The solo musician John Keenan has returned from a mild musical slumber since the release of his first album "Where I Went Wrong" with a follow up that draws many similarities to his previous work, yet undoubtedly moves forward in ways that are hard to ignore. In some ways, it is difficult to define his music by genre, as there are complexities and intracisies that bypass what one would come to expect from terms like "rap" or "indie." At its base, "Imagination to the Nation" is a sophmoric work of eclectic hip hop. The big question for this review is simple: how does this album hold up when compared to the range of music that inspired it? The oft quoted line from the Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas anymore," in essence sums up my feelings regarding this album considering Keenan currently resides in that often overlooked state. The music present on this album moves beyond what is typically expected from the genre in most regards, in some ways good and in other ways not so much.
To say the least, this is an interesting album when it comes to the production and timbres chosen. The track "Spending Time Alone" immediately comes to mind when I am considering the blend of distant melodic guitars fused with arpeggiated synth lines to a pulsing beat. At points, the music brings with a sort of cinematic feel. Not quite cinematic like a classical film score, but something more comparable to the synthetic and EDM soundtrack to a video game like Mass Effect. This is reinforced by the emphasis on the synthetic tones and ambiance found on just about every track on this album.
The actual production quality of this album is, overall, very good. It is not quite what I expected for the genre, which is an often over-compressed album making it very loud without much dynamic range. That is not present here. For better and for worse, the production is more reserved. It is a relaxing indie rap album on the whole. The closest comparison I can think of in terms of sound quality and the overall atmosphere present on this album would be the artist Astronautilis. If you are a fan of this style of music, you will no doubt enjoy the mix present on the album. My only real complaint in this department comes with how the vocals are laid on the tracks. They are a bit to loud for my ear.
COMPOSITION AND INSTRUMENTATION:
From the multiple times I have listened to "Imagination to the Nation," I have found the instruments used (or perhaps more honestly: the variety of synths present) to be really enjoyable. Almost every track is relaxing. More ambient than I would have expected from the album cover or the name "John Keenan." It is more of a soundtrack paired with New Age meditative music than a rap album, which is an intriguing mix considering how often rap music is paired with aggressive music, production, and lyrics. The track "Thoughts are Fleeting" near the close of the album brings to light the use of a vocoder and incorporates an interesting synth solo/lead segment that really defines the merging of cosmic space with light listening. So, given what I have heard from this album, all I really wish for is the usage of more acoustic instruments. It would add a good amount of "space" in the mixes that is difficult to replicate with primarily digital synthesis, and more importantly, add depth to the tracks that by the end of this 10 track album start to feel a bit worn out by synthesizers.
As for the compositions themselves, they are very poppy in nature and don't do much to work outside of common song structures often found in radio friendly music. Considering the genre, the compositional conventions are understandable, and at the end of the day I would find myself listening to this album for it's pop sensibilities (in terms of structure), yet the unique sounds found on the album. So, in summary, the compositions are not particularly complex or technical, but easy to enjoy.
VOCALS AND LYRICS:
Ultimately, if you are listening to a rap/hip-hop type of album, there is a heavy expectation for the vocal and lyrical content to be top notch. John Keenan's vocals are, on the whole, good. At some points on the album, they sound like they were recorded through a poor mic. I do not think this is the real problem, though. Instead, on display are an array of vocal stylings. When John sings with more melody as opposed to rhythm, he tends to fall a bit flat. However, the rap segments, which make up a majority of this albums content is really good. "Spirit of the Sacred," the fifth track on "Imagination to the Nation," showcases this rapping talent paired with quality lyrics that, at one point near the end, are extremely rhythmic and almost work themselves into a tongue twister. In terms of the lyrics themselves, I can't complain. They appear to better than most found on rap albums. They are not about money, girls, or cars. As I understand it, the lyrics all sort of allude to John's movement away from drug addiction and towards a better life filled with hope.
John Keenan's "Imagination to the Nation" is a solid indie rap album. It dabbles in a variety of genres, most of which are fundamentally relaxing like New Age. This style is still being fleshed out by new artists, and it is always enjoyable to see the next twist and turn in the road. This album is not a perfect one, but it is easy to get into and enjoy for a few spins. It may take a few listens for the vocal style to really sink in, but once it does it makes it all the better. I'd recommend this for fans of relaxing rap music and the band Astronautilis.
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