In recent years , we’ve seen a surge of vocal ensembles that have challenged the typical format of a vocal -led group. From vocal improv ( albeit stemming from the influence of jazz, folkloric traditions and shamanic traditions ) to the more refined and impressive chord clusters of English Vocal Artists Jacob Collier, The Swingles, Voces 8, to name a few. Perhaps it was world renowned Bobby Mcferrin who unknowingly gave singers that refused to be pigeonholed the ‘green light’ to release vocal music and not compromise on the art of voice. It doesn’t really matter, but in a way it’s always rewarding knowing that styles in this ever changing industry often are re-inventions of past traditions. It’s the way ideas work in general, and it is certainly prevalent in the debut album ‘ Shoulder‘ of talented duo Ben and Dom. As the title would suggest, Ben See and Dominic Stichbury are two lads who happen to be the best of friends, who just happen to sing well together. So, yes, to sound ever so cliche, ‘Shoulder‘ is a celebration of male friendship. It is a celebration of the multi-faceted layers of friendship that defy the ever strong and ever over used misconceptions of the male stereotype. The songs speak of holding space for growth, unconditional love and authenticity.
Some context, before we dive in to review their stunning debut album :
This collection of 6 original songs has grown out of their close friendship, a shared love of harmony singing and a common desire to explore the themes of male identity and expression through their songwriting. Ben takes the high notes, and Dom the low notes, as the intricate blend of their
voices weave around the harmonies. Ben and Dom are both keen to encourage more men to sing. Dom has been leading male voice choirs for many years, and they both recognise the value in group singing as a safe space for men to explore self expression and as a valuable aid to mental health. “The songs contain a mixture of our own feelings, but have also been heavily informed by what we’ve learnt through speaking with other men. ‘Masculinity’ is such a blunt and limiting word used to cover a huge diversity of ways of being and thinking,” explains Ben.
I would venture to guess that Ben and Dom are refreshingly unique in this outlook. From their very first opening track ‘ Lopsided‘, a Crosby Still Nash inspired Harmony gem of a song, the dup immediately affirm the listener that a man is a sum of all parts , all ‘seasons’, standing ‘lopsided’ with their ‘branch’ on the ground ‘, almost as if to say they are eager to learn to be a truer version of themselves. ‘ By Your Side’ is frankly a masterclass in vocal production: it is easy to miss the complexity of sound production when done so well.A soothing harmonic drone give way to a ernst conversation of two men who need, like any other , to talk and feel supported . A gentle lullaby of assuring the listener that we all have shoulders we can lend, from time to time, when in doubt. ‘Atlas‘ is a miniature song of cascading harmonies and impressive use of vocal blend. Lyrically, it considers the character Atlas from Greek mythology, who had to carry the heavens on his back as a punishment from Zeus. It is about shouldering responsibilities and feeling the weight and pressure of societal structures and expectations. ‘ Crow’ is the most sublime and heart- wrenching track of the album, and with good reason: a song about those recurring struggles with mental health, like a crow that ‘exists just to make me, a shadow I can’t shake’. accompanied by a angsty percussive rhythm, I’m left with the unsettling feeling that we are always surrounded by the ‘crows’ of our life. How we handle it is what matters. The song suggests we can ‘bury the bruises’ , but they will only resurface like ‘ ripples beneath our skin ‘. Perhaps that’s the way of the world, and this vocal performance isi an invitation to that place where we confront the crows of our mind. The harmonies tha build towards the end leave me swirling with a feeling of loss, hope and courage, all at the same time. Such is the human condition, and such is the power of two voices that are as authentic as can be. A lullaby , ‘ A Beautiful Man ‘ ensues, ( and perfect order might I add) of an almost Ancient – Grecian analogy to the conception of male beauty. I’m not surprised that this subject has come up alot in recent years, and Dom has summed it up perfectly, visa vi the writing process: “The project has allowed us to look through different lenses, beyond our own. This definitely inspired and informed our writing when it came to shaping the songs for Shoulder.” The ending track ‘ From One Man To Another’ is a symphony of sounds, sublime lyrics, a perfect ending to the pair’s narrative. The rising harmonies are the result of guest vocalists David Allred, Jamie Doe, Freddie Hodkin, Josh Madine, Camilo Menjura, Raoul Neumann, Ed Randell, Philip Read, Chris Samuel & Stephen Taberner.
I can’t help but wonder if the track couldn’t have been longer, or perhaps it held me spellbound i was left wanting to hear more? It stands anyway, as an offering to all men. It sings to connectivity and care in male circles and across generations. “I’ll help you find the smoothest stone, you’ll learn to skim it on your own.”
Utterly beautiful, and a most promising future for these incredibly talented musicians. ‘ Shoulder’ is available here