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"Summer's Healing Time" by Alchemista

Review

It was last April that Alchemista were last able to put together all their considerable talents and release the rip roaring pirate themed single "Calico Jack". Now they have finally been able to follow it up (it has taken a year to manage to record the new track) with "Summer's Healing Time".

Written by keyboard player Paul Jayes and vocalist Caroline White, the song dates from one of the many strange eras we are successively enduring, being a snapshot of emotions from just before the second lockdown when hopes of vaccines & good weather offered hope of an end to the pandemic for Summer 2021…… well we all know how well that panned out, but as fate has had it, the song still works just as well by transposing the optimistic predictions from that year to this one. I certainly hope they are right.

As much of the theme is around "COVID-survival", in fact the track actually has more resonance given the accumulated additional sadnesses piled up in the interim.

Performed of course by Caroline, Paul plus Pete Garelick (guitars), Colin Halliwell (drums) and bass player Matt Molland with production by Colin and Caroline & sound engineering by Aaron Clews of Daybreak Studios, "Summer's Healing Time", possesses the upbeat swing that the subject needs and brings rays of sunshine into the cold & dull January day on which this review is being written.

Something of a development for this "melodic rock" group, the song goes (successfully) for a more soulful feel (they had Motown in their minds while creating it) and certainly has elements of that 1960s West Coast ambience to my ears. Just what we need.

Like I say it swings (and that is often a missing element in songs) and soars upwards towards the sun. If Caroline in particular seems to be relishing singing it, then I think the rest of her bandmates were enjoying themselves too judging by the infectious groove they work up.

When Colin first played me this, amongst the first words which sprung to mind (the others are dotted about above) was "dignified". At the time, this was an instinctive response, more from the subconscious than anything & I'm not sure I understood myself what I meant by it. However on reflection, I think I was trying to express how Alchemista had identified what they wanted to say & how it could be best expressed and consequently had no great desire to over-egg the track with excessive nor exaggerated emotions: it is a strong message and stands on its own two feet without need for over production nor showboating. In fact Colin informs me that they tried hard to avoid too much production trickery and I'm certain that was a tasteful & successful approach. It preserves the emotional truth of the song.

Caroline's voice of course is the key to getting the honesty of the words across and she does it very well, without as I say any theatricals. Going back to the 60's West Coast feel I detected, she sounds a little like Grace Slick in her delivery to me & again such a response on my part probably contributed to nudging me towards coming up with "dignified".

Alchemista are a classy act & put a great deal of effort into crafting perfect songs, realised by excellent musicianship. If, especially during the pandemic, this has meant hearing a lot less from them than we'd like, then we can perhaps console ourselves by categorising their output as favouring quality over quantity: the ratio I personally favour.

I admit that twelve months ago, I too had optimistic visions of the summer of 2021 (I guess many of you did too) & despite those being dashed, I retain them for the coming months: stimulated by this beautiful & uplifting song. I hope their predictions come to pass & in the meantime, this excellent track can not only brighten these dark days but endure into the summer in question as without a doubt it is a classic song for such a season.

Check out the video too at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fngEgg_7d_8

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"Calico Jack" by Alchemista

Review

For their first single release of 2021, Alchemista are offering us a tale of piracy on the high seas in the form of "Calico Jack". While lockdown necessarily ensured that their previous (and indeed festive) single "Ghosts of Christmas" was  by a stripped down version of the band, in this case, we hear the not inconsiderable fruits of a lot of learning by the band who have now acquired the skills to put together a full band performance from remote locations and so they all appear on this track: Caroline White on vocals, the writer of the song, Paul Jayes on keyboards, Peter Garelick on the guitars, Colin Halliwell on drums and sound engineer Aaron Clews of Daybreak Studios (who knitted the various pieces together with Colin & Caroline producing), playing bass guitar.

The song has its genesis back from before lockdown, so they had rehearsed it extensively, which must have helped with recording, but although always pirate themed, it did not gain its title until comparatively recently: a "tribute" to "Calico Jack" (John Rackham) who plied his trade in the Caribbean in the early 18th century & who seems to have designed the Jolly Roger. Thankfully they settled on his story rather than that of a better known buccaneer & this adds yet more freshness to this swashbuckling tune.

