Doko Mien is the band’s strongest album yet.
Ibibio Sound Machine emerged seemingly fully formed earlier in the decade, their alchemical blend of Nigerian Afropop, throwback disco and British electronic post-punk so perfectly achieved on their self-titled debut that it was a mystery where they could go from there. Their subsequent album, Uyai, suggested that they, in fact, could grow significantly, incorporating a heavier soul and funk blend that opened up their already broad sound in dramatic fashion. Now comes Doko Mien, their latest impressive collection of floor-ready jams and once again the band finds ways to tweak and deepen their core identity, blossoming further into one of the finest organic dance groups around.
Compare “Wanna Come Down” to any of the debut’s poppiest cuts to hear a dramatic growth. The robo-funk of the debut is retained here, but all elements sound more fleshed out. The cowbell beat that underpins swells of sweaty keyboard of Dirty Mind-era Prince is nasty funk of the highest order, yet John McKenzie’s ricocheting bassline doubles down on the group’s post-punk connections, recalling some of the knottier yet still danceable bass licks of Heaven 17. Singer Eno Williams is in fine form, her voice dripping over the dense arrangement to smooth out its kinks and blast the whole thing with yelps of soul. It’s the group’s best single yet, the perfect synthesis of all of their disparate abilities into four minutes.
The first half of the album maintains the high bar set by the single. Lead-off track “I Need You to Be Sweet Like Sugar (Nnge Nte Suka)” blends space-rock blurts of guitar with horn fills and a gentle, syncopated rhythm to create a track simultaneously drifting and focused, a daydreaming march that moves forward while exploring the crevasses of the track’s soundscape. “I Know That You’re Thinking about Me” is one of the group’s most confident ballads, a bleary ambient tone that slowly opens up with a desert blues guitar line that fills space around Williams’ measured vulnerability. In the song’s second half, sidewinding saxophones explode the Saharan rock vibe of the guitar line into pleading howls.
“I Will Run” could have been a hit single for DFA in the mid-‘00s, blending more desert rock riffage with a squelching laser beam synth line that adds urgency to Williams’ elegantly crooned vocals. It’s followed by “Just Go Forward (Ka I So),” which sounds like Talking Heads influencing Fela Kuti rather than the other way around, Afrobeat excess stripped back into a nervy keyboard stutter and an unwinding drum beat that turns the genre’s catharsis into paranoid unease. That, in turn, leads to “She Work Very Hard,” a maximal electro-funk number with a buzzing, percolating synth line that crests and ebbs up to a jittery bass and drum combo that roils with excitement. A climactic guitar solo sends things into the stratosphere, lacing the boogie with pure acid rock.
The first seven tracks set such a high bar that when things subsequently flag slightly on the whirring “Nyak Mien,” which circles around the same sedate horn fills, the slight dip in quality feels like an exaggerated halt of momentum. The last stretch of the album comes across as a step down from the preceding two-thirds; “Kuka” is too distended without a compelling hook to root the listener in its expansive gaps of sound, while “Guess We Found a Way” is a spacey ballad that never congeals, instead wafting by on lightly shimmering pulses. Only closer “Basquiat” hints at the earlier fire, with its blend of jazz piano, rave-up horns, polyrhythmic percussion and molasses-thick basslines, but even this dizzying combination of sounds comes to an end before it can explore its full potential. One is left wishing that Ibibio Sound Machine weren’t quite so focused on consolidating their pan-generic pop into single-length, digestible tracks that they would come up with a proper dance mix that went until the groove ran out. Still, in many ways Doko Mien is the band’s strongest album yet, further proof that they are one of their generation’s most quietly radical groups. For the first time, they do not sound fully formed, not in a way that suggests weakness but one which allows appreciation that they still have so much left to explore.