SAFIA – Internal (Album Review)

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SAFIA.

The name has been prominent in Australia’s independent electronic music scene for a while now, and from the moment they released their first single Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues in 2013, it has been well and truly evident that these guys are nothing like any other band out there. Characterised by strong beats, pulsing synths, catchy riffs and melodies, and vocalist Ben Woolner’s unique soul-tinged voice – at times powerful, at times light and husky, with a vocal range that jumps around between tenor to falsetto with seeming ease.

Despite having only released five singles prior to this year, three of these five have made Triple J Hottest 100 countdowns and the band has had no trouble selling out headline shows across the country and flooring crowds at music festivals such as Groovin’ the Moo.

It goes without saying then that the anticipation for an album has been around for a very, very long time; well before making one was even alluded to, yet alone actually announced. However, the excruciatingly long wait is finally over with today’s release of their long-awaited masterpiece: Internal.

Featuring 2015 single Embracing Me, along with several other songs that have been released as teasers or played live for over a year now, this album is nothing short of being an absolute banger. It delivers everything fans hoped for – (actually more than 5!) strong, catchy tracks that have that distinct SAFIA sound, and an extensive country-wide tour to go with it starting next month.

The album starts off with the tribal-sounding Zion, a track some might recognise as the track the band comes on stage to at their live shows; an entirely instrumental track that begins with a building up synth, didgeridoos and murmuring voices echoing in the background, before dropping back to a dance-like beat. Still intermittently fused with the distinct sound of the didgeridoo, this track is like an electro-music homage to our homeland, Australia.

We then hear the now well-known single Embracing Me, a cheerful poppy song with a catchy chorus and a very tropical-sounding synth set, set off with Woolner’s impressive falsetto echoing in the background towards the end.

Together, Locked Safely is a track that the band have been playing live for at least a year now, and one that has been getting stuck in my head countless times despite having only heard it a few times at said live shows. Another song where Woolner’s ability to jump all over the vocal spectrum does him service here with the creation of a chorus that jumps above the rest of the song’s range. While the studio version of this track is definitely solid, one can’t help feeling that it doesn’t quite impress as much as when it has been played live. With a more toned down beat, less contrast between verse and chorus, and the post-chorus instrumental break, the live version always brought on a real dance moment compared to the rather chilled out studio version. That being said, the album version evokes a different kind of emotion, and if one didn’t know how much of a dance track this can be live, there would definitely be nothing falling short of expectations.

Fake It Til The Sunrise is a slower, more laid-back track with echoey verses and another signature falsetto chorus, but despite the more relaxed atmosphere to this song, one still can’t help but find themselves nodding along to the chorus, especially to the build ups towards the end.

Over You is the song that was released as a single on July 1st to announce the coming of this album, already now having received a lot of playtime on Triple J. Featuring a plucky guitar riff that is then accompanied by catchy piano and driving synths, this song is a fun, grooving ode to an ex that we can probably all relate to at some time in life or another.

Bye Bye is a real highlight on this album. Played previously on their Make Them Wheels Roll tour, the band described this as one of their weirder tracks, and certainly the harmonic minor key, grungy piano and slightly ghoulish synths give it a definite dark edge to it that reminds one a bit of last year’s release, Counting Sheep. However, this track is a lot more upbeat, and thus somehow simultaneously sounds like it can be in a spooky kids’ TV show while also making you want to dance and bounce around the room. A really unique track that one finds themselves humming along to well after it has finished.

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Closer is another slightly darker sounding track, again achieved through use of the minor key and dark bopping synths. A really interesting feature of this track is the vocals, which are unusually husky and almost all falsetto, bar the chorus which then drops down to a low, heavily-edited electronic voice – a stark contrast to the more usual low-verse-high-chorus pattern that they follow. There’s definitely something slightly jarring about this song, but it is another situation where they’ve managed to successfully pull off creepy and catchy at the same time.

My Love is Gone was actually released one week prior to the release of the album itself – another case of the band teasing fans with snippets of the coming album. This track is nothing short of beautiful, with ethereal synths and vocals at the start that then lead to a vocal-orientated verse and an emotive chorus that suggests despair and heartbreak. The use of synth buildups in this song only add to the emotion that it invokes, and if you can personally relate to the lyrics then it’ll probably have you tearing up a little by the second chorus. Quite interestingly, the second, softer chorus then cuts off to an unexpected raw dance beat with lightly bouncing synths in the background, which actually works a lot better than it sounds like it should, and gives the last chorus that it builds up to even more impact than it would already have.

Next up is another familiar track – Make Them Wheels Roll. Having been released as a single on the 4th of March this year and being played live for at least a year before that, this song stands out particularly for it’s chorus – another characteristically SAFIA falsetto chorus with a Marimba-like synth playing staccato chords and a guitar solo at the end.

Go To Waste is another beautiful track that really brings out the emotion, toning down the more electronic sounds in favour of soft guitars and piano to bring the focus to the lyrics. Another track that could bring tears to your eyes as it perfectly builds up and down between verse, chorus, piano solo and other instrumental breaks, to lyrics that lament losing everything you have and fearing a dark future.

/And I don’t wanna let this go, I don’t wanna let this fly and die through space, I don’t wanna let this go to waste…/

Home contrasts the previous track quite well with an instantly lighter rhythm and faster pace, dropping to a pumping synth before the first verse comes in. The chorus tones down the energy for a moment before building up to the drop which well and truly brings it back. Despite being much slower than an EDM dance track, Home is undoubtedly a track that makes you want to move, at least until it drops back to a piano-chord and vocal ending.

Wrapping the album up is the appropriately titled External. This track is another unique SAFIA masterpiece, though in a different way. Bringing back the tribal feel, this time through the percussion and an interesting ethnic-sounding background vocal line, External is a song that evokes feelings of looking back at how far they’ve come and looking forward to what’s coming as well – the perfect final track.

Internal is, quite simply, an incredible album; even more so when we take into account that this is a debut album to boot. While not all the songs are top-ten bangers, there is not a single track on here that feels like it doesn’t belong or isn’t up to standard of the rest, and there is no doubting that SAFIA have set themselves a very high standard over the years.

This album was well worth the wait, and leaves us certain that there is nothing but a bright future for these guys.

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Emily Dix

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