Ibibio Sound Machine : Pull the Rope

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Ibibio Sound Machine pull the rope review

I had been under the impression, for reasons now unknown to me, that Ibibio Sound Machine’s previous record Electricity had been their debut rather than their fourth album. Not so, it turns out. (A simple Google search on my end would have revealed this too but, alas, the human mind.) Given that I got married on May 1, far too close to the release date of the record to reasonably set aside enough time to finish a piece on it, I decided to do the dutiful thing and immerse myself in their entire corpus in addition to this new record, an effort that proved, thankfully, quite fruitful. The first and most obvious pivot on Rope from the previous album is the shift in atmosphere, taking on the ’90s retro-futurist atmosphere that was big in club circles, itself a recapitulation of the smoother end of jazz fusion from the ’70s and ’80s as well as the post-disco club music made by artists like Grace Jones. This contrasts sharply from the previous Afrobeat rave-ups, swapping that previous frenetic force for something a little more downtempo and moody.

This synth-driven soundscape is not strictly new. Their first two studio records had a strong synth and drum machine leaning like this material, reading as a bedroom pop lo-fi version of this kind of svelte post-Sade style arthouse club music but in the context of this new material as a prefiguring of how to properly incorporate the Afrobeat sentiment expressed later into their overall sound. Those earlier records suffered not for vivacity of ideas but more in their execution, with certain production and engineering decisions leaving the songs more anemic than they could have been; I know this for a fact given that their live album Live at Earth, consisting solely of material of that era, absolutely bursts with life and seems like ground zero of their newer recording idiom.

Pull the Rope does not significantly add new ideas to the history of the group’s sounds, but their execution here has the precise amount of high-gloss sheen that this type of material needs to be potent. It feels like cocaine and sweat in a nightclub, the body at 2 a.m. surrendering to groove without mind. I mentioned in an Antibalas review years ago now that great Afrobeat capitalizes on a fundamental element of dance music, bypassing consciousness by commanding the body with potent rhythm. Here, it feels like the mad fervor of Electricity’s midnight-to-2 a.m. rave up meets its comedown, intuitively following good DJ logic regarding the pacing of a set.

This record seems, due to this choice in mood setting, to sit just below Electricity in terms of its ability to grab a new listener, especially without as righteous a powerhouse track as “Protection from Evil” which led off that last record. But its quality comes to bear not just when you listen to it but when you loop it, let the tracks roll into each other like an ouroboros. It has a similar meditative quality that something like Music for 18 Musicians, the Steve Reich masterwork, possesses. Where some dance and club records can feel like a firestorm in a closed room or, at their most abstract and angular, like architecture and furniture design, this sits somewhere between, feeling like a room populated by chairs and shelves, walls of many colors, a sense of space. I likened it to a friend as “Grace Jones’ band playing covers of Talking Heads material.” This is a space that you can occupy. The group seems less concerned with overtly grabbing your throat on the record to instead make something sensuous and sensual alike. And lord can only imagine how this material opens up in a live setting anyway.

Label: Merge

Year: 2024

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Ibibio Sound Machine pull the rope review

Ibibio Sound Machine: Pull the Rope

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