Ibibio Sound Machine makes a remarkable comeback with sophomore album Uyai, taking the modern highlife beats of their eponymous debut album and making them bigger, brighter, and with a thousand times more funk. This album is a non-stop block party, bursting with summer soul and retro electronics. Dance beats go hard, singer Eno Williams lets her softer side show, and the band finds itself fearless in uncharted musical territory as Ibibio goes to the stars.
The group shows miles of growth throughout its newest album. Where Ibibio Sound Machine was fun, a playful mix of electronics, Nigerian folk stories, and simple, powerful rhythms, Uyai has a heavier tread. The band ventures forth with newfound confidence, and it goes a long way. When we last left them, driving rhythms were Ibibio Sound Machine’s greatest strength, and that hasn’t changed; what has is the music around those beats, the now-rich diversity of tempos and styles. Most of the album is brassy, electric dance pop; “Guide U” takes it all the way to the ’80s with some truly exuberant synths — judging by the name and the sounds, it’s got to be at least a passive Prince tribute, and one with the right spirit. “Cry” finishes the album on an entirely different note, a poignant mixture of sorrow and bliss.
In the middle of it all, Ibibio Sound Machine heads off on a journey that takes it farther from highlife than it’s been to date with tracks “Quiet” and “Joy”. “Quiet” is shiver-inducingly beautiful, all echoing guitar and Williams’ poignant storytelling (mostly in the Ibibio language, but with emotion surpassing any linguistic barriers), and glides smoothly into the intergalactic rock of “Joy”. The electronics and horns return on the latter track, an even stronger propulsion system for Williams. Together, the two tracks provide an introspective, melody-focused break from the dance music, but one that still soars, a buoyant, slowly-building ecstasy.
Lead single “The Pot Is on Fire” is catchy and accessible, not ground-breaking but complete with a single-line chorus for crowds to sing along to with gleeful abandon. It feels good, the kind of tune that fills a human body with the irresistible urge to move, and that’s a theme of many of Uyai’s more upbeat tracks. “Give Me a Reason” may be an even stronger dance track, with simple synth lines that sound like Speaking in Tongues-era Talking Heads and energetic staccato shouts — “Give! Me! A reason!” — that add fuel to an already blazing fire.
To pack so many Nigerian and Western musical flavors into only 11 tracks is a staggering accomplishment. The heavy electronics of “The Chant” are countered by the lighter, highlife-ready tones of “One That Lights Up”; “Power of 3” is a classic Afrobeat frenzy, while “Lullaby” is cool, breezy, and a little bit new wave. While Ibibio Sound Machine is not afraid to experiment, though, Uyai doesn’t sound like aimless dabbling. What it sounds like is a band that has found its groove and knows how to run with it in any direction it pleases. Ibibio Sound Machine is now in full control of its sound, and it’s that knowledge that allows the group to truly let loose.