British collective Sault have eschewed all the usual rules of music-making in their brief and eventful career. They’ve veiled their identities, never played a live gig, never released a music video, and have produced material at a breakneck pace. They’ve released four albums during 2019 and 2020 alone, as well as production work and side projects. Sault’s music is coming so thick and fast that it feels like one continuous body of work.
The group’s leader is Inflo, a London-based producer and drummer who’s also produced recent records for Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz. The other known Sault members are singer Cleo Sol, keyboardist Kadeem Clark, and Chicago-born rapper Kid Sister.
Sault have developed a distinctive aesthetic, a minimalistic sound that draws on genres like gospel, Afrobeats, soul, and disco. They’ve enjoyed a lot of critical acclaim since sneaking out two records mysteriously in 2019 – several year end lists have rated their 2020 records, Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is), highly. Their music’s on point for 2020, covering themes like black empowerment.
Sault Album Reviews
Cleo Sol: Rose in the Dark
Sault’s first album arrived mysteriously in May 2019, with little fanfare. On their debut, Sault aren’t as wide-ranging as on later albums, instead carving a minimalist sound that fuses neo-soul vocals with funky beats and political lyrics. The crisp groove of ‘Why Why Why Why Why’ recalls Michael Jackson’s Thriller. For a groove-based record 5 is fast paced, rushing through 14 tracks in just over 40 minutes.
Highlights include the funky opener ‘Up All Night’ and ‘Why Why Why Why Why’. The instrumentals like ‘Pink Sands’ and ‘Wild Hundreds’ work well to break up the record, while ‘We Are The Sun’ hits a triumphant note towards the end.
5 is a marvellous debut from a mysterious outfit.
Sault’s second album arrived merely four months after the first – I’m not sure what the title refers to. Possibly it was scheduled for release in July, but arrived in September 2019. It’s very similar to their debut – information is scant on Sault’s releases, but it’s certainly plausible that these songs were outtakes from their first record.
The strongest song is the one that sounds least similar to their other work – ‘Friends’ is a lush and breezy ballad with beautiful vocals from Cleo Sol. There are strong grooves like ‘Living In America’ and ‘No Bullshit’, but the song-writing isn’t as memorable as on the first volume. 7 doesn’t feature instrumentals – while instrumentals on pop albums often feel like filler, Sault are excellent at using them for pacing.
For a second album in four months 7 is impressive, but it’s still Sault’s least substantial record.
Untitled (Black Is)
Sault expanded their sound on their 2020 albums, adding disco and Afrobeats to their musical palette while maintaining their minimalist aesthetic. Untitled (Black Is) was released only a month after the wake of the George Floyd killing. With the lack of information available about Sault, it’s impossible to know whether songs like ‘Wildfires’, speaking out against police brutality, were direct responses to the incident or were written earlier.
Key tracks include ‘Bow’ with guest vocalist Michael Kiwanuka, where the African rhythms and acid guitar fill out their sound more than usual. ‘Wildfires’ is gorgeous, recalling 1990s trip hop alongside soul. ‘Eternal Life’ is pretty gospel, while ‘Monsters’ builds off an ominous synth riff.
Their minimalist sound isn’t my preference, but there’s a lot of amazing material on Sault’s two 2020 discs, especially on Untitled (Black Is).
It’s a little hard to differentiate these Sault albums because they’re coming so thick and fast, but Rise emphasises Sault’s gospel elements. Untitled (Rise) is typically diverse, incorporating elements of R&B, funk, and house, but unified by Sault’s aesthetic. There’s a gorgeous piano-led instrumental (‘The Black and the Gold’), disco-flavoured tracks like ‘Son Shine’, ‘Strong’, and ‘Fearless’, abrasive beats on ‘Street Fighter’ and ‘Free’, and broodiness on ‘Scary Times’.
Because of their quick turnaround, Sault are able to address current issues like #blacklivesmatter. Most striking is ‘You Know It Ain’t’, where Kid Sister cuttingly dismisses tokenism; “Yeah I see your little post, talking ’bout BLM is my motto/But you know it ain’t.”
For a fourth album release within less than 18 months, Untitled (Rise) is stunningly accomplished. It’s difficult to think of many precedents in popular music for this level of creative output.
Mysterious London collective Sault are back with their fifth album in little over 24 months. It’s always tricky writing about Sault because they’ve kept their their identities shrouded – not playing live or giving interviews. Unusually, Sault provided a statement to accompany Nine:
Some of us are from the heart of London’s council estates where proud parents sought safer environments to raise their families. Community is the only real genuine support & the majority of us get trapped in a systemic loop where a lot of resources & options are limited.
Adults who fail to heal from childhood traumas turn to alcohol & drugs as medicine.
Young girls & boys looking for leadership can get caught up in gang life.
It’s very easy to judge.
What would you do if this were you?
As such, Nine marks a change in focus. While Sault’s 2020 records tied into the Black Lives Matter narrative and felt American in their outlook, this new record is firmly situated in London, as titles like ‘London Gangs’ and ‘Alcohol’ indicate. Musically, it’s closer to Sault’s 2019 albums 5 and 7 with its minimalist, rhythm-heavy sounds.
It does feel a little slight compared to some of their earlier records – it’s a brief 34 minute record with only 8 full songs. Generally the rhythmic songs like ‘London Gangs’ and ‘Trap Life’ are stronger than the Cleo Sol-fronted slices of neo-soul. Cleo Sol does front the gospel-tinged closer ‘Light’s In Your Hands’ – I’m a sucker for those 1970s singer-songwriter piano chords.
Nine isn’t Sault’s best, but it’s another impressive entry into their prolific catalogue.
10 Best Sault Songs
We Are The Sun
Up All Night
Rose in the Dark
As well as two studio albums this year and two more in 2019, Sault’s Cleo Sol steps into the spotlight with her solo debut. Born in London, Cleopatra Nikolic came from mixed heritage – her Jamaican dad plays bass and piano, while her Serbian/Spanish mother sang and played guitar and flute. Sol was inspired to take up music by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’, and released some early singles but Rose in the Dark is her first full-length album at the age of 30. She tells the story of her absence in the title track, where she sings
I prayed so hard, I thought I’d lose my mindRose in the Dark, Cleo Soul
I’m a little stronger, baby
Took a little longer, maybe
Tell my younger self to enjoy the ride
It’s more personal, but Sol’s lyrical perspective on Rose in the Dark isn’t markedly different than on Sault’s work – it’s the sonic palette that’s distinct from Sault. While Sault’s arrangements are distinctively minimalistic, Sol’s Rose in the Dark is more conventional, a pretty neo-soul record.
None of these songs are big or dramatic, but they’re still musically rich. There’s a terrific jazzy bassline on ‘Rewind’, while Sol is accompanied only by acoustic guitar on ‘Butterfly’. Strings colour ‘Why Don’t You’, while the record closes with standout track ‘Her Light’, with huge dollops of 1970s soul like the flute and the woozy synth.
Rose in the Dark isn’t attention grabbing, but it’s full of lovely tunes and smooth vocals.
Back to 2020s Album Reviews….