The band have been kind enough to share with me parts of their journey on learning how to put the track together & frankly that has been fascinating: not only does it give me special insights into the song to inform this piece, but it has been equally interesting to match their perceptions of "Calico Jack" with what I heard myself before I learned of their own thoughts.

For the band, they built from the keyboard as a starting point & this they (rightly) see as an innovation in how they work which changes the fundamental dynamic of their trademark sound. I'm sure they are correct in perceiving that the general sound is different to previous songs I've heard from them (I'm sure they see this variation as a positive contribution to what they can do) but I honestly would never have described it as a keyboard driven song, so well are the other elements melded in with it: indeed the guitars & drums are very key parts in what you hear.

Alchemista clearly disdain the mundane as a rule and significant numbers of their songs demonstrate this by entering into the world of the supernatural (as our previous reviews have made plain). Quite apart from the change in recording technique, the switch in their other-worldly adventuring from the fantastical to time & place travel has also impacted on what you get to hear. The band described it to me as a transition from the "gothic" to something more akin to "folk rock": I can't quibble with the former as a description of earlier work, but I feel the folksiness of "Calico Jack" is more relative to their other songs than an absolute description: this is not particularly akin to Fairport Convention nor the Byrds. If anything, parts of the song soar like quite hard rock. Any folk element is most noticeable in the melody and perhaps even more so in Caroline's vocals which delivers a considerable amount of emotional clout within a delicacy of approach.

The lyrics are pretty much the lament of a sailor a long way from where he wants to be, but whereas a traditional folk approach to such a subject would be melancholic and downbeat, "Calico Jack", as I said in the preceding paragraph, soars like the albatross high above and roars like a sou'west gale. This show of defiance reminds us that a lachrymose sailor his words may make him out to be, but this one is also a buccaneer who eventually was executed for his crimes.

There is power & pathos in "Calico Jack" and rather than glorifying his deeds, it offers us a look at the man behind the pirate. For Alchemista, it is a considerable achievement: it is greatly to their credit that they were able to make it at all: the skills gained may come in for future use.  Yet beyond this, it is a roistering & potent single which betrays absolutely no sign (to my ears) of being assembled piecemeal: the parts gel to excellent effect & create a single they can justly be proud of.

You can also catch up with  "Calico Jack" in this video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ZnwZYUMRxE

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"Ghosts of Christmas" by Alchemista

Review

Relatively hot on the heels of October's ‘Clear Skies To See' EP (certainly rapid by the standards of what is possible in 2020) Alchemista have crafted "Ghosts of Christmas" as a festive single for us.

In order to share it with us in a timely fashion, they are currently releasing it on YouTube & Facebook for the time being & in order to record it at all, the song is based around vocals, guitars & keyboards only.

Not that you can tell: the arrangement sounds very full & I spotted what I assumed was an oboe before I was put right on that point. The song fits right into the Alchemista trademark of leaning towards the otherworldly (you probably guessed that from the title) and all the more welcome for that (a reviewer does get a little overloaded with Christmas singles going on about sleigh bells etc. It's very refreshing to be presented with another perspective altogether).

Of course the song has roots in the classic Dickens tale (with traces of M R James & Poe adding to the atmosphere) and the overall sound reflects this with that intricate gothic arrangement I mentioned evoking all sorts of feelings from fear to melancholic hindsight with what sounds like massed strings & that plaintive "oboe" line. Written largely by Paul Jayes (their keyboard player) with input from Caroline Luxton-White (lead vocals): their first collaboration, and with regular producer Aaron Clews providing remote assistance via Zoom, "Ghosts of Christmas" has a timeless, classical style: one might call it operatic and one might also wonder how it would fit into the canon of Kate Bush: rather neatly I suspect. Certainly quite a long way from a rock song as such.

