Big name producer works with big (at least in size) band to make said band’s most diverse album to date…that’s the premise here, anyway, and it’s one that ultimately works in practice as well as in theory. The band is Antibalas, a 12-piece ensemble who specializes in Afrobeat (most often associated with the music of Fela Kuti), and the producer is John McEntire of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, who has also worked with dozens of artists including Stereolab, Smog, Teenage Fanclub, and many other notable indie and post-rock groups over the last dozen or so years. The scenario brings to mind Brian Eno’s work with Talking Heads in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but while Eno helped to push an NYC-based avant-rock group to achieve a funkier, more worldly sound, McEntire takes an ensemble of NYC-based musicians heavily influenced by a particular strain of funk-driven world music and subtly coaxes some more avant-garde ideas out of them. Go figure.
The change isn’t really that striking, but McEntire’s subtle influence seems to allow Antibalas to stray from their Afrobeat roots a couple of times, especially on “Beaten Metal,” which sees them expanding both harmonically and rhythmically. A lopsided-sounding call and response horn riff serves to kick off a mid-tempo number that swings so hard that it almost gets lost at one point, only to be brought back by the rhythmic clinking of various pieces of metal. From there, a brief middle-eastern melody leads into the main figure again, this time augmented by even more swaying horns in a dazzling display of polyrhythms. “Hilo” is another departure, a slow jam that is much more spacious (and spacy) than anything they’ve done in the past. There are some wonderfully complex horn harmonies nestled into the track as well, and on a few other tunes throughout the record. There’s also a nice interlude at the heart of “I.C.E.” featuring a kora or some other similar harp-like instrument, as well as a few other textural surprises scattered throughout the album, which help to make it more sonically interesting than any of their previous work.
These steps toward greater diversity seem like a conscious choice (they’ve also dropped the “Afrobeat Orchestra” portion of their name), and it pays off well, making everything a little more eclectic overall. Still, they’re the same band that made Liberation Afrobeat and Who Is This America?, so those who enjoyed their earlier work needn’t worry—they definitely haven’t left the formula behind. If anything, Antibalas improves upon it by adding more sonic variety and complexity to their structures. Ultimately, this album feels like a step forward for a band that has often seemed content to ride the same grooves. Even though they do it very well, they’ve always left me wanting a little more diversity, with the exception being their epic live shows, which are packed with such an abundance of feel-good energy and seriously infectious grooves that there can be no room for complaints, only dancing. Security sounds like a band finding new freedoms within their self-contained musical universe, one which we can only hope will continue to grow and evolve over time as these musicians find even more ways to express their unique talents.
Fela Kuti – Zombie
Various Artists – Lagos All Routes
Geraldo Pino – Heavy Heavy Heavy