Gabriels: Angels and Queens Part One review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Atlas/Parlophone)
Frontman Jacob Lusk is nothing short of incredible on the trio’s debut album, a powerful half-hour of top-tier songwriting that proves Gabriels are far more than soul revivalists

Gabriels seemed to appear out of nowhere. They were hoisted into the public eye a couple of years ago, thanks to an extraordinary self-released five-track EP and an equally extraordinary video accompanying its lead track, Love and Hate in a Different Time. A perfectly synchronised selection of clips of people dancing (African tribes, saucer-eyed habituees of Wigan Casino, Theresa May at the Conservative party conference), the video suddenly stops dead, the final two minutes given over to what looks like cameraphone footage of a singer at a street demonstration, performing Lewis Allan’s Strange Fruit through a megaphone. The singer was Gabriels’ frontman, Jacob Lusk, at a Black Lives Matter protest.

The more you find out about them, the more curious Gabriels sound: Lusk was a choir director and a runner-up on the 2011 series of American Idol. His bandmates are a classically trained California composer called Ari Balouzian and a Sunderland-born video director, Ryan Hope, who named the band after the street in Bishopwearmouth where he grew up. They first collaborated on an advert for Prada in 2018, from which the EP’s opening track, Loyalty, had sprung: outside Love and Hate in a Different Time, Balouzian and Hope’s other 2020 release was the soundtrack to a documentary about Pepe the Frog.

However odd their background, Gabriels quickly gained momentum: critical acclaim; a major label deal; a showstopping appearance on Later With Jools Holland. It would be easy to suggest that their rise is down to Lusk, who has vast charisma and an entirely astonishing voice: he has a startling ability to sound intimate and warm one second, then unleash an agonised, shiver-inducing falsetto the next.

Angels and Queens Part One album cover
Angels and Queens Part One album cover Photograph: PR handout

But an astonishing voice isn’t necessarily enough on its own, as evidenced by Lusk’s pleasant but inconsequential 2018 EP My Love Story, which framed him with too-slick production, equal parts early 90s slow jam and Mellow Magic-friendly 80s AOR. Without wishing to take away from the power of his vocals, it’s hard not to feel that Love and Hate in a Different Time derived its head-turning power from the fact that it was a fantastic song and from an overall sound that smartly keyed into soul music’s past without feeling like a painstakingly researched historical reenactment. It was obviously cut from a very different, more traditional cloth to most contemporary R&B, but it was cheeringly hard to put your finger on exactly what aspects of the past it was evoking.

That’s even more true of Angels and Queens Part One. Lusk is, plainly, incredible throughout – the sound of his voice multitracked to infinity on If You Only Knew is quite something – and the standard of songwriting set by Love and Hate in a Different Time never dips, as evidenced by the dense funk of the title track and piano ballad If You Only Knew, written from the perspective of Lusk’s late godsister, which shifts from wrenching misery to euphoria.

This album highlights that Gabriels, having drafted Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave as producer, are far more than revivalists. He helps craft a sound that feels entirely of the moment, and not merely because there’s a constant, nagging sense of tumult and foreboding lurking behind even its prettiest songs. There’s certainly nothing retro about a track such as The Blind, where the beat is made of a stumbling, clattering array of samples, Lusk’s vocal is drenched in backwards reverb and the piano and strings battle for space with droning, overcast synths. The orchestration that opens To the Moon and Back could have transported there directly from a 1940s jazz ballad, but it’s swiftly replaced by a cavernous-sounding swirl of massed vocals and an insistent, cyclical bass riff.

You can hear Lusk’s background in gospel, but it’s tempting to say that you can hear his collaborators’ previous jobs, too. There’s something weirdly cinematic about both the songs’ structures – they’re filled with sudden cuts and strange twists, as when Remember Me dramatically shifts gear halfway through, and moments when they suddenly focus in on tiny details, not least the agonising scrape of a plectrum being dragged down a guitar string on To the Moon – and the arrangements. The orchestrations frequently seem to be there, not as a lush embellishment or a nod to the days when soul records were orchestrated as a matter of course, but to heighten the tension, as on a soundtrack. On the album’s murky highlight, Taboo, every snare crack is amplified by a vicious stab of brass; the strings, meanwhile, slice through the track at unexpected angles, ratcheting up the drama.

If it seems counterintuitive to split your debut album in two – Part Two is due in March – a song like Taboo makes it feel like common sense: like a lot of Angels and Queens Part One, it’s intense listening. The seven songs here last barely 30 minutes, but a powerful, concentrated half hour dose is all you need. Certainly – it’s all you need to stake a strong claim to the title of album of the year.

This week Alexis listened to

Floating Points – Problems
A haunting cut-up gospel sample, a beat visited by the spirits of hardcore and UK garage.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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