If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this – Do yourself a favor and listen to this album, and if you can afford it, buy it on bandcamp.
There are certain bands that have delivered wondrous pieces at exactly the right time, just when you need it to get through a challenging period. One of those bands is the largely progressive and classic rock oriented Blackstratblues. So, it won’t be difficult to imagine fan-interest being exceedingly piqued when Warren Mendonsa notified of a new album coming.
2020 changed the tune for most of our lives, but for guitarist extraordinaire, Warren Mendonsa, it also marked relocation to Auckland, New Zealand. “Hindsight Is 2020” is his sixth album release since 2007. His last two records, ‘The Last Analog Generation (2017)’ and ‘When It’s Time (2019)’ were both admired and celebrated, so the new LP is greatly anticipated. “It is the sum of my experiences over the pandemic period – that’s what this record signifies to me,” summarizes Warren.
The album releases on all major streaming services on the 12th September, but you can exclusively buy 2496 FLAC or stream it from Bandcamp. The sixteen tracks on this album are a mix of full length tracks and thoughtfully-placed short interludes, forming a sort of flow and narrative, exploring different sonic spaces. Each track on the album could be the stories and perspectives of an entire nation, or just one person— a narrative that cements the hardships, joys, and hard decisions we’ve had to make over the last two years. About weaving these varied pieces together for the LP, Warren says, “whenever I have ideas, I save them as a Cubase Session into a folder called “New ideas”. Around the time of recording, I go back and use some of them. I prefer maintaining a healthy gap between albums, so there’s both progress and less likelihood of influences from previous releases. Owing to uncertainty in the live scene, this album was more of an open canvas, wherein I also went back to playing bass and digital keys.”
One thing that Warren Mendonsa clearly knows how to do well is keeping the listener on their toes. “Hey 2020,” the opening track of the album begins with a punchy drum rhythm that cues in as drumroll to unravel the goodness of the rest of the LP. The drum groove, played by Jai Row Kavi, quickly glides into seductive guitar licks before sinking into a full-fledged groove. Overtop of a looping drum baseline, Mendonsa intersperses these shimmering synths and funky chords that have the listener waiting to see what comes next.
The next track, “This Will Be My Year,” ushers in the signature, warm, creamy, rounded sound of Blackstratblues, so fans will find themselves shaking their head vigorously, or perhaps smiling agreeably, in acknowledgement of what they’ve been waiting for. The track, his daughter’s favorite, swerves between genres on a regular basis and is a groove-bomb from start to finish. What’s really cool is this – coming full circle after almost a decade, New Zealand drummer, Cole Goodley who played percussion on Warren Mendonsa’s much-loved track, “Ode To A Sunny Day,” has played on this one. Somewhere around the 0:55 min mark, it veers into an almost pop-rock-ish guitar hook, the anomalous sound of which reminds us of “Folkish Three,” a 2015 release by the Blackstratblues that showcased street-folk drum sounds. An earlier version of this track’s improvised chord progressions was posted by Warren on his IGTV around Christmas of 2019, “a time when all of us were naively hopeful and optimistic about the new year,” he quips.
“Eleven” starts with an endearing voice sample of Mendonsa’s daughter Nia, who makes her third appearance on a Blackstratblues album. “I wrote the song on her first birthday in New Zealand. I put her to bed and sat down to noodle, channeling concerns as a parent about how she’d adapt to the move. That’s how this track came about.” The voice sample is an edit of his daughter’s responses to a bunch of Mendonsa’s questions. She adorably informs that her birthday is on the eleventh of November, and the sample ends with her recalling closure of Juhu beach because of the Virus. Promptly, the track plunges into infectious guitar riffs and simple, yet effective drum patterns by Cole, harnessing that exact feeling you get when you realize how the early parts of 2020 affected every part of daily life.
The album also carries four soothing bonus melodies – “Remembrance,” “The Persistence Of Time,” “Kinder Days Past I,” and “Kinder Days Past II”. In Kinder Days Past I, the guitar almost sounds like a piano arabesque, where each note drops and then ripples down the keyboard intuitively, making it more than apparent that Mendonsa is a master of his instrument. “For those ripples on Kinder Days, I incorporated the dotted eighth delay effect on nylon strings, a trick that I learned long back, wherein, you play quarter notes and let the delay fill-in to make notes sound like a melodic sequence of sixteenth-notes,” he explained. These four pieces are unused ideas based on the theme of loss, which were initially composed by Mendonsa for a film score he was working on. “Everyone’s lost something or someone during the pandemic, so these interludes assimilated perfectly into the larger theme of the album,” says Warren. The creative intent indeed translates and evokes visuals in listeners, because of the nature of musical ornamentation these pieces add with flowing water or ripple like sounds. These meticulously interspersed additions provide a soothing breather between the more onerous tracks such as The Celestial Dance.
“The Celestial Dance” is when the album takes a sharp turn and moves away from a mellow tone to a much heavier sound – the groove is much more of a driving force here. The chord progression in this psychedelic track starts on a reticent, sombre mood, but once the beat switch happens towards the 100 second mark, the same chord progression gets lighter and everyone really goes for it. Warren elaborates, “The title is based on a concept I read somewhere – about how one can choose to dance through life’s challenges and choose to look at the bright side. Of course, some problems are out of our control, but we have a choice in the case of many others. We could choose to not let it get the better of us. Life’s a bit lighter when we learn to get through such obstacles.” ‘The Celestial Dance’ is a detour through early progressive rock and the type of story telling centered music bands were doing through 60s and 80s. The track goes through a few transitions and passages in a flurry, almost like there are so many ideas to get to that there’s no time to waste dwelling on one melody.
“Hold On Tight (Up We Go)” is an optimistic musical metaphor for his relocation to Auckland. One of Warren’s favorites from the album, this upbeat and energetic track grows on Cole Goodley’s pulsating drums and bright-toned guitar, which Mendonsa drapes with layers of trippy in-flight vocals and sound effects. The track even embodies sounds samples of whirring jet engines in the beginning, and a flight attendant announcing, “a very warm welcome to Auckland” at the end of the track. The arrangement evolves so beautifully it brings a smile to your face. In fact, after the 2 minute mark on the track, you might find riff elements that might remind you of “North Star” another gorgeous track by Blackstratblues – but this time, the varied rendition is much more cheerful. The track captures emotions from the time of movement to New Zealand. Reflecting on the rather tumultuous events of 2020, he recalls, “Our last gig was on 10 March 2020 with Amit Trivedi in Mumbai, soon after which we went into a lockdown. We had a few Blackstratblues gigs in late March that we were really looking forward to, as a farewell before I moved to New Zealand, but these had to be cancelled. Although the move was planned for September, New Zealand went into hard lockdown in March, so we ended up taking the first ever direct flight from Mumbai to Auckland in a frenzy in June. I remember being quite stressed at that time because of the uncertainty.”
The most dramatically passionate addition in the album is “It Just Got Real” which epitomizes the actualization of his movement to New Zealand with his family – marking the transition from anticipatory stress to actually being in the moment. The song has a mix of R&B, blues, rock, jazz textures, and has a remarkable bassline holding the groove down amidst cymbal crashes and sweeping strings.
The following track, “When It All Began,” again surprises with a perceivable retropop-like sound and smooth beats. Although loud guitar riffs do not jump out at the listener, this is a more well-crafted track by Mendonsa, showcasing his dexterous songwriting chops. Breaking down the track for us, he says, “The song signifies going back to your roots. We stayed with my parents for a couple of months at the beginning of the move. I found preserved CDs, books, and gear, which I used when I started learning guitar. The chord progression is based on the song, “I love Paris,” which is the first ever song I learnt to play on Guitar, with the help of my dad, who also played the bass.”
“Low Down Lock Down,” “Anesthesia,” will take you through a swirling world of slow blues. On one hand, these tracks sound so simple, so unassuming. However, give them your full attention and the magic starts to flow. The section around the final minute mark on Low Down Lock Down, is what turns the track around – with a rather funky bassline that is delivered with a weighty and compelling overtone. A powerful guitar riff, dominant drums and authoritative swathes of stylish guitar wash over you before coming to close. Anesthesia also includes vocal samples of neuroscientist Anil Seth’s TED talk on consciousness, a topic which Mendonsa is clearly fascinated by. Again, Mendonsa had posted the earlier version of this track on his IGTV, so fans got to listen to substantial segments of this album prior to release.
Out Of The Ether also started off as a video of slide guitar improvisation. “The video garnered a lot of nods from listeners, convincing me to do another version without a slide, and further create what we now see on the album,” he shares.
The penultimate track “We Are Responsible” features Jai Row Kavi on drums and singer-songwriter Tarana Marwah aka Komorebi’s ambient and fluid harmonies, besides audio snippets from the documentary, ‘In search of a flat earth’ . “Long back, I’d played on Tarana’s song called A Little One. I kept hearing this melody I came up with on guitar which I realised could be augmented with voice, but I didn’t want to include words. Tarana does a great job of creating ethereal, layered textures with her voice, and what she did was exactly what I wanted, but better. So I quickly sent her the last track as well. Working with her is a piece of cake, she’s really that good.”
A creative genius, Mendonsa has time and again, incorporated spoken-word passages and sound samples, to conceive an immersive experience within compositions, much like the Pink Floyd. On a basic level these incorporations make great transitions between songs, but they can also make you feel immersed in the world of the album, like you’re going through the everyday life of the characters that inhabit it and hearing what they hear along with their responses in the forms of the songs. If you notice closely, the melody in ‘Hold On Tight’ comes back at the end of ‘We are Responsible’ after the spoken word, much like how in other albums such as The Dark Side of the Moon, the melody in ‘Breathe’, is reintroduced at the end of another track on the album, titled ‘Time’.
The album is capped off on a high note by the final track “Let it Shine,” also featuring Komorebi, a bright guitar riff motif that becomes the backbone of the track, and unison clap-like drum beats. Great way to close out a great album.
Emotionally charged, epic and beautiful, there’s unlikely to be a more majestic progressive-rock album released this year. So while the whole album should be listened to front-to-back to really enjoy the experience, there are absolutely tracks that different people will return to more on multiple listens.