AUSTRALIA: Flow State - Tash Sultana
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Exciting and fresh, Sultana reinvigorates alternative rock by infusing it with a wide range of styles and genres
At the age of 13 I started to learn the guitar. I had just got into rock music and I was determined to become the next Brian May or Jimmy Page. I even had the hair to match. Although that didn’t quite pan out as planned (though never say never), I learned the guitar to a reasonable enough level to learn some tricky stuff, including some Jimi Hendrix songs, which I found extremely hard to learn. I had never loved Jimi Hendrix’s work before I started to learn the guitar, and it was through the process of trying to learn how to play his songs that I began to realise just how insanely inventive his music was. In one song he would use about ten musical ideas that a lesser guitarist would save for many different songs, and he played them all with such intense verve and flair that my puny teenage mind was blown. It also left me with a lasting appreciation of excellent guitar playing, and I’ll always remember the awe I felt listening to Hendrix’s intricate and inspired guitar. Tash Sultana is one of the few artists I have listened to since that has left me with the same level of awe.
“Flow State is an album of wild, exhilarating invention, and it’s that creativity and refusal to follow the accepted rules of song writing and music that mark it out from a lot of alternative rock.”
I should point out that Sultana’s music is very different to Hendrix's, of course. Hendrix was playing firmly in the era of classic rock, and the guitar was the showcase for his skills, whereas Sultana is a multi-instrumentalist. Sultana’s style is also difficult to categorise. There is a small amount of almost everything in here, from classic rock, to pop, to soul, to psychedelia, funk, and folk. A wide range that encompasses a whole lot. I think a good way to analyse their style is to look at the song Blackbird (not The Beatles song), which is the penultimate track, and has a duration of 9:35. Normally, a song that long at the end of an album is exasperating, but this is anything but. It starts off with an acoustic guitar in an almost Spanish flamenco style, which then morphs into a folky style reminiscent of Anji by Simon & Garfunkel. Then it becomes more intense, more rocky, akin to a Led Zeppelin song, though again with a flamenco touch. Then their vocals come in and we’re into folk rock again. That then transforms into a pulsating, rhythmic acoustic chorus. The song then goes quiet, keeping the pulsating beat. The second half of the song is essentially a guitar battle, but between Tash Sultana and Tash Sultana, with the guitar getting more and more rapid and intense until it finally has to burn out. The song is like a firework, constantly throwing up new colours and shapes until it fizzles out. And I mean that in an exceptionally good way.
Lots of their songs change tack half way through. Cigarettes starts off as a perfectly cromulent R&B inflected number, but the final two minutes turn into this fast-paced hard rock guitar solo that really does sound like something Jimi Hendrix might have recorded. Big Smoke does something similar, starting off as a reggae-inflected pop-rock song, before wildly changing tack into something more akin to prog rock, and ending with another face-melting guitar solo. However, it is not just an album full of fast-paced rock and excellent guitar. There are slower, less rock-oriented songs, like Seven (which has a harp solo, believe it or not), acoustic songs like Mellow Marshmallow, and songs like Pink Moon feature just an electric guitar. This song in particular is a great showcase for the Australian musician’s excellent vocal talent. It too ends with an excellent guitar solo, reminiscent of the final guitar solo on the Prince song Gold – not a comparison I make lightly. This is an album full of guitar solos, and for me that’s great, because I love guitar solos. In my mind (and clearly Tash Sultana’s too) you can never have too many guitar solos, but I suppose if you’re not so keen on them, it might grate. However, that is a mindset I just cannot understand.
Flow State is an album of wild, exhilarating invention, and it’s that creativity and refusal to follow the accepted rules of song writing and music that mark it out from a lot of alternative rock. If I had to slightly critical, it’s just a bit too long. Harvest Love is the weakest song on the album in my mind, and that’s taking into account I love the first three-ish minutes of it, it just drags on for a bit too long. That said, this is an extremely minor criticism. For three minutes, I can forgive it slightly outstaying its welcome. To sum it up, the album is bonkers, brilliant, and a beautifully madcap journey through about a hundred different musical styles in the best, most ill-disciplined manner possible. It’s an exuberant second album, with so much to offer, you’re bound to find at least one track that tickles your fancy.