Bowlsey achieves new highs on EP Elder 

click to enlarge Bowlsey poses for a photo in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Bowlsey poses for a photo in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

Despite clocking in at just over 15 minutes, Elder, the new five-song EP from neo-soul and hip-hop outfit Bowlsey, is the group’s most wholesome listening experience yet.

Elder, released digitally last week, is the follow-up to its 2014 debut Decorous. While that project showed the breadth of musical talent working under the Bowlsey umbrella, it ultimately resembled more of a sampler of everything the quartet can be or might become.

On Elder, each track pulses from the same sonic vein.

“I think, to date, this is our crowning achievement musically,” said instrumentalist Justin “The Reverend” Hogan. “It’s kind of given us a bit more of a compass.”

The band gathered for an interview recently before a show on Film Row.

If Bowlsey sounds more cohesive on its new project, it’s likely because it is the first time all four members have had a significant stake in the songwriting process. When Hogan formed the band with frontman Taylor “Shraz” Mercier and soulful songstress Clarissa “Cid” Castillo, he built on existing songs. When drummer Don Eisenburg came in halfway through recording Decorous, its songs were already written.

Eisenburg’s participation in Elder’s creative process is easily noticed. Hogan called the drums “the star on the album.”

“On my end, I was looking at the more [J] Dilla-esque drum patterns and trying to glitch them up and slice it up just a little bit but not get away from the groove,” he said.

One of the areas in which they shine is on lead track “Powerless,” the most upbeat song on the EP. Its title is a little ironic because Castillo’s vocals are nothing if not assertive.

Her delivery is another bright spot. Her singing dominates both the opening track and the closer, “Voodoo.” The bookends, while tonally different, give Elder a yin-and-yang feel between its brighter first and darker second halves.

While endless hours and repetitive takes in the studio can take their toll on any musician, this was especially true for Castillo.

“I had the worst tonsillitis of my entire life during that whole entire album,” she said. “My tonsils still never went back down. I just had to deal with it and just move on with my life.”

Whatever discomfort her throat might have given her during the recording process, it does not appear to have had an effect on the finished product.

“Snow in Texas” is Elder’s second track and the first song off the EP to see completion. The song features the project’s first rap verse from Mercier, who flows with an unorthodox cadence clear of commercial polish and truly fit for the underground.

Mercier said his verse on the song was developed over time through a series of freestyles over the production. His rap style, he says, does not come out of anything predetermined.

“It’s something where, if you give me that same song in a month, I wouldn’t make the same thing,” he said. “It’s really an exact formula as to how something comes out the way it does.”

The third song, “Wunderbar,” started as a challenge.

“I wanted him (Shraz) to rap over a waltz, so I just played this waltz over and over and tried to do the song as a waltz, but it didn’t really work so much,” Hogan said.

From that starting point, however, the group was able to work through the track, resulting in one of the more harmonious exchanges between Mercier and Castillo, who are known for their ability to play off each other’s vocals simultaneously.

However, the band might be at its best on the last two tracks. “Skred,” Hogan said, was originally called “Real Shit” because of an especially menacing organ pitch-shifting effect reminiscent of something out of the Wu-Tang Clan.

If Bowlsey shows its hip-hop chops on “Skred,” “Voodoo” is its neo-soul showcase. Hogan said before he heard Castillo’s vocals on the song, he did not know if “Voodoo” was even going to make the cut for Elder.

“[Castillo] came in cold on the first take of a scratch track, and that ended up being what we kept,” he said. “We were just blown away. Our jaws were on the floor.”

Though Elder is definitely Bowlsey’s most direct work to date, its short runtime could stand to be lengthened by a few minutes to further build upon the song concepts already in place. “Skred,” for example, is good enough that it practically begs for a second rap verse. Also, while the duets between Mercier and Castillo are the most distinct, and often most enjoyable, part of Bowlsey’s music, the compounded vocals might sometimes make listeners wish they had the song lyrics handy.

Elder’s brevity suggests that Bowlsey’s “arrival” project is still to come. If this EP is indeed a stepping-stone, it’s a very good one. In addition to Eisenburg’s contributions, there’s a level of instrumental layering that wasn’t there on Decorous. Bowlsey fans have reason to believe the band’s next release will be something special.

The band has already debuted its video for “Powerless” and will make one for “Voodoo.” The quartet also spent last week touring with Tulsa-raised rapper Johnny Polygon in New York City before a string of shows leads them back to Oklahoma. This is Bowlsey’s first tour outside of its home region.

The timing of the tour and the new EP, Mercier said, couldn’t be more perfect.

“[Elder] will be a whole lot more of something we can take to people and just spread a whole lot quicker,” he said. “It’s an EP, short little collection of songs. It’s got more of a direction, and it has almost a more placeable genre to it rather than just being folk to electronic to hip-hop.”

Bowlsey is also planning a release for the physical edition of Elder after the conclusion of its tour.

Hear more from the band and its new EP at bowlsey.bandcamp.com.

[embed]https://youtu.be/dbD4ZjLSEuk[/embed]

Print headline: Packed Bowlsey, This neo-soul quartet smokes with a new EP, video and tour.

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