I was first introduced to Chicago-based producer Zack Johnson (or TOPAZ) in the darkest depths of the Internet, a space generally occupied by beta-male rappers and creators of the least interesting ambient soundscapes one could imagine. Needless to say, his strain of refreshingly variegated morning-time grooves made a strong impression on me, and his 2013 Half Awake EP still remains one of my favorite things I ever found in my time spent browsing bleak message boards. Two years after my discovery of his tunes, he’s finally made something new for my thirsty ears: the Phrases EP. I’m delighted to be able to present it to you, and I’ll give you a short introduction below.
“Lies” is without a doubt the earworm on this record – “Ly-ing-to-ly-ing-to-ly-ing-to” is the exact phrase which will seep into your subconscious mind as you listen to the EP on your brisk AM walk or low-energy train ride. It begins with a sort of flowing, liquid cadence driven by five-second-long delay trails and unrelentingly on-the-beat rhythm guitar strums before giving way to the “ly-ing-to” hook I mentioned, a more rapid chorus segment. The main chunk of the track, though, is a four-on-the-floor mid-tempo verse with autotuned vocals and stuttering melodic and percussive elements (pretty much the hallmark TOPAZ production, if you ask me). My favorite part is the healthy mix of silvered lead guitar noodling and lazily circular synth leads to which we are treated after vocal deliveries – really, really feel-good stuff. Most strikingly, I’m not sick of it after six minutes (and I’m the guy who sometimes perceives four minute tracks as self indulgent).
“Singa” is an even longer number, beginning with a distinctive sample (“singa, singa, singa, singa” it moans, cloaked in reverb and sampled so that it’s more rhythmic than lyrical) that eventually gives way to Zack’s soulful vocal delivery. After around three minutes of back-and-forth between hook and verse, it transitions to an ethereal bridge featuring RnB-style keys, vocal layering, and acoustic guitar work which makes me recall Kings of Convenience (a compliment, if you weren’t sure). The rest of “Singa” is quite a jam indeed, and weirdly almost feels like sonic commentary on the first half. But, continuing on.
“Turn Around” has that super-sleek, tasty vocal sampling I’ve grown to love so much, and isn’t a huge change-up from the rest of the album in any notable way. I really enjoy the way Zack has honed his percussion into super precise fragments (bum-KAH bum-KAH, bum-thp-bum-thp) and the echo effect that the snare and kick have on the bass (which, incidentally, is both lively and of excellent tone). “Take After You” is also pretty standard for TOPAZ too, though it starts off pretty slowly/delicately. The second half of the track puts words to the melodic hook (“I don’t know why, I don’t know why I try / Take after you”), lending an emotive and compelling conclusion to a solid middle-of-the-album track. “Outside” is a short guitar-centric interlude that would be pretty uninteresting outside of the context of the EP, but in listening sequence it almost has the effect of comic relief (and certainly offers a release from the first twenty hazy minutes of music – the initial loneliness of the acoustic guitar allows for very welcome breathing room). I’ll leave the last track, “Chances Of,” as a surprise to you listeners, but know that it’s one of my favorites. All in all, TOPAZ has created an EP which emotes, coheres, and speaks volumes about his progress as an artist. I’ll certainly keep an ear out for more.