New Music Review: Behind Sapphire – Diamonds [EP]
The story of Behind Sapphire goes back to the days of high school, as most great band stories do. Mildly rebellious student Grant Cassell was sitting in the same English class he had been bitterly attending day after day when his teacher told the class that they were going to listen to a piece of music. The teacher asked the students to close their eyes and concentrate on the music they were about to hear. Cassell reluctantly closed his eyes, and heard the song that would shape the way he would approach and composed music from that point on.
The singer was Billie Holiday and the song was Strange Fruit.
Cassell, along with guitarist/pianist extraordinaire, Matthew Mazankowski, formed Behind Sapphire, and have carved, shaved, shaped and grown quite an impressive, unique 5-piece band in a matter of only a couple of years. The Vancouver group released their debut, self-titled album in March of 2010 and it received some pretty solid reviews. This past December (2011) they released their EP, Diamonds, and in my opinion, it’s even better than the solid debut.
Now a proper critic does his best to not compare a band’s latest effort to their past work. Well, I’m not a proper critic so you can scratch that.
Where Behind Sapphire‘s debut album played stickball and hopscotch in the glowing summer sun, making friends with fellow classmates and abiding by the local bylaws that forbid graffiti, Diamonds breaks into abandoned houses, kicks down fences and climbs the local watertower for proof of authority. All the while in stark contrast, Diamonds ventures out in the pouring Vancouver rain to the local café, buys two coffees, knocks on a good friend’s door, shares a drink, and an ear.
Diamonds is the rebel with the heart of a saint—is more or less what I was trying to convey. Whether I did that successfully can be argued, but rests beside the point. Diamonds’ opening title track is a wint’ry ballad that begins with strings and Cassell’s distinct howl. The song is quick to build and leads into what is quite possibly the band’s most singable chorus to date. This track is an example of the gentler side of the band, but also foreshadows aspects of the album that possess a rebellious energy that was missing on most of their debut.
**Each song title links to their bandcamp page featuring that song for your sampling—and purchasing—pleasure**
The best part about Diamonds is that the Sapphires have successfully duplicated their fantastic performance energy onto an album. If there’s one thing the debut album didn’t do, it was that simple feat. The second track—and likely my favourite—is called Black Ties. The song is quick to expose that energy and in-your-face-in-the-kindest-of-ways style this album—and this band—possess. The track also introduces Cassell’s first documented experimentation with auto-tune! (I think)
If you haven’t heard this song, you very well may be thinking I’m kidding. Well, I’m not.
And believe it or not, Cassell does a fantastic job using the effect to his advantage. The energy in this song and the unique quality of the auto-tune effect are quick to turn an ear and demand attention, making it the most unique and perhaps most interesting song the band has recorded to date.
Following it is the popular, live go-to, Cocount Highways which has always contained a good amount of energy when played live, but this is the old version hopped up on steroids and energy drinks (and knowing Behind Sapphire, there’s a load of candy mixed in there for that extra sugar rush). Re-fueled by Mazankowski’s exchange of acoustic guitar for some dirty electric guitar action, Cassell’s inspired crooning are climaxed at the singable chant of “Bah bah bah!” Another album highlight, for sure. [The acoustic version here: Coconut Highways Acoustic]
Tahera is the rebellious step-child of the album, regardless of the lyrics “I came tonight to make things right.” Stabbing piano bass notes resonate and build tension in the intro and verse, leading into a plaintive release during the chorus. The mood and tone are telling you one thing and the lyrics another. Another fantastic song that brings more of the band’s talent and live energy to tape in the best possible way. It’s also a perfect example of positive band evolution.
Vancouver, Baby is a track the band composed for the PEAK Performance Project they were involved in this past summer. Each band in the project was to compose a song for Vancouver, as 2011 was the city of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary. To be completely honest and forthright, I’m not a fan of this track. Not that it’s poorly written or recorded, but it sounds more like a high school cheer than a song that should be featured on this album. It also doesn’t help that it’s surrounded with 5 other tracks that are the best work—not including Oh My, What a Fine Day—the band has released.
Closing out the album is another contrast. The Saddest Part is a little ditty that features a ukulele and some quaint vocals. The song seems to be a cute little gift complete with a pretty bow tied on top. Until you hit the 2-minute mark. Then things get ominous. The final 47 seconds are a frightening outro that begins with strings, and build to include horns, drums, guitar and other odd, creepy noises. Yet another pleasant surprise to end off an album that is exactly that.
Although only a 6-song EP, this album is chocked full of material that will keep you interested from the first note and keep you coming back for more. The album was released in late, late 2011 but will surely see one or two of it’s songs on my “Best Of” list at 2012’s end.
Perhaps one of the best parts about this fantastic EP is that the band is offering a “Name Your Price” purchasing option on their Bandcamp page. That’s pretty hard to beat. Do yourself a favour and sample these tunes on their page and help these musicians make more amazing music by purchasing if you enjoy it. Even if you only pay a couple of dollars, anything helps.
When all those quarters are added up, I’ll be intrigued to see what kind of album the band puts out next as their full potential is only beginning to expose itself.