Barney McAll – Emerald Hands (Extra Celestial Arts)

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Barney McAll’s 2022 album Precious Energy was a revelation, an upbeat funky vocally driven work of good vibes and killer grooves. It was audacious and ostentatious, featuring some incredible vocals from the likes of Laneous, Rita Satch, Jace XL, and Belle Bangard as well as contributions from the likes of Julian Wilson and Gary Bartz alongside numerous other Melbourne players. It came as something of a departure after the previous year’s Transitive Cycles, a live album from the Melbourne International Jazz Festival which featured interactive improvisation between the Federation Bells and an ensemble comprising of some of the best musicians in the country. Yet McAll, who has performed with the likes of Sia, Gary Bartz, Dewey Redman, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Billy Harper, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb, and Maceo Parker, boasts appearances on over 100 albums as a sideman and a lazy 29 albums in his own name. So there are more than a few departures in that lot.

His new album Emerald Hands feels thematically linked with Precious Energy, it offers an unrelenting feeling of positivity, and upbeat funky vibe with deep soulful vocals and some killer synth lines. So alongside stupidly high pitched autotuned vocals, we find heartfelt poems about McAll’s childhood chasing spider crabs, wigged out funky spiritual jazz, even a Radiohead cover (Scatterbrain).

Emerald Hands boasts guests of the calibre of Gary Bartz, Rita Satch, Natalie Slade, Belle Bangard, Greta Gertler, Gian Slater, Amethyst Jane and slam poet champion Melanie Mununggurr, who’s poetic musings about lockdown close out the album. There’s so much going on.

I’ve really been enjoying McAll’s weird spiritual pop and neo soul excursions, precisely because he hasn’t sold his soul. It’s funky, groove based music that is also pretty odd, with strange vocal fx, weird tangents and unexpectedly deep lyrics. I’m hearing terms and concepts in here that would be quite comfortable within a university lecture theatre – yet they rhyme and swing and enhance proceedings exponentially. “If every wave is unique I wish to be relieved of the bondage of self,” he offers to close out the opener ‘If Every Wave.’ Later McAll’s alter ego ‘Feral The Clown’ opinions ‘Prepare Ample Coffins for the bourgeoisie,” on ‘Make Ur Mind Up,’ a reflection on society over the last couple of years.

McAll goofs around, and is even dressed as ‘Feral The Clown’ on the cover of this album, but he is anything but. Emerald Hands is cloaked as a joyous life affirming romp with an eye towards pop and soul, yet McAll takes no easy options. It feels like he has somehow syntheisized the fears hopes and dreams of the last couple of years into one coherent musical form. A place where torch song electronica, neo soul, 70’s electro funk, and soul jazz have coalesced with pointed lyrics referring to doom scrolling, Bitcoin, Ukraine, Covid denialism and all manner of 2023 existential dramas to create a magpie view of the now. The world feels more nonsensical, threatening and designed for others than ever before, it’s refreshing to discover art that not only acknowledges this but repurposes the wacky and harmful 21st century detritus into nourishing soul affirming sounds that make the world a better place. Emerald Hands is a cleansing machine.

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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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