25 Sep 2018

The Sampler: Flow State by Tash Sultana

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 25 September 2018

Nick Bollinger assesses the array of skills unleashed on the debut album of multi-instrumental millennial Tash Sultana.

Tash Sultana

Tash Sultana Photo: Michael Amico

I don’t know how many acts have sold out the Auckland Town Hall before they had even released an album, but that was certainly the case when Tash Sultana toured here in July, and that’s by no means the biggest venue this 23-year-old Australian artist has played since their music began to go viral, as they say, a couple of years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Check out just about any of the now numerous videos of Sultana online and it’s a thing to behold: this raggle-taggle dancing Aussie imp creating the sound and energy of a full band with just a guitar, sampler and a bunch of pedals. And that is essentially what you get on Sultana’s first album.

Flow State

Flow State Photo: supplied

It’s a full sound, but Sultana is the only musician you’re hearing here. There’s much use made of delays, reverbs, loops and triggers, though, which can give a sense that there’s more going on than there is - and there is already quite a lot going on.

Sultana is proficient on something like a dozen instruments. A busy musician, too. Almost relentless, in fact, especially when playing guitar, which Sultana has been doing since the age of three. On a track like ‘Cigarettes’, Sultana shreds. Even the drum machine sounds like it’s panting for breath, just trying to keep up.

The album is divided between fuller tracks and ones where the solo nature of the performance is more evident. In fact, for a good chunk of the album we’re in fairly traditional singer-songwriter territory.

The title Flow State refers to the at-one-with-the-music state of mind to which Sultana aspires, and from which inspiration flows. And if she is visibly transported in some of the videos, the best of these recordings capture a kind of journey too.

But without the atmosphere of a live performance, the record can also reveal a few shortcomings. These are mostly in the songwriting. Musically, Sultana defaults to some fairly familiar tropes with a preferred rhythm that sounds like the kind of all-purpose reggae you’ll hear several times a day at Womad.

Lyrically, the songs are like memos to self; mottos for self-improvement or tips for a ‘vacation to the soul’. And they are sung in a voice that’s as agile as the guitar playing, though sometimes seems to be performing acrobatics just for the sake of it.

There’s a tendency for the songs to ramble on a bit, culminating in ‘Blackbird’, Flow State’s nine-minute closing track. By this point I’m flagging, though Tash Sultana certainly isn’t.

It is impressive stuff and makes for a great live show, but the truth is not many of these songs actually stick with me. Still, if Tash Sultana has so far spent more time perfecting her hammer-on technique than songcraft, it just proves you can’t actually do everything at once – which, after an hour of listening to this prodigiously talented, hyper-energetic millennial hippie, comes as something of a relief.