Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities is a series of poetic travelogues posed as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. That NOMO has named their latest album after Calvino’s work admits to a degree of cultural tourism on the band’s part. This should be no surprise to those who’ve been following the various shapes and sizes of the Michigan-by-way-of-Africa group since their origins.
Formed as a college band with all of its attendant musicians studying as undergrads at the University of Michigan, NOMO spent its first two albums borrowing the majestic and often ferocious romp of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, while shunning the original music’s political edge in favor of instrumental fortitude. This compromise worked because it served as a reminder that Kuti’s politics were hard-won by bringing in a James Brown-like showmanship and instigating jams so groovy that they could start parties in any language and regardless of political affiliation (though being a revolutionary wouldn’t hurt matters).
Last year’s critically acclaimed Ghost Rock continued the continental tour of Africa by harvesting Congotronic roots for its motherland conservatory. Bandleader Elliot Bergman even swept junkyards for street trash, quartering unlikely objects for concrète sounds, such as fire extinguishers to use as steel drums and, on Invisible Cities, street sweeping utensils as a kalimba-like melodic tool, thereby appropriating Africa’s experimentalism-by-necessity and adopting the privation of desolate lands.
All this sounds like NOMO is a bunch of rotten revivalists, spoilt (mostly) white kids dipping their toes in exotic cultures for a taste of that most abhorrently facile of Western obsessions, “authenticity” (though, unlike Vampire Weekend, NOMO’s sonics do actually resemble African music). However, unlike several of their Ubiquity Records peers (and Bergman’s other band, the retro R’n’R Saturday Looks Good to Me), NOMO has never been primarily concerned with resuscitating rare or prematurely buried sounds from their unmarked graves. Though NOMO exhibits an ecstatic love for Afrobeat, spiritual jazz (check the odd time-signatured mysticism of “Patterns”), and the like, they’ve been increasingly studio-prone with each successive album, allowing for the effects of postproduction and modern electronic instrumentation to take their music in wild new directions.
The immensely textured title track, “Invisible Cities”, is a perfect example. It initiates the album with bubbling synths that make a fluttering racket like crickets from a bayou swamp. These persist as ambient dressing throughout the rest of the song as hot brass that could melt butter stands upright and confident in opposition to the hesitant side-strutting bass. As the polyrhythmic militancy of the percussion’s march step collides with the sax solos, the individual sounds threaten to be swallowed whole in the mix while the track builds up dense layers of reverberated ooze.
Invisible Cities also ventures out into territories unchartered for NOMO. “Banners on High” is a spectacular spectral take on Constellation-style post-rock. Its structure is that of constant escalation, drawing out ghosts in the process. The swirling saxes in the backdrop prove how affective they can be as supporting cast members, which may be a lesson NOMO take to heart as they develop their sound further. “Ma”, meanwhile, a cover of an original by Tropicália guru Tom Zé, fuses the Brazilian style with no wave squelch and substitutes the main vocal melody with ominous baritone brass. The human larynx does eventually factor in, but it becomes so well-harmonized with the buzzing trumpets that it almost sounds like a vocoder distortion effect (though it clearly isn’t).
Invisible Cities was recorded both during the same sessions as Ghost Rock and throughout the subsequent supporting tour, making the album something of an Amnesiac to Ghost Rock’s Kid A. It’s not quite as outré as its predecessor, but, like Amnesiac, it also doesn’t feel like the leftovers. The album is a song cycle that ebbs and flows like a complete vision, a suite of songs rather than a collection of three to seven-minute tunes. The start and end points of the individual tracks act as a tempering of the album’s holistic dynamics.
Invisible Cities is a far more freeform affair than Kuti’s repetitious drum circle ever got, and the usually accentuated horn section is deemphasized on four of the album’s nine tracks (“Crescent”, “Patterns”, “Banners on High”, “Nocturne”). The technical prowess of the individual players on the album cannot be questioned, particularly the indestructible beat of the rhythm section, which is pretty much the whole band. And despite their familiar reference points, I hear as much of Boredoms’ Vision Creation Newsun in the tribal thrall of “Nocturne” as I do Fela or Tony Allen.
Oddly enough, the elements of NOMO’s sound that haven’t changed still remain the most driving and gripping forces in the music. Broadening their range has allowed those particular cities of sound to come off more vivacious, vital, and visible than ever. Standing alone, but also particularly as a companion piece to Ghost Rock, Invisible Cities is a party that holds no regional prejudice and should bear no presumptions. Prepare to be taken over by it.