This is a very classy release & certainly greatly superior in artistic & emotional terms to much of the seasonal material you're presumably hearing on the radio right now. Look out for the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwmTtc7jMpI&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR2S_VY57l2HCdsQiJLrl1xxW-xcHFXok331LOGKrnFGTh-y2spIxBTJgy4

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'Clear Skies To See' EP by Alchemista

Review

I really hope that like me, you enjoyed the popular track "A Place To Hide" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four'? If you haven't heard it yet, I recommend that you check it out at: https://hotmusiclivepresents.bandcamp.com/track/a-place-to-hide

That song originally appeared on Alchemista's EP 'On The Morrow'  which was released earlier this year & now, defying the limitations of our times, the band are set to release its follow up, 'Clear Skies To See' on 14th October.

Alchemista (who comprise Caroline Luxton-White (vocals & backing vocals), Pete Garelick (guitars & backing vocals), Colin Halliwell (drums) and Paul Jayes (keyboards, guitars and lead vocals on "Jewels On An Ebony Sea")) along with bassplayers Derek Smith and Mark Nisbet (each of whom played on two songs) worked with engineer Aaron Clews at Daybreak Studios with Caroline & Colin taking responsibility for the production. Generally started pre-lockdown, the group managed to ride the waves of frustration during the era of constraints (plus a change of bass player) to complete the record and such is the current sense of achievement and momentum that they are already looking forward to record yet more, once Aaron is released from his current local lockdown.

 

And so to the songs…. The intriguingly named "Like Danny DeVito" is written by Caroline and apparently "loosely based" on Colin. To be precise, the analogy with the famous actor is to his role in the film, 'Ruthless People' and is  (I'm told) "about a similar kind of guy who pretends to be upset when his girlfriend goes away for the weekend, but then spends the weekend partying".  It would be hard not to warm immediately to this song: quirky & humourous it possesses the most "pop" sensibility on the EP & I would hope it will get the airplay it deserves. Bouncing along upon a largely keyboard led melody (with flashes of guitar to add character & bite), it's good to hear "proper" well thought out lyrics & made me realise how the narrative song is perhaps a little neglected these days in favour of introspection, so thank you Alchemista for reviving it.

 

"Don't You Let Him In" is another Caroline song and is both EP closer and a radio shortened version  of a song from 'On The Morrow', increasing the impact by omitting both initial sound effects and the lengthy coda: to good effect I think as what is left packs a weighty punch. Much more darkly dramatic than "Danny DeVito" and hence a good contrast, this track veers closer to their expected "melodic rock" house style with a more operatic approach both musically and vocally. The subject matter too is heavier & in this instance I'm afraid I have no idea who the model might be.

The other two songs, namely 'Jewels on an Ebony Sea' and 'When You Go To Sleep' sit in the heart of the record & are composed by Paul and share with the afore-mentioned "A Place To Hide" a vampire theme….The former is (mainly) a duet between Paul & Caroline (pretty much simultaneous rather than separate lines for the most part) and much lighter in tone than the subject might suggest: in fact it is more about the notion of sanctuary than anything else & hence has a generally very uplifting effect. In fact had I not known that it predated lockdown, I'd venture a guess that it might be a metaphor for our current circumstances (I confess I'm actually over prone to hear such in so much I'm currently reviewing, but isn't it a characteristic of good songs that they can convey a range of possible meanings to a range of listeners?).

 

'When You Go To Sleep' (the third in sequence) is the quietest & most contemplative of the set. A ballad, if Alchemista audiences wave lighters in the air, it might be to this one. Again, the vampiric theme is mitigated by a sense of refuge (in this case lost in slumber), as with all the songs on the EP, there is a very generous streak of humanity & empathy running through it.

 

 

Alchemista are definitely a band unlike any others around here currently & I recommend their classic songwriting & playing style to you. The tracks are admirably clear & you can appreciate both the excellent vocals & often very subtle instrumental touches. Above all, the songs have very clear meanings & have obviously been wrought with care, intelligence & love. May their new recordings happen as soon as possible & may they, like everyone else, get back out there soon doing what they most enjoy doing.

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