Over the years, the term “concept album” has gotten a bit of a bad rep. Sure, you’ve got your masterworks like Sgt. Pepper’s and Ziggy Stardust, Pink Floyd and The Who kinda perfected the whole thing with albums like The Wall and Quadrophenia and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and Jay-Z’s American Gangster were pretty good too. For the most part though, overzealous metal bands and certain pop punk groups have unfortunately devolved the idea with bloated conceptions, weak narratives and pretentious “rock operas.” Along comes an album that seeks to redeem the idea of the unified theme. Along comes an album that conveys diversity within its overall similarity. Along comes an album that transcends its perceived “albumness.” Along comes the NEXUS soundtrack by SOLA-MI.
According to the SOLA-MI website, they are a self-described “concept band featuring Derek Webb, Josh Moore (Co-producer of Webb’s Stockholm Syndrome and Feedback albums), and Latifah Phillips (of The Autumn Film and Page CXVI), commissioned and inspired by Solomon Mente’s groundbreaking fictional narrative and film, NEXUS.” On the surface, the simple story is that Derek did the writing, Josh did the producing and Latifah did the singing. However, even just one listen through NEXUS will show that such a seamless and complementary collaborative work is far more than just a connect point A to point B and then attach to point C kind of operation. How does a singer properly convey lyrics they didn’t write? How does a living melody truly find its place within programmed beats, synthesized loops and vocal samples? How do you move from the first idea to a completed creative work? When you start asking questions like these, you’re not too terribly far off from being able to delve into some of the questions presented within NEXUS. “Where are you just before you wake from a dream?” “Where are you just before your first breath?”
The concept running through NEXUS is clearly presented in the opening track “Keynote.” The idea of singularity and machine self-actualization is alluded to with vocal samples from the film “Transcendent Man” based on Ray Kurzweil’s opinions and predictions on the future state of technology and machinery. As the voices end up mashing together over singular, bubbling tones, the track runs right into the opening strains of “Mother Mother.” The clever juxtaposition of a mechanized drum beat and what sounds like a heart monitor moving from death to life is a clever touch to convey the idea of a wakening machine. Latifah’s disembodied vocals on “Mother Mother” change back and forth from an echoey, almost robotic delivery to bursts of emotive, melodic flourishes. The last 30 seconds or so of “Mother Mother” sounds like a computer transmission ticked out over an ominous sonic backdrop. It’s thematic and moving to say the least. As the first movement of “The Naming” gurgles in, things start getting even more interesting. Broken into three sections (“Degustation,” “Certificate” and “Selection”), “The Naming” is a fascinating, mostly instrumental medley within the overall work. “Degustation” is quite active and agitated, “Certificate” is both breathy and punctuated and “Selection” is like an atmospheric announcement. As an added note of interest, “Certificate” features a cool sample of the song “New” by one of Derek’s talented friends, singer/songwriter Kate York.
As the album continues, “Crowd of Silent Strangers” implies the initial struggles faced once awake and features Latifah’s amazing vocals conveying the lonely observations, “this meaning is so meaningless” and “this feeling is so meaningless without you.” I’m pretty sure those lines are meant to be multi-layered and not just specific to the story presented here. There’s some great instrumentation and distorted beats on the outro of this one as well. “The Blessing of Being Bloodless” kicks in next with some really cool patterns and melodic lines. This is one of many downright danceable moments tucked away within NEXUS. There are also some more amazingly weighty lyrics in this one on the ideas of becoming and transforming. “Trust Falling” maintains an overall modern flare while having fun with some decidedly 80s keyboard tones. There are even some handclaps in this one! Who said concept albums can’t be fun? The chorus on “Trust Falling” sounds really incredible and again, the lyrics “I am letting go of everything, I am opening my mouth to sing” poignantly seem to be a little more than meets the ear. Good luck getting this one out of your head anytime soon. NEXUS closes out with “Silver Grizzly,” a rhythmic, airy conclusion that features another huge chorus and more piercing lyrics. As the track fades out, the heart monitor beep from “Mother Mother” returns. However, this time it moves in the more recognizable pulses of life to death, ending the album with the distinctive monotone drone of lifelessness.
NEXUS achieves what a concept album, and more importantly what a genuine work of art, should. It has a gorgeous story arc, multiple entry points, significant statements, purposeful questions and creative moments that ebb and flow within themselves and within each other. If that all comes across as a little too much or more than you are usually looking for, just know it sounds really cool and has an incredible overall tone to it. No matter the level of depth or surface you choose to interact with NEXUS with, there’s something there for you. However, as good as the album sounds and as impressive as the songs are, the most mind-blowing part of NEXUS is that it is free. That’s right, free. As in, click a button, wait a moment, own an incredible album. You have zero excuses to miss out on this beautiful concept album (that contains an actual concept.)
When writer Will Hodge isn’t freaking out in a moonage daydream, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack