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Album Review – Sense by Kira May

Album Review – Sense by Kira May

Released: May 4th 2018

Reviewed by Squiff Champman

On May 4th Toronto’s Kira May let her second release “Sense” into the world and onto the web, and I’m going to let the cat out of the bag early on this one, I f***ing love it. There, review done, go buy the Album.

Sense was written by Kira May, Produced by Kira May and Sandro Perri, Engineered by Sandro Perri at 6 Nassau and Sonology, Mixed by Sandro Perri and Mastered by Milan Schramek at Lacquer Channel Mastering.

Kira May makes a lot of her music with nothing but her voice and a looping machine. While this album has songs that feature other instruments and samples to fill out the sound, the meat and potatoes are all in Kira’s voice. It seems the approach of building a song one stone at a time has seriously strengthened her ability to layer parts and make songs bloom. The album has a sound with a constant sense of swelling and saturation, as corny as it may sound it reminds me of sunshine and blossoming flowers. It is relentless, it is gently overpowering and it is as bold as it is subtle. To hell with what you thought you were doing today or how you thought you felt, it would take a powerful person to throw on some headphones, listen to this album and not let themselves drift to where it will help you realized you should be. I hope for your sake you’re not that kind of person.

Before we dig In here I’m going to point out that one of the things that I really like about this release. There’s something intangible that isn’t easily explained and my attempts to explain the feeling of swell, breath, and saturation are well intended but not well informed. I’m good at identifying genre traits, choice of musical phrasing and songwriting / song structure but what I’ll spend a lot of my time in this review trying to describe something that’s hard to put your finger on. I’ll digress a little bit throughout this review as I try to explain the phenomena that captivates and eludes me. Alright here we go.  

The first track is called “Taste”. You remember what I said about there being a sense of saturation in the album’s sound? There’s a good example at the start of this song. I wouldn’t call it a melody or a progression, and “phrase” doesn’t cut it, so let’s just call it a Motif. It fits so well that I honestly can’t tell if its going constantly up to the 3:05 mark or if my brain is super-imposing it with the rest of the parts that demand it be there. I can’t fully grasp how the feeling of being enveloped by sound is produced but it seems to me that it has something to do with extreme care in crafting each layer, having lots of layers, astounding control and  constant change of dynamics (most parts have a sense of fade in and out, even the string and horn parts have are so smoothly lagato it feels like they’re breathing), a good mix, and careful curation of every part – none of that sounds revolutionary but it sounds revolutionary. Like world music meets pop and it actually turned out well for once, then again, I might just think that because of the drums. Back to the song. This song doesn’t move forward so much as grow fuller, at 2:55 the first movement ends and gives way to a non verbal vocal part that, in all honesty, I found a bit strange at first. It’s reminiscent of a tribal chant, not that I know anything about tribal chants, but that’s where my mind goes with it. Anyway, It builds back into the song quite well, and it’s not so much off putting as a startling departure from the end of the first movement, it definitely gets your attention though, and that arguably makes the following chorus stronger. The song finishes with the call of a controlled but quick crescendo and rising harmony that has the flavour of ascension and an acapella response of a gentle descending melisma.

Honestly there’s something, metaphorically, heavenly about it – like you’ve been sucked into a beam of light by some angelic voice accompanied by horns as the rising call, and the descending response is a feather or hat or something softly drifting down from where your corporeal body was lifted. I’ll note at this time that I’m an atheist and as such typing this feels both incredibly silly but also unarguably accurate.

Moving on. I’m going to do my best to be brief but this review is inevitably going to be a long one.

Song two: “Muscle Memory”. Is that a voice or a synth? Either way it fades in with, yes, reverse guitar delay! Its crazy how many effects are in this album but still somehow don’t lose their novelty or value as would a rock band with a wah or phase shifter in for some reason. Muscle memory has a lovely off-kilter rhythm, more being wrapped in sounds you can’t explain, and more wonderful Vocal melodies whose tone and note choice is strong enough to make you forget there are words attached to them. You might forget about those but they’re literally asking you to “let [them] in now” in this song.

Song three “Heat” was also released as a single just before the album was released. There’s something about Kira May’s breath work and the fact that most of her sound is made by voice that, I think, further adds to the sound of swelling and release – I haven’t thought it out fully but it seems necessary that music mostly made through one’s breath might also take on characteristics of the mechanisms with which it is produced. I digress. The first part of Heat is a gentle build, less flashy and melodically complex than previous tracks so you might as well use some of that mental energy to pay attention to the lyrics, and damn, who would have thought, she’s a singer and a writer too. Momentum picks up at 1:07 with what seems like a pre-chorus. A new non-lyrical vocal melody arrives as the Bass takes a bit more of a leading role and starts playing in a higher register at 1:45 as the build hits a plateau. The second verse is a bit more bold than the first and leads to another build that’s a bit more subtle than the first. then at 3:20 it gets kicked into gear by some uptempo staccato ascending bass and volume increase in other parts, this time the plateau is indicated by a snare crack that opens up the tune into full bloom as the bass becomes more complex, the piano still has finesse and restraint as a supporting role but the drums really start going to work. The song ends with the supporting vocals fading away almost entirely and another chant like vocal part accompanied by bass and the drums.

“Saturation” is the fourth song in “Sense”. It begins with a couple layers of birdsong background vocals, before long some low end percussion comes in and then the gentle main vocals along with some strings. Like previous songs the song constantly evolves, and while it doesn’t stand out to me as much as the previous tracks it still definitely delivers the goods.

Next up is track five, “Sensory Deprivation”. It starts, like the previous song with birdsong vocal melodies but this time they’re accompanied by rich layered vocal harmonies. There’s a feeling of being bathed, or saturated, in sound. It’s an immersive experience not unlike being in a sensory deprivation tank. This seems like a good time to mention another thing I like about Kira May’s vocals – good vocalists pay a lot of attention to their tone and pronunciation, and there’s something I really enjoy about Kira’s intentional use of hazy/breathy and undefined phrasing as an aesthetic choice, especially when contrasted with occasional sharply articulated words that tell you she knows exactly what she’s doing. The song is hypnotic in its simplicity, though there is still a lot of substance to it, the vocal phrasing is above

par, as always, and once again it’s strength is in it’s subtlety. It doesn’t have any loud drums that demand your attention but, to beat a dead horse, has a sense of being bathed or saturated in light and warmth. You know how if something works perfectly, or fits its space perfectly you can easily forget it exists, that’s what this song does.

“Touch” is track six and it starts off with some of the more creative percussive tones you’ve heard so far. There’s a synth tone taking the kick drum’s place and some high mid rototom sounding element that also brings a slightly world or latin feeling, but with a bit of a psychedelic tinge to it. The other synth parts are wonderfully warbly, horns and bass sit well and there’s a cool bridge part to this too that you’ll likely mistake as the song ending the first time you hear it.

Track numero seven is called “Vibrations”. I’ll point out that the reviews of each song is getting shorter and that’s because the elements of each of these songs have been pointed out not because the songs are getting more boring. Actually “Vibrations” is probably my favourite song on the entire album because the exceptionally fluid transition and overlap of parts and instruments, the amount of low end in the vocal parts and the rest of the instrumentation and of course just powerful phrasing. There’s also something distinctly cinematic about it. It strikes me as distinctively youthful and tumultuous and dissonant, while being endearing and lovely. The fact that this is a seven minute song never even occurred to me, and I’m by no means unused to long songs but this was so wonderfully developed that it really only feels half as long as it is.

“Fear” is track eight. More of the instrumentation you’ve grown to love but with a bit more present guitar parts. While there’s still some great layering here a lot more of the song’s development comes from more complex vocal melodies that are less intuitive but still very much incorporating familiar cadences in a less predictable manner. This seems like as good a time as any to point out something weird – Kira May’s phrasing sometimes reminds me of Deftones’ vocalist Chino Moreno. It’s not constant but the odd phrase matches up, and the way she manages to be elegant but massive and powerful at the same time is an underlying characteristic that both vocalists have. I find the lyrics in fear to be some of the most striking on the album.

I know I just told you “Vibrations” is my favourite track but it’s honestly a toss up between this and “Vibrations”.

Number nine, number nine, number nine. Forgive me the bad joke. “Forgiveness” is track number nine on “Sense”. For one of the first times there is a lack of vocal layering as the song starts, I mean there’s still some but there are fewer supporting parts and that has a big impact, it draws you in and makes you listen more sympathetically. The song meaders a bit more and isn’t as obviously directed which is a smart change, as enjoyable as the album has been it is self aware enough not to be redundant which is also reflected in the drums, you can count the number of cymbal hits on your hands and that makes me think we’ve got a percussionist playing drums rather than a drummer playing percussion.

The last song on “Sense” is called “Waves”. I haven’t talked much about the piano/keys in this album so I’ll take a second now. The piano parts tend to be simple, ornamental parts that show how well planned they are by their scarcity. That being said in this song they will likely be the first thing that perks your interest and holds it as they meander semi-Chopin like through the progression. The lyrical content is centered around Senda, a figure in Inuit mythology that I am too uninformed of to speak about. This song is one of the shortest of the album and functions as a wonderful outro, the song sways as one might imagine a wave would with a direction one can anticipate before hitting the shore having suddenly lost it’s momentum not only is the last phrase lyrically powerful but well placed melodically along with sustain and space enough to gather yourself up, breathe, and realize that this experience is over. Thanks for listening and thanks for

1. Buy this album

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 well planned vocal layers

Rating legend:
1 out of 5: You didn’t even use reverb.
2 out of 5: You did use reverb
3 out of 5: You are one with the loop station
4 out of 5  You are greater than the sum of your loops
5 out of 5: You don’t need looping because you are a chorus of Seraphim



About The Author

Ben Chapman-Smith

Squiff Champman is a Musician first, an advocate of creative arts second, a participating member of Ontario’s Music scene third and a cantankerous and loudly opinionated Canadian Music Critic Fourth. Honest to a fault "I care more about providing thorough reviews, useful feedback to artists, and genuine recommendations to listeners more than anyone’s feelings."

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