LEVELS spiritually rises above standard musical conventions.
The international super group magically entwines assorted genres – R&B, hip-hop, funk, jazz, pop, prog rock, Latin and Afrobeat – changing tempos and complex time signatures into an expansive sound that transcends space and time on their 2019 self-titled, full-length debut.
“These cats are all masters of their craft. The name LEVELS was fitting for us because we all come from different backgrounds culturally and musically and disciplines giving our unit so much dynamism. We’re always adding new levels to the tunes and each other. It’s great to be multinational and international since there’s so much flavor and opportunity to learn and push envelopes musically,” said Keith “WildChild” Middleton, LEVELS co-lead vocalist and co-founder.
Middleton pushes global, multi-genre musical envelopes with American-Italian bandmates Jacopo “Snow” Mazza (piano), Luca “Mack” Marcias (guitar) and Aaron Marcellus (vocals) on their intergalactic, poetic 16-track concept album, which beautifully follows the time-traveling journey of Adam searching for Eve after being exiled from paradise.
“The entire album is woven this way and becomes their journey. We have so many styles it’s only right that they are all represented to tell this story our way. Everyone can identify with having a relationship of some sort. I just put a cosmic, spiritual twist on it to provoke thought and start a conversation – ‘We all share Eve’s and Adam’s atoms,’” said Middleton, who’s currently quarantined in Italy due to the country’s coronavirus pandemic.
‘A Place’ for ‘Unicorns’
Eve’s and Adam’s atoms form a complex musical chemistry on “A Place,” a slow, groovy R&B hip-hop declaration of eternal love (think Garden of Eden). LEVELS’ breathtaking track features tweeting birds and soothing waterfalls as vibrant acoustic guitar, crashing cymbals, bouncy bass and pounding electric drums surround the star-crossed lovers.
To celebrate the lovers, Marcellus hypnotically sings, “There’s no place that I would rather be/Than here with you my dear beside me/Made a space for you inside my heart/Don’t ever fade away my shining star.”
In return, Middleton seamlessly raps, “Yeah shining star if I may elaborate/I follow my heart when I navigate/Palpitations causes sensations at faster rates of rotations of butterflies proclaiming my candidate/No space or time Donny Hathaway/In this and our next lives you won’t have to wait/When we grappled that apple that ample sampled that unraveled the man with the time travel secret passageways/I’ll always find you baby.”
“‘A Place’ tells their tale, and you find out in the first verse, it’s Adam professing his love for Eve. In the second verse, they are doomed from the apple incident, but because of the bite revealing a secret, Adam vows to find his Eve in their next lives. In the third verse, Adam breaks down all of their incarnations till present time, also revealing that on this next go-round, he will spot her at one of his shows while he’s performing with his band LEVELS on stage,” Middleton said.
The track’s video also features Adam and Eve frolicking on a sunny Los Angeles beach interspersed with live band performances. LEVELS teamed up with director and former “Stomp” collaborator Ahmed Best for the video.
“I hit him up, and he chose ‘A Place’ because it spoke to him. He wrote, produced and directed it; he’s amazing. He was able to visually articulate the love and promise that ‘Adam’ makes to his soulmate ‘Eve’ while staying true to the story of LEVELS being the reason they are reunited in this life,” Middleton said.
“A Place” seamlessly melds with “Unicorns,” a pulsating R&B hip-hop ode to love at first sight in another Adam-Eve era. Energetic, shifting synths, throbbing bass drum and smashing electronic drums surround Marcellus as he smoothly sings, “I know an angel when I see one and you be one/Yes, I believe in unicorns/Yes, I believe in unicorns/Life’s so much better since we begun/You’re the reason.”
To complement Marcellus, Middleton quickly rhymes, “But just then a slight distraction/While I was rapping, it happened, her light refraction/The right reaction affected my hyperaction/Affected the laws of attraction that answered without me asking/It’s her.”
“Unicorns” also features a nostalgic anime video with throwback references to the 1982 animated Rankin-Bass fantasy film, “The Last Unicorn,” and the popular early ‘80s cartoon series and action figures of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” For the video, LEVELS partnered with director Rodney Willie, aka Blitz and Middleton’s younger brother, and animator Adesoji Ademola.
