Antibalas has always been a band of great style and prowess. Their furious Afrobeat grooves celebrate the work of Fela Kuti, to the point where many of them were heavily involved in the recent Broadway play celebrating him. This ever-mutating collective has been able to integrate other musical genres as well, including salsa, funk, and hip-hop.
But it’s always ultimately boiled down to Afrobeat, and this new self-titled album doesn’t make any attempts to rock that boat; its songs burble and rumble and fly in very much the same way they always have. But in the five years since their last work, 2007’s Security, they seem to have acquired a new lean fighting shape — and this is a great thing.
For one thing, Martín Perna has decided that he is no longer interested in shapeless 12- or 14- or 20-minute jams; Fela could always pull this kind of thing off, but Antibalas’ similar efforts always got a little wearying. Instead, here they kick off with the six-minute scorch of “Dirty Money.” British-Nigerian vocalist Amayo rides the funky organ-led groove, supplying just enough class-conscious bite in his voice to make the point and then letting the band make his point for him.
The trend continues throughout the first half of the record: shorter songs, tighter grooves, pinpoint observations. “The Ratcatcher” is the finest single track they’ve made, a hellacious groove coupled with a folktale about a guy whose success turns out to be a trap. Not exactly subtle, but a lot less hit-ya-over-the-head than the band has been in the past. The ambiguity suits them just fine.
On the album’s second half all the song titles are in Nigerian, as are the lyrics. Not to put too fine a point on it, but these songs don’t lose any of their power even for those of us who do not understand that beautiful language. “Ibeji” provides not one but two indelible rhythms, and “Sare Kon Kon” is a total stomper that makes the most of its eight minutes through concentrated power.
Does any of this mean that Amayo’s lyrics (and by extension the band’s political attack) are unnecessary? No, it just means that there are some things that are timeless in their power. It also means that Antibalas is finally, like their name in Spanish, bulletproof; even if you don’t understand what they are saying, you GET it on some deeper level.