Album Review: Tash Sultana – Terra Firma

Australia’s one-person band, Tash Sultana, offers a ray of light in our current times with ‘Terra Firma’, an album that is equal parts hypnotic and ethereal, euphoric and explosive. The former busker has never coloured inside the lines. Their work incorporates psychedelic, rock, soul, reggae, and R&B elements among others, and it feels right to say that Sultana’s music falls under a category of its own. Their sophomore album introduces us to their new phase of artistry, a mosaic of sounds that embraces clean, colourful melodies while maintaining Sultana’s genre-bending quality.

‘Terra Firma’ opens with ‘Musk,’ a mystical instrumental that opens the gate to another world and seduces listeners into staying for the sixty-minute journey. ‘Musk’ is an introduction to the album’s overarching feel, an alluring piece comprised of Sultana’s signature looped and layered psychedelic sounds. It’s an unpredictable and otherworldly invitation to Sultana’s new era, and it’s difficult to resist curiosity about what’s next.  

We hear Sultana’s velvety vocals for the first time on ‘Crop Circles’, a song that speculates the afterlife. “The only thing I fear is my death / Can somebody tell me, tell me where I go?” they sing. The soft acoustics, piano, and trombone create a perfect landscape of sounds that intertwine with Sultana’s soulful words. While ‘Crop Circles’ deals with daunting thoughts of the afterlife, they still manage to incorporate the lightness and peace that has made its home in many of their songs.

‘Terra Firma’ continues into ‘Greed,’ ‘Beyond the Pine,’ and ‘Pretty Lady,’ three of Sultana’s 2020 singles filled with warmth and feel-good vibes. To call Sultana’s discography ‘simple’ would be a blatant lie, but they do indulge in their version of simplicity in these mellow tracks. Their smooth vocals paired with the music’s fusion of soul, R&B, and neo-funk elements will leave you humming the tune for the rest of the day. Sultana sings about success’ role in changing relationships and loving beyond social norms, topics carefully constructed in their catchy lyrics.

Melbourne-based singer-songwriter, Josh Cashman, joins Sultana in ‘Dream my Life Away,’ in which the two musicians’ velvety vocals complement each other perfectly. The layered vocals and strings decorate the track with a hazy, dreamlike quality. In true Tash Sultana fashion, the spotlight falls on the instruments toward the end of the song and serves as a fitting transition into the soft piano of ‘Terra Firma’’s seventh song, ‘Maybe You’ve Changed.’

“Maybe there’s a changed me, might even rearrange me / And maybe therе’s a changed me beyond rеpair”, Sultana’s voice drips with honey in this soulful piece. It’s a song about introspection and Sultana’s raw emotion certainly delivers the message.

‘Coma’ holds the entire universe in its chill-inducing five-and-a-half minutes. A song revived from Sultana’s teenage years, the artist paints ‘Coma’ with masterful brushstrokes that feel as uplifting as it is haunting. The vocals and instrumentals in the first four minutes resemble a blissful rest that picks up in the last minute of the song. An electrifying riff pulls you out of the dark and shakes you awake, inviting you to the afterlife. For listeners who favour Sultana’s Flow State era, ‘Coma’ may be a contender for their new favourite track.

The record slips back into Sultana’s mellow sound with ‘Blame it on Society’ and ‘Sweet and Dandy,’ two tracks that reflect on society’s relationship with public image, technology, and social media. While the lyrics in ‘Blame it on Society’ allude to Sultana’s frustration, ‘Sweet and Dandy’ offers a glimpse into the freedom they hope to have.

Australian songwriter, Jerome Farah, makes an appearance on ‘Willow Tree’. The colourful arrangement of sounds features a horn introduction before dreamily blending together Sultana’s smooth vocals with Farah’s rich ones.

‘Vanilla Honey’ and ‘Let the Light In’ both maintain ‘Terra Firma’’s dreamlike quality, each in their own ways. ‘Vanilla Honey’ is a mellow tune that features a landscape of sound where Sultana’s signature layered vocals blend seamlessly with their instrumentals. ‘Let the Light In,’ on the other hand, feels a little hazier with Sultana’s haunting voice singing, “If looks could kill, I’d be dead / Take up the right side of the bed / And your hair is longer than when we met / So how could I forget?”. This track is warm and slow, a perfect transition into the ending of this tale.

Lastly, the sophomore album concludes with ‘I am Free’. This song begins with a twinkling, mystical intro that is reminiscent of ‘Musk. but while the first song invited us to another world, ‘I am Free’ has once again shown us the gate. Only this time, it’s for our departure. It’s an ethereal ending that closes a circle of subject matters – afterlife, greed, love beyond social norms – as Sultana declares their own freedom from society’s shallow constraints.

‘Terra Firma’ is not an album that should be passively listened to. Every note, every loop, and every layer are individual atoms that comprise entire universes of sound within each track. The way Sultana lays out their soul and passion is contagious. Every song embraces you in a warmth, encouraging you to shed any heaviness you held within beforehand. This is an album meant to elicit introspection about our own openness, our love from internal and external sources, our questions about what we hold close to us. With the state of our world, ‘Terra Firma’ offers a ray of light and the dose of medicine we all truly need.

Written by: Bernice Santos

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