Ibibio Sound Machine 2024
Photo: Matilda Hill-Jenkins / Merge Records

Ibibio Sound Machine Elevate Their Sound on ‘Pull the Rope’

Ibibio Sound Machine have gone from exciting transcontinental party upstarts to a soulful, sophisticated phenomenon. Pull the Rope is a refreshing new chapter.

Pull the Rope
Ibibio Sound Machine
3 May 2024

There’s no weak entry in the Ibibio Sound Machine discography, and Pull the Rope is no exception. The London-based collective continue experimenting with different permutations of highlife, electropop, and funk on their fifth full-length release, making the most of every moment. This album, in particular, stands out, for the most part, as an exceptionally seamless blend of everything they do well, brass meeting beats and sending sparks flying. As is often the case in Ibibio Sound Machine’s work, there are plenty of retro moments, but the overall package comes across as chic and contemporary.

Pull the Rope opens with an optimistic pair of singles. “Pull the Rope” is a plea for cooperation in which just about every line sounds like an exclamation (“Let’s pull the rope! / Together, we hope!”), and synths and drum machines buzz with electric heft lyrics and a smattering of horns. The feel-good message of “Got to Be Who U Are” perfectly matches the carefree piano house lines that support it; on either end of the whole track are the soothing tones of a resonant thumb piano. Later, the final single, “Mama Say”, gives the record a cool techno feel. All are ready for extended dance mixes and long nights at the club.

Most of the tracks that follow are just as danceable, if a bit less upbeat. “Fire” warns its listeners to stay ready for anything (“When there’s nowhere to turn / Then you gotta learn / You gotta run / At the sound of the gun”). Staccato horns and electronic beats heighten the urgency in singer Eno Williams’s already compelling voice. In “Them Say”, Williams takes a subtler and more sensual approach as she contemplates memory (“Couldn’t help but notice / Steps upon the path / Streets are full of faces / Family from the past”) over curiously glimmering synths in one of the album’s most low-key and cosmically beautiful moments.

The final few tracks experiment with different moods and textures. “Touch the Ceiling” is a gentle ballad with strong 1980s pop vibes dripping from the keys. In clear contrast, the final two songs take on a harder edge than any previous cuts. “Far Away” pairs a disco bassline with a little guitar-based wailing and action-packed synths, while each beat of “Dance in the Rain” lands with an industrial sting. It makes for an unexpected ending to an album that finds many ways to be lively.

Pull the Rope lands about halfway between the block party brass of sophomore effort Uyai and the more fully plugged-in power of 2022’s Electricity. It hits that midpoint squarely, and in doing so, this record feels like it’s what Ibibio Sound Machine have always been working toward. The combination of styles here is much like that of their eponymous 2014 debut, but it’s exponentially more elevated. In the last ten years, Ibibio Sound Machine have gone from being exciting transcontinental party upstarts to a soulful, sophisticated phenomenon. Pull the Rope is a refreshing new chapter for a perpetually vibrant group.

RATING 8 / 10