Sydney, Australia–based New Venusians has three jazz musicians at its core. Ben Panucci (founding member and the band’s guitarist) studied jazz with Andrew Bruce and Harry Sutherland (now the band’s synth players) at the Conservatory of Music in Sydney, and after meeting Christian Hemara and Meklit Kibret around the local music scene, the two singers’ voices were enough to push the musicians into the fluid realm of neo-soul. After adding two drummers, Jan Bangma and Tully Ryan, to mix, the New Venusians formula was complete.
Though the seven members have impressive resumes—including touring and session musician gigs with Chet Faker and Ngaiire, among others—their only previous release as New Venusians came in 2015, with the single “Keep Running.” Their self-titled debut is proving worth the wait.
New Venusians is a detailed and clever album that covers a large territory of genres, sounds, and moods. Though “neo-soul” is a convenient way to describe a work that contains many soulful melodies and slow but pronounced beats, the album refuses to conform to just one description. Some tracks drift further towards funk (“Keep Running...And Running”), some are more straightforwardly poppy (“Get Along”), and others represent the band’s jazz roots more faithfully (“I Wanna”).
Part of the difficulty of classification (a happy challenge, of course), is that even within well-crafted, cohesive songs, genres shift. In a couple of instances, they shift dramatically; in “Game Change,” for example, a break halfway through signals a move into a spacier, more abstracted version of what came before, and in “Keep Running...And Running,” a moment of silence towards the end leads to a completely different tone guided by a simple but hypnotizing guitar riff. In other songs, though, the mashups are more subtle. Jazzy seventh chords brush against funky basslines and ‘80s pop synths; dance beats underlie slow and soulful vocals; and psychedelic reveries conspire with earthy harmonies and earnest lyrics.
One of the surprises on an album with such carefully calibrated nuances is the straightforwardness of the lyrics. While the instrumentals are often spacey and free-flowing, the stories they support are direct and of-this-world. “If you're willing to change / Then I will change,” Kibret sings on “Game Change”; “Has anything changed? / Still feel like I’m drowning in your arms,” Hermara sadly confesses in “Sea”; and in “I Wanna,” he expresses impatience with, “I’m swimming in the warmth of your mood / But we're still hesitating.” In an album of sliding sounds, the lyrics provide a graspable entryway.
Above all, though, the lyrics allow focus to point elsewhere, to the range of meticulous sounds on the album. On the final song, “Here’s Hoping,” the listener can focus on the intimate soulfulness of Kibret’s voice as it skates through interesting phrases. In “I Wanna,” there’s space to spend time with the bright and inviting tone of the guitar, “Game Change” leaves enough room to wonder whether the harmony set against the vocal melody is guitar so warm it mimics the singer’s voice, and in “T.S. I Love You,” there’s time to sit with the tension contained in the sprawling arpeggios. The result of melding three jazz musicians, two soulful singers, and two drummers, New Venusians celebrates the sheer pleasure of sounds and the vibrant formations they can create together.