“I had an idea to create an animated video for ‘Unicorns’ because I found the amazing Adesoji Ademola online. Adesoji has that dope anime feel. Blitz looked at his work, knew the song well and tied to all together with a throwback ref to ‘The Last Unicorn.’ I laughed the other day because as kids we were real avid collectors of He-Man toys. We had the characters, the vehicles and Castle Grayskull,” he said.
‘I Know U Will’ Have ‘The Talk’
LEVELS also brings a nostalgic feel to “I Know U Will,” which solders jazz, R&B and hip-hop into a ballad about love lost. Jazzy, fretless bass, humming synths, high-tone electric guitar, dreamy chimes, intermittent drums and light cymbals set the anguishing, lovelorn mood. Marcellus croons in velvety vocals, “I know you will, I know you will, I know you will replace me with another love/I know you feel, I know you feel, I know you feel we never should’ve fell in love.”
Again, Middleton raps alongside Marcellus, “Baby I’m drawn to you like an artist to his pad/His pad to his paint/Sketching the frame of mind he’s in/Outlining a narrow road that bends and bends and blends into the horizon/And then a rear-view mirror revealing where he’s been/The reflection within/The rest is dim nearly dark dismal void of light/A reflection of him/Me without you.”
The album’s thought-provoking political track, “The Talk,” serves as a dynamic civil rights anthem for racial justice, equality and change as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. It blends mesmerizing jazz, rock and soul into a valuable history lesson about influential Black leaders and features Middleton’s three sons – Qaasim, Khalil and Makai – along with his uncle Pepe Willie (who discovered Prince) and Craig Hill.
Together, they powerfully reflect, “Here’s what you gotta do/You gotta get up, dream like Martin/C’mon get up, ride like Malcolm/C’mon be like Harriet/C’mon get up, ride like Malcom/C’mon get up, think like Thurgood/Yes we can like Obama/C’mon get up lead like Garvey/Sing like Marlene from Freedom.”
“This is so close to home dealing with what my elders taught me and I to my three sons on how to conduct themselves when and if stopped by police. We have two different Americas. Hopefully, this song will open it up for all to see that, and that it needs to change. That’s three generations of Black men still fighting for civil rights,” Middleton said.
Middleton and his LEVELS bandmates spent four years recording and producing the 16 tracks for their debut album in Milan and Biella, Italy; New York City; Japan and Los Angeles. They also collaborated with Giorgio “G$” Nardi (bass), Tim “Smithsoneon” Smith (drums), Davi “Papito” Vieira (percussion) and Shammah Ava Dhall, who recites four mesmerizing poetic interludes throughout the album.
“I hope people will take away the fact that we are from different corners of the world and have different backgrounds, beliefs and languages. But when there is love, music and rhythm, everything is fine, and everything is possible,” said Middleton, who’s originally from Brooklyn.
After performing in “Stomp” and other theatrical stages worldwide, Middleton formed LEVELS in 2015. At the time, he ventured to Music College, CPM in Milan to teach a body percussion course. Toward the end of his stay, he hosted a live show in support of his 2014 solo debut album, Transitions, and performed with three college professors – Mazza, Marcias and Nardi.
“We became brothers instantly, and I kept coming back to Italy to perform. Eventually, we decided to create material for an album. During our first recording sessions in New York City, I brought Tim, Davi and Aaron. Jacopo is a musical genius; Luca is an alien, unbelievable pitch and musicianship. Aaron has the voice of 1,000 celestials. Davi brings amazing flavor from Brazil; Tim has incredible timing and is a masterful drummer,” he said.
Since releasing their debut album six months ago, LEVELS continue to write new material in quarantine and relish the day live music returns. They’ve cancelled their European tour, but hope to visit Japan later this year.
“Being cooped up in the house forces artists to create. That’s the upside of all this. We will be releasing another music video soon and a few more singles this year. We were graciously asked to perform this December at Lincoln Center, so we are all amped for that. We want everyone to please take this virus seriously and be safe out there,” Middleton said.