Exuberant grooves and a growing sense of musicianship mark WITCH's first foray into true Afro rock.
In the short span of time between Zambia's independence from the United Kingdom and the onset of nationwide economic distress, no band ruled the fuzzy, funky Zamrock scene like WITCH. Short for We Intend To Cause Havoc, its brief and brilliant career took up about half of the 1970s, after which it lay unknown to most of the world until Now-Again Records began rereleasing an anthology of its discography a few years back (a successful endeavor that has now led to each of the albums becoming available as separate releases).
Lukombo Vibes, WITCH's fourth album, sees the band about to hit its musical heights. Compared to its earlier garage rock albums— Introduction and In The Past—and the unfettered psychedelic masterpiece Lazy Bones!!, the WITCH of Lukombo Vibes is serious and masterful, playing tightly-coiled funk as easily as folk-rock ballads. Finding itself at a crossroads between genres, WITCH takes the best possible path: all of them.
While psych rock still rules the roost, this album marks WITCH's first significant foray into the style of Afro rock that was already sweeping West Africa and much of the Anglophone world. Having just finished a regional tour with London-based Afropop group Osibisa before recording its fourth album, WITCH's incorporation of local folk music elements makes perfect sense and blends perfectly into WITCH's diverse stylistic repertoire. Deep Purple-style organs meet smoking percussion and catchy Zambian rhythms from the very start of the album, on opener "Thou Shalt Not Cry". Elsewhere, fuzzy guitars and simple chord progressions make for catchy, LSD-tinged rock songs like the driving "Devil's Flight" and funky "Nasauka". Also, "Kangalaitoito" shows off some of WITCH's brightest moments, like quick, fluid keys and more traditional folk percussion instruments in place of the drum kit present throughout most of the rest of the album.
In the midst of all this heady, electrifying mayhem, a couple of slower tunes pop up (which is always a possible side effect when a rock band reaches maturity). Straying so far into mellow introspection doesn't suit WITCH's rough edges, and the wintry "Evening of My Life", sandwiched between the two funkiest tunes on Lukombo Vibes, is a drag that fills without substance. Relying on vocal tenderness isn't the right move for WITCH, whose lyrics are best when belted and whose choruses are meant for stadium crowd sing-a-longs.
Aside from those few weak points, though, Lukombo Vibes is a true crowd-pleaser, with all the raw energy and dark undercurrents of their early works tempered by waves of tropical Technicolor, fun and polished. Inviting comparisons to Hendrix and the Stones just as readily as it does to continental contemporaries like the Funkees and Verckys, the album also showcases what could have been a perfect combination of skills to take the world by storm as surely as any band out of Nigeria (that is, had things gone differently for Zambia). As it was, authoritarian curfews relegated WITCH and its Zamrock contemporaries to daytime TV appearances, all but burying their impact outside of their home nation.
Now resurrected in all its lo-fi glory, WITCH's music has shown that it has a real chance to thrive in a whole new decade; after the wild success of Now-Again's WITCH anthology in 2012, this album was first reissued separately on vinyl in 2013, and sold well enough to earn itself this year's repress. Lukombo Vibes testifies to the group's staying power and versatility with exuberant grooves and a growing sense of musicianship. It's a crucial part of the WITCH oeuvre that deserves a close listen, and a solid, grittier alternative to the more well-known funk-rock groups playing on the other side of the continent and gaining world fame.