Ibibio Sound Machine have fully evolved from a fun curio into one of the best bands around.
On their 2014 debut, Ibibio Sound Machine sounded as if they’d emerged from an alternate past, one in which Talking Heads’ incorporation of Afrobeat sounds spawned an entire wing of above-ground pop. Fronted by Eno Williams, born in London but raised in Nigeria, the band mixed throwback post-punk synthpop with jubilant highlife. Sparse but knotted guitar lines wove in and out of brassy blurts and buzzing synthesizers on tracks that largely kept a medium tempo but had the strange swing of mutant soul. It was the sleeper dance record of the year, as well as the best soundtrack ever recorded for a blaxploitation movie that did not happen to exist.
Uyai, the group’s sophomore effort, finds the group in more confident expression. Where the debut tended to favor more of the band’s highlife funk, this album stems more from its predecessor’s lead single “Let’s Dance.” Opening track “Give Me a Reason” gallops out of the gate with a bassline that sounds like it’s leaping off the stage into the pit. Block percussion clangs in the negative space as trumpets occasionally rush in to add fills. Williams, singing again in Ibibio dialect, sounds impassioned and unrestrained, half-chanting as she leads up to a call-and-response delivered in English “Give me a reason/ Why, why, why.” Fuzzy guitar intrudes after the breakdown to inject the track with a bit of garage rock theatrics, and at a certain point the song sounds as if it has about 20 different things going on at once even as the core melody is never lost.
Where “Let’s Dance” found itself sandwiched between more placid funk, “Give Me a Reason” sets down the basic blueprint for the record. “The Chant” may slow down, but only to build back up on the backs of squelching space bass that sounds like it was beamed down from Booty’s mothership, as well as a percolating, buzzing synth line that wouldn’t be out of place on the early, industrial work of acts like The Human League and Nitzer Ebb. “The Pot Is on Fire” rolls out on more wood-block percussion, shot through with legato stabs of Italo electronics that are gradually bolstered by subwoofer-testing hums and outrun sine waves. The cumulative effect of the track is a skittering unease that cuts through its upbeat chanting. “Joy (Idaresit)” doubles down on this multivalent dance with an even more claustrophobic arrangement, burbling and isolated tones pockmarking a repetitive, low-tuned guitar groove. Williams’s vocals embody the sentiment of the title in their full, soaring wail, but in context it sounds like a desperate reaction against the track she sings over, an attempt for escape.
Even the tracks that ease off these complicated compositions and tempos show more depth than the average tune on the debut. “One That Lights Up (Andi Domo Ikang Uwem Mi)” slows to a crawl for closing-time bar guitar and a lethargic beat, but a trilling flute adds a pastoral atmosphere, one that contrasts with the cold science of the sonar pings that echo in the deep distance. “Quiet” is a post-punk ballad, all muted, angular guitar and the occasional hissing sustains against a blank void. And if “Lullaby” is meant to help anyone drift off to sleep, it could only do so for machines, with its twinkling beeps and soft percussion. It’s soothing in the way that a factory might become placid when all the pneumatic presses and analog monitors come to a halt.
The band’s debut was a unique, satisfying creation, but Uyai is the sound of a potential gimmick honed into a self-sustaining sound. The jerking rhythm of “Guide You (Edu Kpeme)” shimmers even as the staccato beat staggers the momentum. The track conveys a sense of futurism that adds new shades to the group’s pre-existing sound, a futurism that is even more radically embodied in “Sunray (Eyio),” which boasts the kind of aqueous electro synths that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Drexciya track. By the time the frantic “Trance Dance” closes things out, Ibibio Sound Machine have fully evolved from a fun curio into one of the best bands around, and their sophomore album provides a blueprint for similarly offbeat acts to sharpen and develop their quirks instead of resting on them.