Greetings maggots. It’s another great day on the blog and a day of firsts in many ways. This happens to be our very first album review. And this review is of alternative rock band ParkingLotGrass’ debut full length album “Tusk at Hand”. A lot of work has been put into this record. The album was initially set for release in 2014 but that date was pushed to August 2015. The record’s first title was Pembe Mfukoni which was probably a node to the 2012 EP “Shimo Mfukoni” (Swahili for Hole in the Pocket). The recording was done at Andromeda Studios the same outfit that records for Last Year’s Tragedy, Rish and Seismic.
The Road to the Album
Parking Lot Grass as a band has changed a lot since the release of the 2012 EP. The frontman back then was Rafael Sipalla whom the band parted ways with in early 2014. The band has also changed drummers during the course of time, alternating Carrey Francis Ronjey and Nick Wathi. The rest of the line-up has remained virtually unchanged with the exception of new frontman Duncan Muriira. “Shimo Mfukoni” contained a total of eight songs. This was one of the longer and better EP’s on the market at that time with its popularity only being second to Last Year’s Tragedy’s “Challenge Accepted.”
Shimo Mfukoni was a mix of lots of great things. More particularly it can be lauded for bearing bucket loads of dynamism. One song on the record hardly sounded like the second. This EP was also an evident attempt at piercing the veil as far as singing in Swahili is concerned with songs like “Shimo Mfukoni” and “Speedchaser” being perfect examples. The sound was more raw than the present album. That record also bled with the blood of red hot vitality and it was a rarity not to find any of their songs moving. It was a record that saw Parking Lot Grass wear its heart on its sleeve with youthful exuberance.
The themes were basically driven by political consciousness and a couple of songs like “Etched on My heart” and ‘Sweet Pain’ served up a dose of gothic love odysseys.
Sweet pain is a node to songs like “Let me be” and Turn around and you want to imagine that they continue to expand to the same songs that they did in Shimo Mfukoni but to a larger sort of playground through an album.
Transitioning to “Tusk at Hand”, there has remained that familiar train of thought as far as the themes in the album are concerned. It is as if Parking Lot Grass have gone ahead to expand on the topics they touched on in their 2012 EP. For instance the 7th song on this album featuring Nigerian pop rock songstress Clay, Turn Around lays out the most perfect execution of dark Romancian love story. Clay has this gothic air that wafts effortlessly when she sings. The track is filled with these dark poetic moments that are so numbing almost to the point of blissful suffocation. The voices of Duncan Muriira and Clay just weave in and out of each other. The guitars are muted and the synths are utilised to paint a dampening mood throughout the song and it also relies on a piano to maintain that mixed entrapment of gloom and soulful attraction. The majority of this album takes the direction of the socio-political angle that is alluded to in the cover art with songs like Constitution and Wanyama wa Pori. A more subtle tease to the overral idea of the album is “Let Me Be” which nudges both great and small to take heed in avoiding racial stereotypes.
“If I could believe” is an intro that does its job well to introduce the listener to the album’s tone. In the face of the carnage that has relentlessly claimed every majestic and vital hope we have ever held, there with bloodied hands, a piano that sets this brooding atmosphere in context plays. With the help of synths, this gives a setting that is both moving and begging at the same time.
Sequencing and transitions in this record as so perfectly done and you feel as if every little aspect set out in that intro is cleverly captured in each song. PLG make music seem like an exact science. The transition from one guitar riff to the refrains are measured with machinelike exactness. The record in effect isn’t discoloured or too sludgy, it is a clear and almost perfect product. The tracks on here are paced with a high degree of expert tediousness. They throw in a few surprises also with a bit of screamo embedded in songs like Shine and Naweza, a characteristic singing style that Duncan Muriira has carried on from the days he used to front Christian Rock band Seismic. There isn’t one song that grinds out with too much of an intensive pace or blows in the wind with excessive softness. In this record PLG have accomplished the marvelous task of executing a harmonized balance of tenderized mellowness and thrashing speed. And this is, for all the little imperfections, the one single greatest element that makes Tusk at Hand such a wondrous gem. You can go buy the album now!!!
The major problems with this album as with a lot of things ParkingLotGrass nowadays is that everything is has fallen into predictability which is a great departure from their EP. Perhaps that can be accounted for in the fact that they are trying to put together a consistent identifiable sound that can be attributed to the band.
Secondly the album isn’t what is expected in two ways. First the album isn’t a pure concept as far as talking of poaching as socio-political concept or at least that isn’t readily apparent. The seriousness of the idea they are trying to speak against however are well accounted for in the general tone of the album which is consistently aching with grey and blue shades dour, urgency and sentiment. Then this is perhaps a good thing. While going into this album I half expected to be ambushed by a barrage of songs with cheesy names that sounded so predictable that they’d make for cringing moments. However that isn’t the case surprisingly. The best songs are the ones that hadn’t been released. Of course songs like Naweza, Turn Around and Rain Man were great. “Naweza” has impeccable melodies and Duncan is just the best at going toe to toe with the melody. Tight the way he does it the lines just roll off his tongue like he’s been doing this for an eternity. The guitars go through brilliant sections too and there are well written hooks. And the Swahili is just a effortlessly executed. Blending in and off with English it’s just an incredible track. Extremely catchy. Great singalong line goes off as the song plummets to the end with another even higher melody.
But the band has left the best material for the rest of the album. Some of the best songs undoubtedly on this record have to be “Chosen Ones”, “Let Me Be” and “Sio Lazima”. The Bass sounds really marvellous in Chosen ones providing a doomy atmosphere. There are pleasant progressive riffing in the beginning. The lyrics are also cleverly executed to achieve impressively brooding and heartfelt result. This has to be one of my outstanding songs on here. This song is just dripping with a dramatic air of sentiment. It leaves you forever yearning and longing for the kind of high it gives you emotionally. It is damning and love at first sight.
The band has also maintained Swahili as part of their core identity. But the way they achieve the balance of the English lines and Swahili is the most enjoyable aspect of it.
“Shine”, “Naweza” and “Kilio cha Haki” are some of the songs that feel like they are trying a bit too much to live by the dictates of the overall conscience of the album. The Guitars are sluggish at the beginning. Rainman too has the same effect and makes for uncomfortable listening by had that catchy rhythm.
Some songs are pretty cheesy in name like constitution and “Wanyama wa pori” and Let me be. But these songs are oddly surprising in the way they were finally manifested. I expected cheesy lines and prepared to bite down hard. But…and constitution has a really sweet moment within the guessing gloomy atmosphere. There is an impasse within the song when there is some singing inspired by much happier thoughts. The dark and light elements of this song are enjoyable…or grounded and campy.
Overall Tusk at Hand is a quirky but gripping album that’s easily entrapping. It has an inherent desire to tell a story that’ll change/challenge the world. In that journey, the failure to do so, as a singular concept is telling. But as one would expect there are flashes of brilliance. This perhaps isn’t the album that will be earmarked/hailed as PLG’s most stellar opus. The band has reached an admirable maturity but its peak is visible just beyond the horizon. However it will surely be heralded as one of those that laid the groundwork for this band’s sound as a brand.