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 eleven albums between 2019 and 2022, 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 made records for Michael Kiwanuka, Adele, and Little Simz. After working with Inflo in 2014, The Kooks’ Luke Pritchard described him as “kind of like a young Quincy Jones”. The other known Sault members are singer Cleo Sol, keyboardist Kadeem Clark, and Chicago-born rapper Kid Sister. Their records feature a dazzling array of guests.
Sault has developed a distinctive aesthetic, a minimalistic sound that draws on genres like gospel, Afrobeats, soul, and disco. They’ve enjoyed 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 their era, covering themes like black empowerment.
Sault Album Reviews
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, they employ 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 ‘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 songwriting isn’t as memorable as in 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 their second album in four months, 7 is impressive, but it’s still Sault’s least substantial early record.
Untitled (Black Is)
Sault expand 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 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’ has gospel influences, 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 difficult 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 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. Nine was only available on streaming services for 99 days, although it’s floating around YouTube.
9 feels slight compared to some of Sault’s earlier albums – it’s a brief 34-minute record with only 8 full songs. Generally, rhythmic songs like ‘London Gangs’ and ‘Trap Life’ are stronger than the Cleo Sol-fronted slices of neo-soul. Cleo Sol’s highlight is 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.
Every time I review a new Sault album, I point out how unorthodox their approach is. Their veiled identities, their lack of live performances, and their prolific release schedule are all noteworthy. All these idiosyncrasies, however, pale in comparison to their unexpected change of direction on Air. Instead of their usual arty neo-soul, Sault’s sixth album is a classical work, complete with choir and orchestra.
In particular, ‘Solar’ is an ambitious 12-minute piece, with dramatic orchestration – my classical knowledge is scant, but it feels like a fully-fledged work rather than dabbling. Elsewhere, Air is sometimes closer to typical Sault fare – after opening with a grand orchestral fanfare, the second half of ‘Time Is Precious’ is much closer to Sault’s typical neo-soul. ‘Luos High’ is named for the Luo people of Kenya and features African instrumentation. Despite the unfamiliar musical territory, Inflo’s skills as a producer and arranger shine through.
Air is challenging, but it’s a surprisingly successful foray into foreign musical territory.
2022, not rated
Sault’s first non-classical release of 2022 is the 10:10 track ‘Angel’, released as X. Naturally, it was released on 10 October. Guest vocalist Chronixx is featured and Sault meet him in his musical territory. The first section of ‘Angel’ is reggae, the middle section is a gentle piano-based soul song, while the final part is a simple acoustic piece, reminiscent of Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’.
The wide-ranging, multi-part ‘Angel’ is one of the most fascinating pieces in the Sault catalogue.
Sault released five (!) new albums on 1 November 2022. Each of the other 2022 Sault albums pursues a specific style, but Earth takes something from each camp. The gospel-infused R&B of Untitled (God), the rhythm-focused XI, and the post-punk of Today & Tomorrow are all represented here, while there’s a prominent African influence on the closing tracks. The melting-pot nature of Earth makes it the most satisfying of Sault’s 2022 records.
The gospel influence is strong – ‘The Lord’s With Me’ is beautifully constructed, with its buildup into the stirring spoken section. Side two opener ‘Power’ isn’t as musically enticing, with less happening to complement the monologue. Cleo Sol expertly navigates a lovely vocal line on ‘Valley of the Ocean’, a soulful piano ballad. ‘Stronger’ is also lovely, as is the bilingual ‘God is in Control’. ‘Field’ is a collage built around a trippy bassline, cycling through a vocal section, guitar leads, and an eerie organ solo.
Earth is an excellent showcase of Sault’s wide-ranging ambition.
The titles of Sault’s albums helpfully categorise their discography. Untitled (God) is the natural successor to Sault’s 2020 albums, Untitled (Rise) and Untitled (Black Is). It features the same soulful sound, but as the title indicates, it’s more spiritual in focus. There are references to spirituality throughout Sault’s 2022 albums, but they’re most pronounced here. A myriad of guest vocalists add their thoughts on God – Little Simz’s verse provides impetus to ‘Free’, while Olivia Williams’ vocals add theatrical flair to ‘God in Disguise’.
Untitled (God) runs for a sprawling 70 minutes. It’s not all stellar, but there’s more great music here than on any other Sault album to date if you don’t mind the record’s spiritual nature. There’s a touch of 1980s synth-pop on songs like ‘Faith’ and ‘God in Disguise’. There’s a range of moods, from the gentle introversion of ‘I Surrender’ to the exuberant gospel of ‘Spirit High’.
Untitled (God) is often exhilarating, with more than an hour of praise-themed music.
Today and tomorrow
Of the November 2022 Sault releases, Today & Tomorrow is the biggest departure from the group’s previous records. It’s seemingly based around studio jams, with vocals added afterwards. The guitar, bass, and drums land somewhere between tense post-punk and dirty funk. It’s fun to hear Sault play gritty and organic music, but it often feels underwritten.
Today & Tomorrow is exhilarating when it works. The opening track ‘In The Beginning’ is an excellent addition to the Sault catalogue – its dramatic introduction is full of tension. The full and fuzzy guitar tone is effective – ‘Heal the World’ is little more than a chant over a guitar riff, but it’s energising and vibrant. The riff of ‘Jungle’ recalls Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’.
Today & Tomorrow is underwritten, but it’s fun to hear Sault cranking up the guitars to 11.
Sault dropped five albums on 1 November 2022, free for download with the password “godislove”. 11 continues the tradition of the numbered Sault albums – taut and minimalist funk grooves. The use of guest vocalists like Chronixx on ‘Fear No One’ and (I think?) Jack Peñate duetting with Cleo Sol on ‘Envious’ helps to keep things fresh. The strident vocal on ‘Higher’ is unusually direct than usual for Sault.
AIIR is the sequel to AIR, another modern classical piece from Inflo. It’s stronger than its predecessor – it runs for a short and focused 26 minutes. The upbeat pieces are particularly strong, with more emphasis on the rhythm that’s fuelled Sault’s other work. The theme that opens ‘4am’ is rousing. ‘Hiding Moon’ drops down to just the bassline mid-song, before the strings rejoin – it’s a common Sault arrangement trick, but it’s particularly effective in the classical context. The choral soul song in the second half of ‘5am’ provides a link to the rest of Sault’s discography.
Inflo’s ridiculously talented – his ability to deliver compelling pieces in an orchestral idiom is impressive.
10 Best Sault Songs
Valley of the Ocean
We Are The Sun
Up All Night
In The Beginning
Back to 2020s Album Reviews….
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