound. Keys perform a bubble rhythm, with some nice tinkering riffs in the upper register of the treble clef which bring an element of the RnB ballad to the track. The bass’s one drop rhythm works well, as it marries perfectly with the melody – creating a nice piece of musical anthropomorphism; a deep breath before telling someone to just ‘leave me alone’. The drums’ one drop accentuates this, and the choppy guitars skank accompanied by some bending riffing compliments the song’s sentiment well, also. Moreover, the bridge is brilliant – where Soulfyah has stripped away the Roots elements and continues what they started with the upper register keys: a clever, RnB-like break with the keys performing a full, dual-clef refrain, a quivering electric organ running pointed chords and the drums coming in with rolls at the end. It’s an excellent use of instrumental building to bring the track to its forthright conclusion – which eventually fades away; just like the lyrics hope the persistent ex-lover does. Joyous.
Looking In Your Eyes is across the Love and Life Riddim, produced by Barry O’Hare and with mixing and mastering from Gadman Dubs. It’s a choppy, funky Reggae cut which is underscored by good use of electric guitars, at their most prominent on the whole album. They bend, wail and slide in and out, offering responses to Stone’s calls. A synth theremin makes a return, with a particularly richly engineered sound. Strings come into play for the first time on At Last: bowed and staccato, they run semiquaver riffs on occasion, stabbing in and out. Similarly, some synth horns do the same, putting in fleeting appearances. And there’s a clever use of just the left input for one section of Stone’s vocal – which gives the feeling of him being on the end of the phone, or whispering in a person’s ear (musical ‘other-rooming’, almost, without the overuse of compression). It’s a nicely arranged track, with some ingenious flashes throughout.
The album moves back to classic Sound System Reggae with Do It. Producer Beats By SV uses the Reggae Love Riddim to very good effect, with some pleasant detail put in. The bass does a nice drop-beat rhythm, but has been engineered so as not to overpower the rest of the instrumental lines. Keys run a bubble rhythm, drums do a one drop and there’s additional use of blocks, which rattle just out of earshot. It’s once again all a bit Rub-a-Dub – until the nicely arranged horns come in. They almost serve as backing vocalists – providing accompaniment to Stone during the chorus, then running responses during the verses. An electric organ builds more layering in, and there’s good use of instrumental breaks, where SV strips the arrangement back to its bare bones (just drums and bass) It’s all very throwback – but in a thoroughly good way.
At Last concludes with the bonus track Better Days, produced by Bradley Halliday with RellyCrise doing the mix and master. And it’s a surprise, but in a thoroughly wonderful way. Gone are the Roots’ sounds, replaced by a modern, almost Afrobeats RnB quality – an ‘Afroballad’, as the vibe should be known. The snare and snaps hit the two and four, alternating on the final fourth bar of each phrase with increased syncopation across the last two beats. Meanwhile, the kick focuses on beat one, with interspersed offbeats thereafter. The bass is rudimentary, with the feel of an 808 – working off a three-beat pattern with the final beat dropping at times before the start of the bar. This combined with the drums drives the Afrobeats feel. Keys work around basic chord and run patterns, bringing the RnB vibes to the fore and at times mimicking the bass. A highly EQ’d electric guitar runs a countermelody and the whole package is gorgeous – simple yet effective, attractive but sparse. But what also commendable, is it’s perhaps the track where Stone’s voice is allowed to shine the most – and it’s a pleasure to hear.
What stands out among all the tracks is the accessibility. Stone has picked producers who know how to write a good, memorable melody – as every song has a hook which sticks in your brain. Moreover, they all know when to stop; that is, less is often more – and all too often producers can over-orchestrate tracks, making them muddled and audibly too complex to be enjoyable. But across the album, the balance of intricacy and unfussiness has been struck perfectly.
Overall, the deft, interwoven construction by the producers gives Stone a varied and fulsome platform on which to bounce off. And bounce this artist does.
He has an almost classic voice, perfectly suited to Reggae-derived music. Stone sits in various registers: upper tenor, baritone and at times falsetto. All of these he appears comfortable and competent in, with his upper tenor being particularly pleasing. But there are elements of almost Soul in his often gravelly yet never strained voice – and it’s this which is so enjoyable to listen to. He has an ease about his performances, which naturally convey emotion without him trying too hard. And he can perform fairly intricate vocal runs and riff well, along with maintaining a fairly rapid pace across complex rhythms with forfeiting his enunciation. Stone’s performances are full of light and shade, and he’s clearly a seasoned artist who is infinitely listenable to. He’s also a smart lyricist – who can tread that delicate tightrope between wry, somewhat amusing lines and others that are full of raw emotion.
If there were to be some constructive criticism of At Last, it would be two things. The various producers’ use of almost MTR on Stone’s main vocal lines (where he records the same thing repeatedly and the producer layers the resulting tracks on top of one another) is unnecessary and overkill across the album. Stone’s voice is more than capable of holding up without the need for layering; a technique reserved nowadays for unskilled vocalists to make their voices sound better. There’s no need for its heavy use across the album and it brings nothing, stylistically, to proceedings. It would be far better to hear Stone’s voice pure and unengineered, across one line. This does actually happen – on the chorus of Better Days, where his voice is layered, but at two different octaves to give the impression of a backing vocalist. Here, you can hear fully that Stone doesn’t need the constant MTR supplementation – he can hold each song with just one line of his voice.
Also, it’s clear when you listen to the songs in succession that there was an issue with the final master – as the dB levels and passing (high/low) varies slightly across some of the tracks. It seems to be mainly on the vocal line (note This One’s For You and Looking In Your Eyes as examples) perhaps due to a lack of communication/ synergy between the producers and Beats AMR (who did the final master). Stone should ensure that for his next project that there’s consistency in this area, as it’s a noticeable drawback, unfortunately – and takes a bit of finesse off At Last.
That said, these are mere quibbles in an otherwise extremely solid piece of work. Stone is a very gifted artist, whose voice is commanding and compelling. And Stone At Last is a well-constructed, well thought-out album which showcases both the vast list of producers and the artist’s talents perfectly. Each track stands out from the previous one, and each is also a potential radio-friendly hit in its own right. Moreover, it offers a forthright reminder that UK-based Reggae is still alive and kicking. A powerful move from Stone, who is an absolute pleasure to spend an album with.
Stone At Last review by Mr Topple (27th July 2020).