Ibibio Sound Machine: Electricity
Out on 25th March 2022
Buy it from Sister Ray
Ibibio Sound Machine release their fourth album, Electricity. As you would expect, it marvellously fuses Afro with soul, funk, disco and electro-pop in a collection that never stands still. Gordon Rutherford reviews for Louder Than War.
There can be few bands who can flit so seamlessly and naturally between genres as Ibibio Sound Machine. Fusing Afro with soul, funk, disco and electro-pop, they make each album sounds like a compendium of work from at least half a dozen other artists. And yet, they don’t; somehow a distinctive smack of Ibibio Sound Machine is retained. Like a stick of seaside rock, their mark runs throughout. It’s a pretty neat trick.
Electricity, the London-based band’s fourth album to date, follows the trend set by its predecessors; continuing to enthral with its sheer energetic diversity. So, in some respects, more of the same. Yet, bigger; bolder; more accomplished. This is indubitably the work of a band on an upward trajectory. Of course, sheer experience will account for that progression, but another factor must be the recruitment of those wizards of synthpop, Hot Chip, on production duties. Having shared many festival bills down the years, the two bands had developed something of a mutual admiration for each other, so much so that Ibibio Sound Machine took the leap of appointing an ‘outsider’ to man the desk for the first time. Boy, has it paid off.
Nowhere are the fruits of that connection more palpable than on the album’s opener, Protection From Evil. Even if you didn’t previously know that Hot Chip were involved, you would certainly suspect when you heard this. Driven by a monster of a synth line from Al Doyle, it just screams Hot Chip. Atop that, London-born, Nigerian-raised vocalist, Eno Williams, persuasively impels her lines in a combination of English and the Ibibio language. It’s a brooding, menacing introduction to this thrilling collection.
As highlighted at the top of this piece, since their 2014 debut, Ibibio Sound Machine have developed something of a reputation for their fluidity in simultaneously transitioning across multiple classifications and Electricity reinforces that convincingly. This is an incredible pot-pourri of flavours, all intermingling easily and naturally. Not only can Ibibio Sound Machine do it all, they do it all phenomenally well. Furthermore, Electricity is a big album. It feels absolutely colossal as it powers out of the speakers, oozing with confidence. This is the sound of a band who know that they have brought their a-game.
Whilst there is a stronger leaning towards more electronic territory than previous albums, possibly a consequence of the Hot Chip collaboration, Ibibio Sound Machine never stray too far from their origins. Williams and her co-founder, saxophonist Max Grunhard, have always been determined to keep their music grounded in African roots and the presence of Hot Chip doesn’t change that. In all three of their previous albums, those infectious Afro rhythms have been prevalent and Electricity is no different.
The most perfect example of this is the joyous Afro-beat of Oyoyo. Another is the haunting spiritual, Afo Ken Doko Mien. This is a delicately crafted piece which highlights what a versatile vocalist Williams is. For much of this album, she projects a mighty soulful voice, one that seems perfectly manufactured for dance music. Yet on this ethereal, mesmerising African folk tune, her voice takes on a different quality. Softer, more velvet-like.
Kudos for the band and producers for the sequencing of Afo Ken Doko Mien, because it feels like a necessary inhalation for the deep dive we are about to go on. The following four tracks take no prisoners, starting with the perfect single, All That You Want. The Juno synth of Scott Baylis friskily teases us, bobbing and weaving whilst the hammer blows come in the shape of Jose Joyette’s incessant beats. If the preceding Afo Ken Doko Mien has gently messaged your temples, All That You Want is loud and proud, bombastically demanding your attention.
The pure irresistible house of Wanna See Your Face Again follows. Masterfully, Williams coaxes the groove and it’s virtually impossible to envisage anyone listening to this whilst sitting still. And there’s no point in taking a seat when it finishes because the incessant disco inferno of 17 18 19 turns up to keep you grooving. Fittingly, for a tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the heyday of Studio 54, Williams’ spoken word passages here are evocative of Grace Jones. Another Studio 54 personality, Nile Rodgers, would happily claim ownership of the following track, Truth No Lie.
That run of tracks provides absolute confirmation that Ibibio Sound Machine are the nonpareil when it comes to getting listeners off their asses. They are simply incredible at upbeat dance music. However, I stress again; there is more than one trick to this pony. The soulful semi-ballad, Almost Flying, demonstrates a more nuanced side to Ibibio Sound Machine. The colder, almost mechanical, Casio fuses Afro and electronic imaginatively. The album’s title track is stone cold eighties synth-pop.
Intriguingly, the band describe Electricity as “darker than anything we’ve done previously”. Williams explains that this is an album that “inhabits an edgier world”. That’s undoubtedly true. The world has become a more sinister place in the past two years and it is inevitable that macro-economic events will influence the output of artists. Notwithstanding that, Electricity does not feel like a dark album. Certainly, not musically. Rather, it feels uplifting and energising, as though it is drawing on a reservoir of positivity and optimism. It certainly made me feel good.
All words by Gordon Rutherford. More writing by Gordon can be found in his archive.