One of the great benefits of the broader ecosystem of music writing is, no matter how many promos you receive, no matter how much buzz or interest other peers may generate around certain works in and outside of your wheelhouse, there is always more to discover. It is a tacit argument to read as wide as you listen, especially since the two often form a feedback loop that’s more like a dynamo than a cycle of diminishing returnings. Ibibio Sound Machine’s newest was delivered to me just this way; a quick check at weekly roundups of recent records from other sites between working on reviews and features for Treble teasing me with a few key words that always catch my interest (“Afrobeat”, “dance music”, “jazz”, “industrial”).
Electricity, the group’s fourth album, offers little in the way of distinct evolutionary leaps for the British and Nigerian group but mostly because the music already feels hyperevolved and elastic to the extreme. A track may begin in a sequencer-driven modern house groove before dropping in Afrobeat horns and ecstatic vocals before a final development into a hybrid of tight funk strumming cut through by post-HEALTH industrialisms. The name of the group feels fitting; there is no genre allegiance here, instead a pure adoration of the explosive internal pneumatics of sound itself. Groove is sacred here (the defining law of Afrobeat) but the group’s strategies for approaching and developing groove is beautifully, wonderfully agnostic to the rest of sonic relation. When someone like Kanye West develops avant-hip-hop grooves rife with distorted keyboards fucking everything up on recent records, this is the kind of stuff someone showed him in the studio as inspiration. Where elsewhere you might hear the commercial refinements of these ideas, the breaking apart of chunks of these sonic forms to make avant-pop, here you get the real thing, raw and energetic to the extreme.
The rawness, it should be said, is more in terms of the chain of aesthetic development rather than in terms of production. In other words: this record sounds fantastic, a cornucopia of sounds that dance and weave around each other, some in pointillist bursts and others in sinewave stereoscopic motion and yet others in wild vaseline smears. There is no telling where the next sound will emerge, what timbre or tone it will take; every few seconds, there is a new surprise, be it a carving away of a track to its glistening skeleton or the spontaneous evolution of alternate forms. Flutes and synth basses, congas and drumloops, there is seemingly no wall to what place Ibibio Sound Machine is willing to go to animate their music. And it’s not just in terms of instrumental palette, either. Electricity was a fantastic spread of song forms as well, from dance club bangers to sensualist post-midnight Maxwell-style R&B/quiet storm grooves to disco ballads and more. It is at once immensely playful and tremendously disciplined, plying its virtuosity toward playing the right note at the right time. As a result, the often quite dense instrumentation never feels suffocating, cluttered or muddy; these musicians are keen, ear-first players, fitting themselves snugly into spaces you might not have even guessed were open prior to a new layer being added but never, ever feeling like they just fucked up the groove for some self-serving instrumental line.
In many ways, their work here is reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails’ more development-oriented work, where a piece starts with a single small element and gradually accretes elements and grows into a cacophonous, euphoric maximalist surge. Another sonic touchstone would be Brian Eno and David Byrne’s immaculate My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the first in a trilogy of records continued with Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Byrne’s dance production soundtrack The Catherine Wheel. In that earliest record of the trilogy, Eno and Byrne explored a dense and eye-wateringly ecstatic mixture of newly recorded and archive loops, field recordings, live instrumental lines and vocals, paralleling hip-hop’s avant-garde developments being explored at roughly the same time as the line between DJ and musician was becoming increasingly blurred. This is all original music here, but there is still a remnant of that element from great electronic records made by DJs once known predominantly for live mixing; a sweltering mixture of moods and colors coalesce without collapsing, forming a kaleidoscope around the center of a sterling emotionalism. There is minimalist Son Lux-style art pop pressed against the stickiness of discotheque sweat, the indie-associated twee charm of toy pianos against the shimmering cascading walls of white light associated with arthouse music.
Most shockingly, most virtuosically, despite the incredible breadth of this music, none of the elements feel shoehorned, half-assed or included for shock or thrill. Every second of this superbly multifaceted record is played with the same level of intense heart. These are musicians that see the world of music as a series of paints and brushes, each as adorned as the last, each a tool in service to the picture that emerges on the canvas. Here, there is peace, tranquility, joy.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.