2012 almost seems like a long time ago after listening to Cryptic Street's Malta Arts Fund-supported debut EP Stranger, which was released last month. The obvious pop streak that dominated both their award-winning debut single Indecisive and its 2013 follow-up Retrospect has clearly been diluted on their latest offering. In its place, these five young ladies have opted for a broader vision, a riskier one perhaps that seems more focused on establishing a lingering effect on the listener rather than an immediate impact. It does exactly that, and for more than one reason.
To start with the obvious, there's the music; five tracks that seem to head off in different directions, perhaps mirroring the girls' myriad musical influences, but there's also a particular je ne sais quoi there (other than the voice) that links these songs. The sounds on offer confirm the band has made a deliberate effort to distance itself from the norm and invested more time experimenting. This has yielded a somewhat left-of-centre record which, while possibly alienating some of their existing fans, has attracted a new audience intrigued by their transformation.
Secondly, two of the featured tracks are in Maltese. Cryptic Street are not the first band to do this, and they won't be the last either, but the very fact that against all expectations, they felt inspired enough by the revival of Maltese-language songs to step into an altogether new scenario is admirable in itself. That the songs in question, a musical rendering of Beverly Agius's poem Kull Lejla and the rather atypical Farsa are quite innovative and rather good too simply boosts the EP's appeal. Overall, Stranger is without any doubt an interesting release, but there is also room for improvement. That said, it does offer an insightful look into the band's ongoing transformation, and certainly augurs well for subsequent releases.
Furthermore, closer attention to the songs unveils a linking factor in the subjects addressed; social issues such as freedom of expression, the obsession with modern technology and its effect on people's lives, social discrimination and exclusion that demand repeated listening to truly grasp their topical essence. None of the above is your usual pop fodder but then again, this EP was never meant to be an ordinary release either. In similar fashion, the related launch event was also a step out of the ordinary.
Set within the rather captivating walls of the Palazzo De La Salle in Valletta, the launch also featured an opening performance from Hannah Brown, the young singer-songwriter who has emerged as one of the local scene's foremost revelations this year. But rather than just live performances, this event also integrated a visual aspect in the form of a documentary featuring interviews with selected Maltese personalities as well as an exhibition by the painter and tattoo artist Sean Camilleri and tactile paintings by Italian artist Alessia Minuto.
The main highlight was of course, the band's own performance in the venue's Baroque Room. With countless paintings of Grandmasters of the Order of St. John as a backdrop, Cryptic Street's modern sounds stood out in stark contrast, with the girls delivering a fairly confident display. The 10-track set list naturally included all of the EP's five tracks as well as covers of songs by Dear Rouge, Royksopp, Darkside, The DO, Warpaint and Father John Misty; a vague and eclectic portrayal perhaps, of some of the band's collective musical references.
The Stranger EP and other Cryptic Street merchandise is available directly from the band. For more information send an email to email@example.com.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times of Malta's ESCAPE magazine (04 October 2015)