Whether or not you love him and his music, Kanye West can unequivocally be given all the credit in the world when it comes to his keen ear for production. Whether it be his pioneering contributions to the development of the chipmunk soul production style in hip hop or his ability to source an eclectic and esoteric array of fascinating producers working from behind the curtain, West’s music, in spite of the constant fluctuations in its overall quality, and, more specifically, his production has constantly retained an air of intrigue relating to its experimentation and innovation. Likewise, the entrepreneurial rapper has a knack for securing the assistance of fresh and unique talents on many of his projects, with West likely having opened many people up to a series of producers, turntablists and beat-makers that would have otherwise slipped under their radar. In fact, I can say this with confidence, given the amount of times a production credit on a Kanye West song has brought a DJ to my attention who had previously passed me by, and one such example from the MC’s previous album, The Life of Pablo, came on the song Wolves, which was revealed to feature production contributions not solely from Cashmere Cat, but also Alan Stanley Soucy Brinsmead, who records under his professional pseudonym of Sinjin Hawke. Although Wolves added the name Sinjin Hawke to my lexicon, it wouldn’t be until well over a year after the initial unveiling of The Life of Pablo that this alias would crop up on a full-length release, this time on First Opus, which, true to its title, is Brinsmead’s first solo studio album under his Sinjin Hawke stage name. Even if one were to have first come to hear of Sinjin Hawke through a source besides Kanye West, whether this be through his work with founding Three 6 Mafia member Gangsta Boo or his collaborations with Zora Jones under the title Fractal Fantasy, listening to First Opus, it’s easy to understand why someone such as West would have taken a liking to Brinsmead’s production style. With chopped-and-screwed vocal manipulations and punchy horn samples being in abundance over the course of the record, Hawke strikes a rather soulful tone throughout his exploration of a bevy of dance-based electronic music genres, such as techno, wonky, footwork and Miami and UK bass, with the end product procuring an impressive selection of club-friendly bangers that nevertheless boast a great deal of melodic and textural detail. This is undoubtedly true for the most part, but there exists quite the disparity in the tracklisting between the more structurally and sonically potent cuts and those that are missing the same strength in melodic tone and textural resonance. That’s not necessarily to say that First Opus is undercut by any recurring issues that are pervasive through the entirety of the album, rather, amongst the 14 tracks presented on the record, certain tracks struggle to expand on their engaging aesthetic sensibilities with the same proficiency or depth as the tracklisting’s most compelling moments. This being said, with the very foundation on which most of these songs are built being so rigid, First Opus nonetheless fuels many a fantastically danceable banger with luscious layering and vibrant sampling, yielding a great deal of dynamic depth and sonic scope over the course of this collection of kaleidoscopic electronic soundscapes.
With the eclectic electronic territory that Sinjin Hawke plays towards across First Opus comes a necessity for nuance and refinement, in order to reconcile the contrasting sonic and stylistic themes across the record, whether this be the juxtaposition of hard-hitting, club-tailored beats with chilly, nocturnal ambience, or the differences in Brinsmead’s underpinnings from the hammering repetition of techno to the skittish eccentricities of footwork. As such, it’s the points throughout the tracklisting wherein Hawke strikes a cogent balance between the album’s potent melodic tones and head-spinning, floor-filling rhythms, its thunderous orchestral decadence and wistful, flourishing atmospheres, and its other-wordly experimentation and straight-up funk grooves, that bring his vision of a polished and well-rounded electronic sound to full fruition. In this regard, the introductory track, Monolith (Overture), provides a fitting and well-formulated modus operandi for much of the rest of First Opus. Despite the main body of the cut being driven by a manipulated female vocal, the opening flickers of fluttering and sparkling orchestration are blended seamlessly into the triumphant, glistening crash that introduces the song’s lead melody, which is a heavenly, sung sample played through a MIDI controller with sharp, staccato semi-quavers that capture an almost vocaloid-esque tone at times. As such, despite the track deliberately shying away from assuming a solid, definitive beat for the most part — with the vocal melody instead being supported by stabs of snare accents, sweeping scoops of pulsating synths and surges of other, chipmunked vocal samples — it nevertheless encapsulates a distinct hip hop vibe. This only makes sense, given how much vocaloids have been embraced in the era of Internet rap, with even Outkast’s Big Boi sampling Hatsune Miku on the track Kill Jill with Killer Mike and Jeezy from his latest album, Boomiverse. Indeed, on a track such as Monolith (Overture), there’s almost a mechanical quality to how smooth, vibrant and pristine the vocals sound, and this is even more true of the following cut, Dawn of Infinity, whose chilling, four-way harmonic tapestry puts an eerie spin on doo-wop and barbershop music, before these vocals are abruptly chipmunked into oblivion and supplanted by some watery, music box-like chimes for which Brinsmead constantly toys with the pitching, creating an inescapable sense of tension and urgency. Undoubtedly, with the ensuing rhythms, which read like downtempo dancehall beats, being punctuated by some golden age hip hop-style funk horn samples, whilst some more vocaloid-like sung samples soar over head, Dawn of Infinity marks Sinjin Hawke’s creative apex over the course of First Opus, with the engaging battle of genres, melodies, rhythms and organic and electronic instrumentation unfolding into a dynamic display of what electronic music sounds like when it’s done right. Whilst no other cut in the tracklisting quite reaches the same spirited summits of electronic energy as Dawn of Infinity, there is nevertheless a myriad of mesmerising melodic tones and