HomeRecording Review: Cluster, "Steps"

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Cluster, the Italian jazz a cappella group, hits the ground running by opening their new album entitled Steps, with a very jazzy selection. “Just Kidding” sets the tone for the rest of the CD as a solid tune, with clean VP, perfect background vocals, a nice solo, and…a piano?  Yes, that is indeed an actual piano…on an a cappella album.  It took me days (seriously, like four days) to figure out how I felt about that, but I have finally decided that I actually really like their choice. My opinion is it is really admirable that the members of Cluster don’t limit themselves to being one hundred percent a cappella, and if they perform a song that they feel really needs that piano, then they have it in there.  This track got me excited to hear the rest of the album and I was really looking forward to hearing what other things Cluster is adding to the aca-world.

Before I get into the rest of the album, I want to make a brief (and when I say brief…I mean a full paragraph) statement about the editing and mixing on this CD.  All of the editing was done by a member of Cluster, Luca Moretti, and I think that that is the best thing for any group to do.  Who knows the music that you do better than you?  This way, the group knows it is right, and you don’t have to waste your precious time, and more importantly, money talking to your sound engineer about measure 42 on page 3 and how the 2nd soprano line is missing.  Okay, so, this mixing…is freaking amazing.  I applaud you, Bill Hare, for all that you do, because you amaze me.  I’m no sound genius, but every time I listen to a CD on my iTunes, I always pull up the equalizer and do a few little tweaks and make it sound better, but not on this CD.  There was not a thing I could do to make it better, I just set it to “flat” and enjoyed.  Oh, and if you are listening to Steps, don’t you dare put it in your factory installed CD player or, God forbid, on your iPod with the little crappy ear buds they give you.  You need to play this album on a state-of-the-art sound system, crank the volume, and enjoy the wonderfulness.  This was meant for greatness, and that is certainly what it deserves.  So…the “brief statement” is: edit your own music, Bill Hare is freaking amazing, and listen to this CD using expensive speakers.  Bam.  So, Steps:

Buy it.  Buy it, buy it, buy it, buy it.  Now I’ll tell you why you need to.  It’s not that every track is gold, in fact there are a few that I don’t really like.  The reason you need to buy this CD is that there are six songs that are straight up perfection, four of which are originals.  The first example of perfect is “Could It Be” (music: Luca Moretti, lyrics: Erik Bosio and Liwen Magnatta, solo: Erik Bosio).  The first two and a half minutes is a smooth trio of solo, group vocals, and some groovy VP.  This eventually opens up and gives Bosio the chance to absolutely rip on one note (you know how every singer has that one note in their range and they can just belt it and hold it for forever?  Yeah, this note is Bosio’s).  This is the type of song that belongs in everyone’s library.  Perfection example number one.

Perfection example number two: “Simple Words” (music: Letizia Poltini, lyrics: Liwen Magnatta, solo: Liwen Magnatta).  This is another original that is bound to blow your mind.  Like the title, this song is simple in background vocals, and is enhanced by the little complexities of the VP and rhythmic emphasis on certain lyrics by the soloist.  If there was one degree more of emotion, this song would be beyond this plane of existence and it would rip through the soul of every person who ever listens to it…and it might rip your face off too.

Perfection example number three: “Fake” (music: Nicola Nastos, lyrics: Elena Arrighi and Nicola Nastos, solo(s): Nicola Nastos, Liwen Magnatta) is yet another original, but with a rock twist.  Just like the use of piano on an a cappella CD shows that Cluster is not afraid to take risks, this jazz group does not limit itself in genre.  My favorite aspect of this song is the percussion.  Being a vocal percussionist myself, one thing I love to hear is breath.  In most recorded a cappella that I hear, all the VP is cut and edited so perfectly you never hear breathing…but simply breathing in and out into a mic can sometimes create the coolest sounds, and Cluster takes advantage of that knowledge in this track, beginning the song with a building progression of fast breathes prepping the listener for this rock track. 

Perfection example number four.  In “224”, Cluster has taken the poetic writings of Emily Dickinson and married them with breath-taking music by Erik Bosio and a delicious solo by Letizia Poltini.  Honestly, I can’t really say anything more than that.  “224” is genuinely beautiful and I’m thrilled that I had the pleasure to listen to something on this level.  Thank you, Cluster, for this amazing music.

Perfection example number five: “Love of My Life”, originally written by Freddie Mercury, is probably one of the best Queen songs ever written…ever.  The emotion that pours from the original version is really amazing.  So how did Cluster’s version size up?  Pretty freaking well.  Liwen Magnatta’s lead vocal soars up there with Mercury’s and brings the emotion in the lyrics out in a wonderful rendition of a truly brilliant song. 

Perfection example number six: the last track on the album, “Hallelujah” (opb Leonard Cohen). This is a song we’ve all heard about 8,000 times, and Cluster’s version is a magnificent one.  The beginning is just a bass and the solo, with harmonies entering at the first hallelujah chorus and continuing on.  The last track on the CD is when I understand why they are called Cluster.  This group has the most stunning cluster chords in the best places.  This is a striking rendition of one of the most beautiful songs ever written.  The movement and phrases in this song are absolutely to die for.  The use of silence in the middle of a song like this at the perfect moment can take it from good to breath-takingly amazing.  Cluster utilized this little trick several times in the perfect places.  If you’re still not in love with Steps by the time you get to the last track on the CD, this one will get you.  I promise.

So if I haven’t convinced you to buy Steps yet, I apologize.  I have failed in performing my job as an album reviewer.  In addition to these golden jewels there are eight other songs for you to enjoy, including even more originals and some Italian classics.  You’re missing out if you don’t give this CD a chance.  And if you still have no motivation whatsoever to buy Cluster’s latest, I’ll leave you with this:  there is a bonus track.  You’ll have to buy the album to hear it.  And let me just say that it is an absolutely perfect ending to an almost perfect album.  ;-)

PS:  Buy it.

Group website.

Mouth Off review of this CD

About the author:
Jill Clark has been involved in music since age 5, singing, playing guitar, drums and piano. She is a member of UNC-G Sapphires, who were the 1st place competition winners at SoJam 2008. Clark also won Best Vocal Percussion at SoJam '07 and '08 for VP within the group.

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