All Saints are an English-Canadian girl group formed in London in 1993, originally as All Saints 188.8.131.52. Back in those early days, the group, Melanie Blatt, Shaznay Lewis and Simone Rainford, struggled to find commercial success, and were dropped after Rainford left the group.
In 1995, the group were joined by the Appleton sisters, Nicole and Natalie, and found success under their shortened name. Since 1997, they have released four albums. The group’s fourth album and first in a decade, Red Flag, was released on Friday, April 8.
The album opener “One Strike”, is electronic and builds with tribal drums. The vocals appear over these layers, all members coming together for a slice of power pop, power pop with a tad darker than usual feel. The thump of the bass drum accompanies the second verse, and the picking of a guitar is noticed, not overbearing but contributing to the quite elaborate soundscape. The song is taken in a slightly different direction for what you could suppose is the middle section, before a final chorus.
“One Woman Man”, kicks in creepy and kind of grungy, yet a lot more electronic, in some respects, to the previous. It’s as equally epic, though, if not more so. Again, drums pound as the basis, the driving force of the song. The vocals and lyrics are from the heart, even when just paying attention to how the words are delivered. Strings are added to help the song soar, with what could be construed as a key change. Towards the end, that epic feel is magnified with some muddy bass ringing out that key progression melody.
The atmospheric, “Make U Love Me”, comes in straight away, almost catching the listener off guard. The live band format appears to be explored, in more or less its entirety, for the first time on the album. It’s driving, and only really lets up for the middle section before kicking in again.
“Summer Rain” follows. This one opens with a basic beat and acoustic guitars, and is quite an interesting track. Swirling of keyboards imitating wind suggest a new place to go in the song, and when it comes all come in to sing the chorus. The chorus in question is where the drums get busy, but go from organic and basic to working a whole kit and sounding very industrial. There’s also the hip-hop scratching element, too, making the piece, on the whole, very contemporary.
Following that is “This Is A War”, and it has the big production strings thing going on, with piano heralding some epic vocal harmonies. The piano really adds drama to the piece before the verse proper kicks in, the clap of the drums giving it an urban feel.
The song appears to be about the war waged when having a bad boy as your second half, like in “you were my bad boy straight out of the hood”. The closing vocal melodies are majestic, really taking flight. Distorted vocals, as if to offset the clean majesty, close the track.
“Who Hurt Who”, is a piano driven track, at least at the start. A stripped back effort, it has elements of blues but is largely soulful. The vocals are in syncopation with the piano, following the melody, if you like. Only towards the end do the vocals become a group effort, and they sound almost transcendent.
On the other hand, “Puppet On A String”, has massive, clapping drums. These accompany the underpinning melody seemingly Jamaican in feel, and definitely would get a club moving. It’s, as is quite common so far on the album, quite electronic in its composition. Only the vocals, arguably, are the organic element in this piece. The vocal melodies are busy but quite pleasing at the same time.
“Fear” has tinkling piano, but what’s immediately obvious are the vocals and rumbling drums. The vocal range on display is high, but can come down quite well, too. The middle section shows just how expert the group are putting together, and performing, these appealing vocal melodies and harmonies. Lines like “can’t let go how I really feel” explain why the song’s called “Fear”. Those rumbling, quite cavernous drums fade out the track.
This goes onto “Ratchet Behaviour”. This comes in with a touch of autotune, though thankfully its presence is quite brief. It’s a cross of reggae and rap, some of it delivered in classic Jamaican, sometimes seemingly South London, patois style. Despite that, though, it can’t be said, however diverse and different the track is, that it’s a particular highlight of the album.
Now onto title track, “Red Flag”. This segues from the previous track, similar in many respects but taking it to a new place, if not totally faraway. Booming percussion, thumping and bouncing in the ears of the listener declares the Saints to be “like a bull to a red rag”.
The middle section is eerie and spaced out, working well with the world music elements that have been developing from the previous track, and continued into this one. A soaring synthesiser line marks the end of the track, but not before the girls chip in with the chorus line just one more time.
Second from last, “Tribal”, has tribal rhythms consisting of sounds you wouldn’t normally expect. Eventually they sound more authentic, and are very powerful, almost crunching. The words aren’t always specific, and therefore could be construed as African fireside, which of course adds to the tribal feel. Echoing vocals further this, too. Perhaps this is an even more ambitious and progressive piece than the seguing of the previous two tracks, certainly it appears to’ve been executed better.
Final track, “Pieces”, has horns, piano and cyclical echoing akin to background interference. The girls combine wonderfully to give the track some mood, as if in the pursuit of joy. The middle section builds the track to a crescendo, one perfect for a closer to any pop album worth its salt. This, arguably, does this perhaps a tad better than the usual fare of the genre.
This album pleases generally, the first three tracks “One Strike”, “One Woman Man” and “Make U Love Me” particular highlights. It’s neither the former nor latter that pick up the full plaudits, though, as “One Woman Man” is the one that really soars, hitting that endorphin high. The other two, although good, just don’t quite reach where they intended to rocket to the stars. Still very much excellent, though.
Moving on, the likes “Ratchet Behaviour” and “Red Flag” don’t meld together as well as perhaps was intended. The equally, maybe more, ambitious and progressive “Tribal”, in comparison, ticks all the boxes and does so in the duration of one track, not two. Then the album closes in suitable style, in “Pieces”. That aforementioned crescendo is epic and very dramatic, going out not with a whimper but with a bang.
All Saints, have put together something arguably better, and of more substance, than the typical pop fare, perhaps even compared to indeed very good pop albums. There’s a good mix of pop sensibility and more adventous genres, like electronic and, you could argue, world music styles. All Saint’s Red Flag is out now via London Records/Universal Music, purchase it iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson