To achieve longevity in music you need many things but if you want to stay relevant, it boils down to two - growth and invention. For over 25 years, Leeds-born George Evelyn, aka the main man behind Nightmares on Wax, has expanded his sound from the studio-based electronics of a Word of Science: the 1st & Final Chapter, to a live sounding, multiple instrument affair that explores everything and anything from dub and hip-hop to funk, soul and R&B. This desire to stretch and expand his signature sound continues on new album Shape the Future.
Musically, the album furthers the studio band vibe of Feelin Good. While that album had its stand out moments, Shape the Future feels much more cohesive and more confident. It sounds as if N.O.W is more comfortable and adept at utilizing the opportunities afforded by using live instruments which has, in turn, enabled him to refine the mix of producer-led, digital sounds and organic instrumentation.
Thematically, there is a clear thread running through the album which unifies the material despite the variety of styles on show. The album is very much concerned with the ecological, environmental and spiritual aspects of the world in which we live and invites the listener to reflect on their relationship with nature and others around them.
"Back to Nature" epitomises this idea. Over an ambient dub backing with light reggae touches, Kuauhtli Vasquez ruminates over our, often, destructive relationship with nature. The subject matter feels especially prescient as Vasquez urges human beings to take more responsibility for their actions as well as highlighting how imperative it is for humanity to have a healthier, quid pro quo relationship with nature. It's an affecting opener that invites the listener to contemplate but thankfully avoids sounding sanctimonious or overly preachy.
"Tell My Vision" is a more uptempo slice of contemporary R&B, centering on a typically inventive, shuffling beat and featuring the smooth as silk, soul vocals of Andrew Ashong. The grittier, street sounding title track keeps the album rolling along nicely as it weaves in layers of sumptuous strings with a rumbling, clipped beat and persistent piano motif. It's a prime example of how N.O.W's sound has developed on this album, sounding fuller and richer than ever before. Similarly, the chillout, slow burn of "On It Maestro" with its incessantly whistle-able hook provides a further reminder, as if one was needed, of why N.O.W is a master of bringing background music to the foreground.
The towering dub of "Tomorrow" might be a throwback to his earlier work, but it's propelled right into the here and now by the layers of beats, synths and a monolithic bassline that would sound monumental booming from a sound system at a sun-drenched festival. The richness and warmth accentuated by the use of live instrumentation continue on "Typical". It's a masterclass in production as N.O.W provide a swinging groove for Jordan Rakai's effortlessly soulful vocals to bed down on.
"Tenor Fly" is more reminiscent of the warped dub sounds of In a Space Outta Sound but again invites the listener to consider the important things in life and our relationships with others. "Citizen Kane" is the album in microcosm. A nimble, free-flowing slice of classic sounding soul with a funky, hip-hop edge. Featuring vocals from former Zero 7 contributor, Mozez, it's a consummate example of production know how, as he balances orchestration, live drums and studio wizardry to stunning effect. Of the other songs on the album "Gotta Smile" is a classic, sashaying N.O.W party tune replete with Calypso rhythms while "Deep Shadows" tips its hat to Lauryn Hill with its deep funk groove and vocals from Sadie Walker.
Shape the Future is easily N.O.W's strongest and most cohesive album since the imperious In a Space Outta Sound. However, it's entirely its own thing and perfects the blend between digital and the organic sounds superbly. It's an album that doesn't chase any current trends nor try to emulate what they've have done before. N.O.W has successfully found a way to grow and invent but also stay true to his core ideals. It looks like he'll be around for a good while yet.