Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: SAULT NINE

Forever Living Originals
Forever Living Originals

To the extent anyone knows SAULT’s story, you know this part already: What the enigmatic British collective has pulled off in the last two years is dizzying in terms of artistic achievement. In 2019, they suddenly appeared with not one but two albums, 5 and 7. Then they did it again last year, quickly following the 2019 duo with another pairing, the Untitled albums that seemed as if they had been born directly from and for new waves of protests that swept America and beyond in the summer of 2020. The albums blended a vast array of Black music touchstones into sprawling, nuanced statements tracing spectrums of Black experience. SAULT have continued to eschew any interaction with the press (or, seemingly, any plans to perform live), but people eventually figured out that producer Inflo seems to be guiding the project while Cleo Sol, Kid Sister, and Kadeem Clarke have writing credits at various points; otherwise, we still don’t even know how expansive or solidified SAULT even is as a group.

While it’s often baffling to consider an artist cranking out albums of such consistent excellence at such a ridiculous clip, that’s what we’re used to with SAULT now. So, even after the monumental Untitled albums, perhaps it for once isn’t surprising that SAULT are already back and have crafted an album that immediately sounds like them while also expanding their work. Their latest, NINE, arrived on Friday, and the group claims it will only be streaming for 99 days. (Quick programming note: We don’t usually consider albums released the preceding week as eligible for Album Of The Week, but there are exceptions to every rule and we felt NINE was worthy of spotlighting today.)

At a brisk 34 minutes and a comparatively compact 10 tracks, NINE is one of SAULT’s more concise statements. Yet while it may not have the all-encompassing reach of the Untitled albums, that statement is no less potent. Returning to the numbering nomenclature of their earlier albums, SAULT have also looked back to origin stories. When NINE arrived, the group took to Instagram to add a rare bit of context for the album:

Some of us are from the heart of London’s council estates where proud parents sought safer environments to raise their families. Community is the only real genuine support & the majority of us get trapped in a systemic loop where a lot of resources & options are limited.

Adults who fail to heal from childhood traumas turn to alcohol & drugs as medicine.

Young girls & boys looking for leadership can get caught up in gang life.

It’s very easy to judge.

What would you do if this were you?

In that sense, NINE differentiates itself from its immediate predecessors’ role in last year’s BLM moment by becoming a bit more directly rooted in SAULT’s own experiences of growing up Black in England. The album’s first proper track is called “London Gangs,” and later on “You From London” plays like a reprise of Untitled: Rise‘s hilarious-yet-cutting “You Know It Ain’t.” Seemingly the same vocalist is back, now tracing what could be an exchange between a Black American and a Black British person; the same way SAULT have always dug into complexities and layers of Black experience, now they’re touching on differences in perspective and stereotyping from other sides of the diaspora.

As usual, SAULT use these spoken word interludes to make their meanings and intention clear. The centerpiece of NINE is Michael Ofo’s childhood recollection of the day police came to his flat to tell him and his mother that his father had been murdered. Later, another voice remembers growing up in East London, what was deemed “gang culture” versus neighborhood affiliations, while another talks about rivalries between one street and another and how anxiety robbed him of a childhood. There is a specificity in these moments, but once more SAULT’s approach spreads out to a more universal Black story. NINE, like the group’s other work, is equal parts pain and hope, often allowing those emotions to sit alongside each other on the same song.

Part of what’s made SAULT’s albums so exhilarating is how they are able to collide so many different genres and traditions in a fluent and seamless way — sometimes it could be hard to discern whether there was a band playing these roiling tracks in a room or whether this was all the work of a masterful producer flitting between ideas like a DJ segues between songs. NINE still has a bit of that, but it also works in discrete halves. The first half is the groovier, more uptempo one, but also is blearier in a way, with less release. “London Gangs” is all anxious, throbbing bass propulsion above frantic percussion; “Trap Life” is a clattering, humid funk; “Fear” is a foreboding haze, fuzzed-out bass and primal drums beneath murmured repetitions of “The pain is real.”

The second half of NINE works on multiple levels — it is both a more somber reflection of Side A and a passage that manages to find some salvation from the moody rhythms of those earlier tracks. “Bitter Streets” is mournful, but it’s also strikingly beautiful — it could compete with “Wildfires” amongst SAULT’s most gorgeous, moving compositions. Here and in the following tracks, SAULT lean back into R&B and gospel strains to try and locate some kind of comfort.

There’s still a lot of room for different sounds and tones in that second half, though. “Alcohol” is languid soul reckoning with self-medication within oppressive societal systems. Then, after Little Simz’s deft feature above the mellow production of “You From London,” NINE ends in a spacious and transcendent place. Its penultimate and title track is a psychedelic sigh. Answering the heaviness present on so much of the album, “9” responds with rippling guitars and puts forth that, instead of being trapped in the cycles glimpsed in other songs, the narrator is “made of love.” The whole thing ends, as some past SAULT outings have, with a moment of resilience: “Light’s In Your Hands,” SAULT’s hymn of promise after everything else said on the album.

Given the dozens of tracks SAULT now have to their name and how quickly it’s all come out, you could easily regard it all as one flowing, multi-faceted conversation. On 5 and 7, SAULT introduced the dense fusion of their sound and their focus on Black identity, then Black Is and Rise refined the aesthetic while arriving at a historical boiling point, thus becoming music many people seized on to clarify the year around them. After that, it’s almost fitting that NINE zooms back in on their own home. This is now one more chapter, one more snapshot, in a vast tapestry across these five albums. Once more overflowing with vibrant musical ideas and narratives that demand you stop and pay attention, NINE is another vital entry in what’s fast becoming a towering catalog of music.

NINE is out now via Forever Living Originals.

Other albums of note out this week:

• The Go! Team’s Get Up Sequences Part One.
• At The Gates’ The Nightmare Of Being.
• Declaime & Madlib’s In The Beginning (Vol. 1).
• Laura Mvula’s Pink Noise.
• Bobby Gillespie & Jehnny Beth’s Utopian Ashes.
• Snag’s Death Doula.
• Izzy True’s Our Beautiful Baby World.
• Tom Petty’ Angel Dream (Songs And Music From The Motion Picture “She’s The One”).
• Action News’ Failed State EP.

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