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Drums of War

Shadowboxing (2017)

4.0

October 26, 2017

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.3
Soloists 3.7
Sound / Production 4.7
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Wild Wild Wish 4.3
2 Shadowboxing 5.0
3 Like I Love You 3.3
4 The Monster 4.7
5 Medley: So Fresh So Clean / B.O.B / Roses / Ms. Jackson / Hey Ya 4.0

Recorded 2016 – 2017
Total time: 17:21, 5 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Wild Wild Wish 4
2 Shadowboxing 5
3 Like I Love You 4
4 The Monster 5
5 Medley: So Fresh So Clean / B.O.B / Roses / Ms. Jackson / Hey Ya 5

EXPLICIT LANGUAGE WARNING. Right in the title track, no less. That's a rare one for a cappella, but it tells you that you're listening to a group that aims for edge. Well, you'd think so from that song, but others like Wild Wild Wish (yes, Will Smith's), while fun, say something less hard-hitting. I also can't think of a bigger warning flag for fans of rap than that song. So, if you hate rap, this album is not for you. If you live for rap, this album is probably also not for you. Lukewarm about rap? This album is actually for you!

In the world of a cappella, I can see how this project was born and how hard it must have been to create. Many groups would see this EP's songs — all featuring rap — as too far afield from the natural strengths of group singing. Rap, by its nature, discards pitch precision as a key musical element. That's a core premise of a cappella, even in the most contemporary of fare. Many rap and hip-hop songs also use the more melodic musical elements in a quotational way. When the song samples hit, we experience the use of the sample, not the original musical journey inherent in it. The rapper is the star and the musical artist is the DJ/producer, not the singers or original composers.

How does an a cappella group bring music to life that was itself given life through such noticeably electronic means? On Shadowboxing, Drums of War incorporates that same life-giving production boost, always embracing the studio tools (deftly handled by Bill Hare). Purists are warned.

But those who love the original renditions and their genre have a philosophical question in front of them: when great singers are the artist, when the art form of vocal recreation supersedes the very art form that's being covered, then have we transcended the original or have we failed to honor it?

One thing is certain, Shadowboxing is a transformational album. I enjoy the questions it raises, although I suspect this wasn't its purpose. For an average listener, it's a good time (Will Smith, y'all!), albeit a little on the dark side. For a passionate fan of rap, I'm not sure this would get much play. This hardly feels like the hard-hitting music of the streets that much of rap presents. And strangely, all the musicality that's been added by Drums of War may fall on a few deaf ears. The sung solos and the backs are so musical and creative, deeply human, even through the effects. Will that bring rap-based music to life, or is it all beside the point because the backs are supposed to be "canned"? 

Give this strange and fascinating ride a listen. Decide for yourself.

 


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 4
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Wild Wild Wish 5
2 Shadowboxing 5
3 Like I Love You 3
4 The Monster 4
5 Medley: So Fresh So Clean / B.O.B / Roses / Ms. Jackson / Hey Ya 3

Australian sextet Drums of War offers up its unique brand of urban-slick sounds with Shadowboxing.

The group's niche is clearly hip-hop and r&b, and in particular, incredibly spirited rapping. This signature style is showcased in the group's original piece and title track, Shadowboxing. This composition was penned by group member Michael Honey, who also delivers the jaw-droppingly fast and agile rap. The best hip-hop produced features a contrast between hard and soft; Shadowboxing succeeds here with aggressive hits from Honey set against backgrounds that are often beautifully-song and nearly haunting in impact. There's a lot going on in this song, from the tension-fueled words and music to a nicely crafted soundscape that makes me excited to think about Honey's work ahead.

The album's opener, Wild Wild Wish, also utilizes the group's urban-slick sound. This time it's fused inside a party atmosphere like a great a cappella festival where everyone is dancing and clapping to the beat above their heads. (Though how crazy to hear this tune resurface; perhaps crazier still that Will Smith resonates with Aussies?) Wild Wild Wish is also expertly mixed by Bill Hare, giving equal attention across all six voices while still sounding like a cohesive ensemble piece, from the lovely female lines to the playful running bass. Wild Wild Wish and Shadowboxing are really the group's Best-Of numbers for its resume.

The next three works in this EP are serviceable but not particularly noteworthy. Like I Love You is a vocally-thin arrangement that leans heavily on effects and the overall construction of the production to add interest, variance, and imitation. I'd be curious to hear this arrangement in a live setting to see how the group sustains momentum without Hare's cleverness. The Monster is quite finely sung by lead Jordy McMillan with ample support from the group, but sounds like commonplace a cappella; so, too, is the group's closing medley/mashup. The highlight of the last track is definitely the vibrant choruses on Hey Ya; the rest of the medley bops along but doesn't really engage.

Shadowboxing certainly establishes Drums of War's sound. Definitely check out the first two tracks and await what's next for this Australian vocal band. 


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Wild Wild Wish 4
2 Shadowboxing 5
3 Like I Love You 3
4 The Monster 5
5 Medley: So Fresh So Clean / B.O.B / Roses / Ms. Jackson / Hey Ya 4

Australian sextet, Drums of War, has exploded into the contemporary a cappella scene over the past few years. This kind of impact makes me nervous that the recordings won't live up to the hype of the live performances. But the group's new EP, Shadowboxing, delivers! Not only are the performances energetic, but the arrangements are dynamic, yet tasteful. The production can't be beat with studio effects applied liberally, but only in service to the songs and to enhance what is being achieved naturally. I can't say I love every track, but that's a personal taste issue more than anything. And fair warning, if you have a problem with blue language, steer clear. It doesn't bother me, and it's not heavy-handed, but it's present in a couple tracks. 

This EP kicks off with Wild Wild Wish, a mash-up of Wild Wild West and I Wish. This pairing made me cringe when I read it on the track list, but I was pleasantly surprised by its execution. The arrangement doesn't offer any surprises, but it's exactly what is needed to create a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the album.

The title track, Shadowboxing, is an original by Michael Honey, one of the primary arrangers and producers on this album. Unless you read the credits, you would swear this track is a cover. Two contrasting themes from the bass and the upper voices work seamlessly together. This track sold me on who this band is and what they are capable of.

Like I Love You is extremely well-done in every sense, but for me, it's completely forgettable. The only thing that sticks with me is the back and forth banter in the middle. Don't get me wrong, they kill it; it's just a song that slips into the background.

The Monster, on the other hand, draws me 100% back in. The arrangement gets a gold star as it finds ways to stay engaging: little drum hits to emphasize the lyrics, adding harmonies, dropping the perc, and other things that make you go mmm.

Shadowboxing closes with a medley. I didn't expect this to be a super tight track in terms of transitions, but once again, Drums of War pulls it off. The group effectively switch soloists to spotlight the singers and let the members shine. The highlight for me is the "shake it" breakdown during Hey Ya, as it slips briefly into a more jazzy sensibility. The only jarring part of this track is the quick mashup at the end, specifically when it closes with "I'm just so fresh, so clean". It's a nice bookend, but it's a better song to transition out of than back into, and it's a harsh note to end the album on, even if it's only two measures.

If you've never liked hip-hop and r&b a cappella, you need to listen to Shadowboxing by Drums of War. True, it's not everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying that it's here and it's viable. I may just be a convert!

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Shadowboxing also streams on Spotify.

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