Ibibio Sound Machine’s debut offering is a distillation of a day, shaped from a twenty-four hour palette of light, as their sounds are filtered through its unstable changes in tone and texture. If silence is the canvas for which musicians paint upon, then by the end of the album, there is only an indistinct memory of silence left as a throbbing afterglow. Eno Williams, the British/Nigerian front woman and vocalist, opens the album by bringing the sun up to a morning in bloom with ‘Voice Of A Bird (Uyio Inuen)’, a brightly coloured gospel-hymn with miniature melancholic inflections. An introduction that is mirrored in the album’s afterword ‘Ibibio Spiritual’. These two tender monologues expand a transcending field to the work, sung in the South-East Nigerian Ibibio language through which Williams recalls and retells surreal and fantastical folk stories told to her by her family as a child. Her performances during the work can be eccentric and confrontational, some sung quavering, some part-rapped, in or against the rhythm – but always in flight.
The genesis of the project began in London between Williams and friends and producers Max Grunhard, Leon Brichard and Benji Bouton while ‘discussing the idea of making a record using [Williams’] mother tongue’. Initially tracking the bass and drum tracks they joined with Ghanaian guitarist Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman from the band KonKoma, who like Max Grunhard are fellow signings to the Soundway record label and its expanding contemporary roster. Later Brazilian Anselmo Netto was added to the line up on percussion and completed as an octet with synth and horns, provided by Tony Hayden and Scott Baylis. The second track, ‘I’m Running (Nya Fehe)’, lurches them into life, revealing their full sound as the song levitates on the slightly aged morning air, content to hover and not find a destination to hastily in an energetic stasis. Heartbeat monitor bass and the background squelch of machine sounds allows clearances for Bannerman’s limber guitar to pirouette in clean runs and flushes — that remain throughout the album — thoughtfully placed and at times restrained. A delivery that distinguishes his sound from the lead of multiple guitars in traditionally defined Highlife.
The intercontinental band made their live debut at this year’s Rencontres Transmusicales in France, where like the record, they atomise their sculpted space-time amplifying it into tireless and kinetic performances. This is characterised no more than their first single ‘Let’s Dance (Yak Inek Unek)’ an incendiary device that wails into being with an oscillating synth vibration, detonating upon command of the brass section into staccato sub-bass which Williams collaborates with, and juxtaposes, amongst the sharp trills of the horns. While pixelated glitches from the electronics meander in and out of focus like a broken metronome that has found freedom from its swinging monotony. It is muscular and inexhaustible, a maximalism with a stern soul that more than fulfils the promise of its title:
Augmented 80’s computer game sound effects continue in ‘The Tortoise (Nsaha Edem Ikit)’ punctuating in sporadic mannerisms, while funky stabbed bass lines are heard as if coming up from deep underwater, rising and forcing themselves through to come up for air. The softer sustained horns come together with the rest of the band in harmony for the chorus, each noise employed to accompany each other percussively, a technique that can be heard in many of their other songs. This cohesive rhythm section has been produced to stand firm in the middle of their field, which has given all the tracks an enduring propulsion. The second side of the album – especially its later songs – prove the malleability of Ibibio Sound Machine’s cosmological constants of drums, bass and vocals. A foundation that furnishes a surprising range of options, reframing the band and granting the day’s light of the first side to be reclaimed by the night, as we are taken from the alchemy of an eclectic disco, to a psychedelic noir after party where reality is ever so slightly skewed. The meld of tight conga’s patted by cat’s paws and sharp snare on ‘Prodigal Son (Ayen Ake Feheke)’ sets up the quietest backdrop for Williams to tear with her vigorous perforations. The dishevelled horns interrupt as a reminder of their presence before the song strays into an exchange of dry pulses for warm spectrum washes of synth colour – out breaths that hang in the smokey air like trembling kaleidoscopic clouds. The band’s two worlds of human and machine weaves itself into a provocative understanding.
Ibibio Sound Machine have mined the seams of the past: West African Highlife, 70’s Nigerian Afro-Beat, combative Post-Punk, Soul and the ‘golden era of funk’, but on a planet of the future. These influences echo in the album, but only as aural alliances. They have re-wired future binary signals with the analogue organic past, enabling a migration to a reimagined future projection. A collection of unfinished conversations that do not seek resolution or a finality, but are in transit as past ideas of a future, floating through dimensionless space without sentimentality. We become observers as their fluorescence is thrust through a prism onto an exploding disco ball that sends streaks of light onto a landscape of unknown time.
Ibibio Sounds Machine’s album is out on the 17th of March of this year on Soundway, and they are in session for the Lauren Laverne Breakfast Show on BBC 6 Music, Tuesday the 18th of March.