‘Universal You’ are Paul Finnie, Gulzhan Ibraveya and Mark Grant, the band hail from Scotland, via Kazakhstan. Paul and Gulzhan first met in Kazakhstan when both were working in the oil business where they started writing songs together and performing for their co-workers and the locals. They have since recruited Mark Grant as the lead guitarist in the band and “Obsession ” is their latest album from which has been lifted the first single ‘Your Sin City’.
Paul wrote ‘Your Sin City’ in a hotel room in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, a city filled with beggars, prostitutes, oil tycoons, religion and sin; you have to go there to fully understand the meaning behind the song; but you may not want to. The single is a powerful, dark and brooding rock number and exhibits similarities with some of the music world’s most notorious and powerful female vocalists, from Garbage’s Shirley Manson through to Beth Ditto and PJ Harvey with a number of stops in between. The similarities are not limited to the recordings with the band’s notoriously explosive live shows showing that Gulzhan, augmented by Mark’s jaw dropping guitar work, can hold a crowd as well as any of her contemporaries.
One of the first gigs the band ever played was headlining a free outdoor concert in Kazakhstan, which was attended by more than 12,000 people; highlighting the cultural differences between Kazakhstan, where no bands ever play and the UK, where we are often spoiled for choice. Upon their return to Scotland, ‘Universal You’ (named after a song by ‘The Cult’) began to record some of the material they had written and performed a number of gigs across Scotland.
The 12 track album, “Obsession”, opens with “Find A Way” and the first band that came to my mind was Roxette. Maybe grittier and rougher around the edges, but Gulzhan’s voice and diction is uncannily similar to that of Marie Fredriksson, the Roxette singer. The song arrangement, of catchy choruses and guitar driven bridges, convinced me even further. Considering that Roxette knew exactly how to compose successful pop songs, having sold over 60 million copies. This is a damn good way to start off an album.
“Iskala” is the third track, and comes straight after the first single release “Your Sin City”. I fell in love almost instantly with this mid tempo track. I’m not sure if it was because of the intriguing Russian(?) language phrases, tastefully inserted into the verses, the insistant chorus line:”…you, you’re just like a dream..”, or the distintive reverberating guitar riffs provided by Mark Grant and Paul Finnie, which add a brilliant touch to the musical arrangement. This is how to produce a hit melody, and would have been my absloute first choice for a single and radio release!
“Obsession” passes by effortlessly without disturbing the rest of the album and brings you to “Mona Lisa”, with it’s sparkling guitar flourishes and hypnotic chorus line. Gulzhan drives the song along powerfully with her excellent vocals.
The electric-piano and synth dominated ballad “Cry Me A River” is Universal You’s version of the famous song by Justin Timberlake. Apparently Justin wrote this song about Britney Spears. In the song, the relationship goes bad because the girl cheated, and to get even, the boy makes sure that the girl finds out he’s moved on with his life. The girl gets upset, and “cries a river” because she screwed up and lost the boy forever…sound familiar anyone?
“The Answer” once again testifies that this band know how to compose catchy pop songs. Pleasant quieter verses and potent melodic choruses, wrapped-up with jangling guitars, handclaps and harmonies.
“The Things” rhythmically move the album along nicely towards the piano ballad“Colours” which promised so much on the opening notes, but never quite delivers what I’d been expecting from Gulzhan’s beautiful booming voice.
This partly depends on the famed production team headed by Michael Brennan, who on the whole, has done a splendid job producing this album. As a personal observation and nothing more, I would however, have expected the lead vocals on this specific track to be ‘drier’ and more upfront in the mix. Giving “Colours” and Gulzhan, an immediate intimacy with the listener instead of sounding corridors away. I would imagine that the choice of mix had deliberate intentions which I may be unable to interpret correctly. Maybe one day I’ll get the band’s opinion on this. This , however, in no way detracts from the general appeal of the album, which remains extremely high.
“Perfect” gets straight back onto the rock n’ roll track, with sassy guitar solos, driving rhythms and the typical Gulzhan vocal to get temperatures rising. This is the way I like myUniversal You. Straight. On the rock. Shaken, and not stirred.
Track 11 is an elaborate dance remix of “Your Sin City” while the album closes with“Coming Back For More”, another one of my favourites along with “Iskala”. It has an incessant rhythm riff which will keep you pinned to the dance floor. This powerfully modern mix could sit comfortably on the Billboard Top 100 charts, alongside Lady Gaga and the rest of the million-dollar sellers.
“Obsession” is an album that crosses many genres, from rock to pop and dance to electronica. Universal You are not only universal in their member line-up but in the sounds they produce as well.
Their songwriting is pinpoint accurate and catchy, while Gulzhan’s vocals are authentically delectable on the ear. The rest of the magic is conjured up by the wall-to-wall guitar sounds of Paul Finnie and Mark Grant, plus the straight down the line crunchy rhythmic arrangements. A great band beyond doubt.
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