Charles Luck & Black Astronaut - 'Life on Mars'

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this morning’s edition of the Independent Spotlight, we shine our gaze on Charles Luck & Black Astronaut, a rather large collective of talented creatives that have recently released their latest studio endeavor, a full eleven-track album entitled ‘Life On Mars.’ It’s their debut, and it’s certainly a very eclectic one that delves into a variety of genres and stylings from beginning to end. Is it worth your time, though? Let’s dig into the new collection of tunes and find out!

First and foremost, it’s important to lay out who Black Astronaut is. Charles Luck is the principle songwriter for the group. He is joined by rapper/singer Tino Red, and rappers Gyro, InZane, Sticky Bud, and B Daz. Previous members of Black Astronaut include Pastor C and FlipLeaf. The group also has four different singers: Muze, Jonathan BT, Zack David, and Addie. (Like I said, it’s rather large.)

Black Astronaut boasts a back catalog of over 170 songs, meaning that there is likely much more music to follow behind ‘Life On Mars.’ Their primary focus is hip hop, but the group does explore EDM and other genres. They are, after all, a larger outfit with lots of talent, so it makes sense that their sound encompasses so many facets. ‘Life On Mars’ is streaming on SoundCloud and YouTube, so I’ll throw links to those at the bottom of this review as well for listeners to follow along.

‘Life On Mars’ opens up with a spoken word poem, presumably spoken by Charles Luck. (I say that, because I’m not sure if another vocalist was hired to read the piece or not.) In any case, the person on the recording has a very special voice. It’s the kind of voice you listen to read a phonebook and it would remain compelling from A to Z. It’s the kind of voice that would be in good company with that of Morgan Freeman or Ian McKellen.

That great voice, though - that great, elegant vocal performance - can only stand as tall as the material it leans on. Fortunately, ‘The Race’ is remarkably well written, introducing a character that seems to be alien to humanity, observing its pratfalls with eloquent scrutiny. “They call themselves the human race, but that just simply is not the case,” the voice proclaims. “The people here don’t move an inch, all they do is run in place.”

The second track of the album is ‘Life On Mars.’ The titular track, as one may inquire, is indeed inspired by the late, great David Bowie. In fact, it’s identical in composition and execution to his classic of the same name. Charles Luck and Black Astronaut, however, bill their interpretation as an “interpolation,” which means that they see their track as a reconstruction of a song utilizing an existing baseline. Basically, it’s a cover of ‘Life On Mars’ with new lyrics.

Frankly, it’s tough to change the lyrics of a classic and have your track hold up. For the most part, Luck’s writing achieves its own unique creative space. It’s another condemnation of humanity’s lesser tendencies, particularly the ‘media’ and its potentially harmful effect on the world around it. There’s an underlying theme of injustice as well, referencing racism and strife that may allude to the current political climate of the United States and its police shootings.

Vocalist Jonathan BT is absolutely exceptional on ‘Life On Mars.’ He keeps it true to form, not deviating from Bowie’s original key or cadence. Very few vocalists can pull off the vocal shifts on ‘Life On Mars,’ so I must laud Jonathan BT for doing so absolutely spectacularly. The composition is beautiful as well, opting for a minimalist arrangement of ‘Life On Mars.’

‘Land Of The Lost,’ featuring Tino Red, is the first real hip hop track on the record. The track grabs some lines from the opening of the album, ‘The Race,’ and repurposes them for an especially excellent hip hop endeavor. It’s a mostly clean track, which is refreshing, considering most indie hip hop I get across my desk is especially vulgar. (I don’t care that it is, but it nice to get mostly clean tunes like this as well.)

“I come from the land of the lost remote control, the iPad and the broken soul, where the police have complete control, and souls get smacked down like a whackamole,” Tino Red raps in the track. There’s certainly a disillusionment at play on ‘Life On Mars’ for systemic societal trends and problems. Luck fires shots across the bow at a culture absorbed in its technology to a frightening degree, and he continues to commentate how the human race has become inherently self-centered.

‘Muse,’ another track featuring Tino Red at its forefront, has some bizarre, but fascinating lyrical content. The tune boasts a surprisingly inspirational hook, and resides in quirky lyrical content about a peculiar creative that while unconventional, is following the dream of pursuing his muse. “I haven’t got a clue, I watch ‘Blues Clues’ confused, because I got a few loose screws.”

If ‘Muse’ has its oddities, Tino Red reaches his fullest oddness on ‘Lunar Lunatics,’ a track that sounds like Charles Luck was spinning a lot of Kanye West when he wrote it. “I drop kick a wallaby, palm slap a wombat, launch a scud missile with a dog whistle, and remove a kamikaze from combat,” Tino Red preaches in the album’s most splendidly bizarre outing.

‘Is The Galaxy Pimping Me?’ is one of the most infectious tracks in the collection, and it’s centered largely around a sample of Lisa Mitchell’s ‘Neapolitan Dreams.’ It’s probably the most radio-friendly effort of the bunch, and it’s something I could see getting a lot of airplay on summer radio.

‘The Show’ is another Bowie-inspired tune, and it utilizes a sample of ‘Space Oddity’ to excellent effect. (I adore the shout-out to Bowie at the top of the song, too.) The album’s protagonist, at this point, again proclaims his desire to leave Earth and go to Mars because he’s so disillusioned with the violence and the greed that the human race champions. “Could he have grown wise to what this race is doing?” Tino Red inquires on the track about God, “and decided that our contract just wasn’t worth renewing?”

‘Kaleidescope,’ a track lead by Gyro, is a plea to humanity to band together to save what is left of its goodwill. “We need to be together, because one hand must wash the other. On this grain of sand, we are all brothers.” ‘Stardust’ then follows, a track sung by Maze, and done to the tune of ‘In My Life.’ (Yes, just when you thought this album couldn’t get any cooler, it interpolates the Beatles.)

The instrumental performance on ‘Stardust’ is absolutely stunning, offering one of the best piano performances of ‘In My Life’ that I’ve ever heard. Maze’s vocal performance is superb as well, and Luck’s lyricism is some of his finest on ‘Stardust.’ Some of the darker themes explored on ‘Stardust’ are also fleshed out further on ‘When You’re Down,’ another Gyro lead track that builds inspiration upon tragic circumstances.

Tino Red returns for the finale of the album, ‘Live Within.’ It’s a powerful ending, and it’s very well written. In fact, that’s the underlying theme of this review: these songs are exceptionally written. Charles Luck is one of the most talented lyricists I’ve ever seen in the indie scene, and the collaborators that bring his work to life are amazingly talented as well.

Go listen to this record. I sincerely hope Charles Luck can obtain the proper rights to distributing this in a larger capacity. In the meantime, though, I’d love to see it go live on Datpiff or somewhere where people can download it.