enrapturing rhythmic idiosyncrasies that strike some similarly ravishing heights. True to its title, Nailgun hits the listener left and right with propulsive, hammering rhythms, brief bursts of breakbeats and panning, rumbling sub-bass, whilst a manipulated vocal sample seems to be instructing the audience on how to dance to such a sparse, gritty, industrial beat. The triumphant stabs of horns on Onset could have been lifted from a film score for a training montage scene, especially when factoring in the cascading eruption of 80s dance-pop electronic tom-toms, all of which is bolstered from below by an appropriately peppy synth melody that seems to mimic a brass timbre. It’s not long before the song’s more soulful leanings are subverted by the inclusion of whirling sirens of discordant electronic leads and rapid-fire blips of bleeping and blooping electronic rhythms, only for the cut to be reclaimed by the funk-rock horn section, as it sounds for one final victory lap. Even a track that employs almost amusingly contradictory sonic themes, such as Don’t Lose Yourself to This, is played off by Brinsmead in a rather entertaining fashion. Although the cut could have likely been mixed in a more nuanced manner, the dichotomy presented by the pairing of swirling, breathy vocal samples with the heavy crush of the pounding synth bass and the arbitrary laser swipe sounds makes for a riveting juxtaposition of sounds that is perhaps all the better for the fact that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Ultimately, with tracks such as Monolith (Overture), Onset and especially Dawn of Infinity, First Opus proves, without a shadow of doubt, that Sinjin Hawke’s flair for fashioning lavish, multifaceted and, most importantly, captivating electronic soundscapes, that can be enjoyed equally as contagious dance anthems or cryptic and convoluted compositions for careful critique, is masterfully balanced and refined when he’s in peak form.
There are, however, instances across First Opus wherein Brinsmead is not quite at the top of his game and, although the results are never by any means bad, certain tracks across the album nevertheless seem somewhat underwritten, both in a structural sense and to the point that the impressive sonic resonance and melodic detail of other cuts in the tracklisting are lost in translation to a degree. Given the extent to which Sinjin Hawke relies on chipmunked or chopped-and-screwed vocal samples throughout First Opus, the songs during which such samples take the reins but aren’t developed in the depth that they likely could have been stand out as a result. This is evident as early on in the tracklisting as the third cut from the record with They Can’t Love You, with the pitched-up, EDM vocal sample being built on with suspenseful horn accents and sharp, rising synthesizer chords much in the vein that one would expect, leading the song to stand out as following an oddly orthodox structure that doesn’t play to Hawke’s strengths in the same way that the more experimental compositional structures do. Despite being framed in a far less conventional fashion, the following track, Shimmer, suffers from similar structural issues, with the piece assuming a wispy, almost ethereal tone, as its doo-wop-esque vocal samples overlap one another with single, gradually-descending, elongated notes, providing one of the most overtly ambient backdrops for any song across the entire album. This being said, with the exception of one vocal part occasionally gliding above the others and assuming the central melody for a few phrases, the structure of Shimmer is rather loose and ill-defined, to the extent that the track comes across as an auditory vignette that is in need of being fleshed-out into a fully-fledged composition, especially given its two-minute duration. Whilst, out of context, a piece that is constructed as unrigorously as this may seem merely like an interlude piece, the fact that several other cuts across First Opus are similarly disjointed, breezy and occasionally underwritten points towards this not being the case, to the extent that the record can feel like a smorgasbord of small sonic samples of songs that are yet to be presented in their entirety. This problem is especially prominent on some of the shorter cuts, such as By Any Means, whose structure is heavily reliant on repetition, or the salient outlier on the album, Prophecy of Martyn Bootyspoon, which is largely dedicated to fashioning some vague, cascading electronics to support an obtuse, preacher-like spoken-word performance that only seems to play to the broader themes of First Opus on a relatively superficial level, in that it’s generally strange and abstruse. Although such shortcomings relate more to the structure and fluidity of the album, in that much of First Opus can come across like a sketchbook of disconnected motifs and phrases that could have been expanded on more than the way in which they are presented here, they nevertheless hurt the experience of the record as a whole, albeit only minimally, with its production and overall dynamic quality remaining at a very high standard throughout the tracklisting, making for a very pleasant listening experience, all in all.
If First Opus can be given credit for one thing, that would surely have to be the success with which it carves out a definitive musical identity for Sinjin Hawke amidst the current electronic music landscape. Like it or not, Brinsmead secures a very particular style of vocal sampling and production on his full-length solo debut, which is strengthened further by the seamlessness with which he works similarly distinctive horn samples and electronic instrumentation into the mix, with the resultant concoction being cocooned in the same semblance of luxurious tones and round resonance, even in spite of the esoteric musical stylings pursued across the course of the tracklisting. Although there are certainly some creases to be ironed out when it comes to the overall presentation of many of the producer’s enthralling ideas throughout the record, First Opus, first and foremost, fulfils what is perhaps the most important function of a debut album, that being to firmly establish an individual voice for the artist amidst their respective stylistic scene. In this regard, First Opus is a fantastically successful release, as its unlikely that Sinjin Hawke will be a name soon forgotten amongst Brinsmead’s brand of eclectic electronic musicians.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10