Finally a glimpse into the mind of one of Northern Ireland’s most exciting rising talents. Anyone following Sam Wickens closely might have had a frustrating wait since his emergence a few years ago. Since 2016, an EP, two singles and only sporadic live performances have created, intentionally or not, something of a mystique around him.
With All I’ve Seen, Wickens delivers a debut of real quality. Refusing to be tied to a more traditional singer/songwriter approach, Wickens embraces synths, programming and sonic effects. However, despite the variety of sound, his lyrics and voice are undoubtedly his strength and the production plays to that perfectly throughout. Wickens doesn’t need vocal acrobatics or a quirky, affected accent to get his point across; he is direct and sincere.
Anyone who has seen Wickens live will be familiar with his raw and engaging style. The intensity of his delivery commands attention, inspires a connection between performer and audience. Wickens has translated that beautifully from live to record on All I’ve Seen.
Album opener “Falling” combines his folk and electronic leanings, signposting the album’s direction. Ice is brooding, with reverse vocal effects and glitchy synths creating an unsettling air, while “Eden” continues the theme with a menacing sub-bass underlying the warning theme of the lyrics. With “Cliffside” and “Forest” we get a more traditional arrangement of acoustic guitars, piano and, in the former, a droning string section.
There are subtle religious undertones throughout, with references to the Garden of Eden, the commission of sins and the biblical city of Jericho. Wickens is no preacher though and uses the imagery as a confessional tool for his own perceived shortcomings. “I won’t bite the apples, I hope they won’t bite me back,” he sings in “Eden”. “Forest” opens with a confession on confessions, “I never needed to repent, when most my sins I just forget.”
Wickens has never shied from his own struggles either and has been working with charity Help Musicians NI as one of their 3:3:3 artists. “Forest” tackles that with a warning to himself and others, “My depression’s now a trend, I burned the candle at both ends”.
Lead single “Ravens & Crows” is one of the album’s highlights. Its mournful string section and up-close vocal delivery adds to the drama of the chorus’s punching beat, pounding like a fist on a table to drive home a point. Emphasis, used sparingly as it is here, is all the more emphatic.
If there’s any criticism it’s that for all the album’s drama and mood, its only uptempo song is the closer, “Jericho”. While sonically diverse and lyrically engaging, nine of All I’ve Seen’s ten tracks are a little one-paced. With “Jericho” we see that Wickens has more in his arsenal and wonder if the album might have benefitted from its inclusion a little earlier or from the addition of another similarly paced song.
As it is, All I’ve Seen finishes on a high, and Wickens delivers his final note like an almighty release. The catharsis of finally completing this collection of songs and presenting his labour of love can be felt as its final notes ring out.