Combe is the album fans of Owen Steel have been waiting for

Category: music 97

Fresh and exciting and indescribable all at once, Combe is the strongest example to date of Steel’s creative presence as an artist.

Matt Carter
Artwork by Bennie Allain.

Combe is the album fans of Owen Steel have been waiting for for far too long. Over the course of his disjointed career full of starts and stops, momentum gained and lost, Steel has never failed to capture his audience’s attention with his own special blend of folk, psychedelia, and experimental bits and bites, woven together in patchwork fashion. And despite his infrequent bouts of creativity that typically result in a new single or two every couple of years (should we credit the leap year for this album?), Steel’s audience has ever faltered or lost interest in his music. There is a timeless quality in much of what he does. He is an old soul. Maybe there is a connection there. A formula few have discovered.  Whatever the case may be, Steel has a new album and it is everything fans of his music could hope for.

They say you can judge someone by the company they keep. While that kind of advice certainly has no merit as a universal principle, it does hold true for Steel and his close circle of fellow musicians and sometime-collaborators. Over the years Steel has worked with Mike Trask, Keith Hallett, and the members of Motherhood, three highly creative and dare I say, underappreciated (and underrated) East Coast acts. This makes perfect sense of course because, like Steel himself, Trask, Hallett and the Mums are known as much for their extreme individuality as they are for the distinct flavours of fearless weirdness that define their music. There is definitely a connection there. Another rare formula perhaps. 

The album opens with a cryptic and confusing phone message skit that serves as a great introduction to what is to come. As a setup for the first song, The Battery, Steel’s character rant pairs perfectly with the song’s playful exchange of layer rhythms. So delightfully weird. The Battery is followed by the 2023 single Your Own Imagination which leads into Easy, a deeply poetic and Waits-eque song featuring some of Steel’s most clever lyrics to date – the kind that leave you searching for meaning or wondering if you’ve been played somehow.    

Combe features a lot of guests. Motherhood’s Penelope Stevens and Adam Sipkema contribute voice and drums respectively, Marian drummer Stefan Westner plays on a tune, along with guitar contributions from Keith Hallett, sax from Joel Miller, keys from Peter Rioux and strings by Rachel Bruch. Each guest plays a part in elevating Steel’s vision for this collection of nine new songs. 

There is a dreamy quality to much of this album. Tempo and vibe are key here, especially in the second half of the record which begins with the spacey instrumental Chxrm Bracelet that, not unlike the answering machine rant that starts the whole thing off, sets a tone for the trio of songs that follow. 

The album closes with Vow of Silence, a perfect bookend that ties several of the distinct voices on this collection together. Simplistic thoughtful percussion, peculiar guitar sounds, and vocal effects on top of meticulously crafted lyrics that highlight Steel’s ability to use intelligent wordplay as an instrument unto itself.  

Fresh and exciting and indescribable all at once, Combe is the strongest example to date of Steel’s creative presence as an artist. You know that spark, that certain je ne sais quoi every artist strives for but few achieve? Steel’s got it. He’s got the “it” countless others have spent their lives in pursuit of and you can hear it all over this record. 

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