9 March 2018
Scottish based collective, Young Fathers, have always pushed at the expectations of what a band should be. Over their 10 years as a band, the trio of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham 'G' Hastings have reveled in consistently taking the road less traveled. Whether it be in defying commercial pressures to follow up their 2014 debut album Dead with 2015's willfully abrasive White Men Are Black Men Too, or providing a score for Topher Campbell's art film Fetish, they are a band who appreciate the value of music as artistic expression rather than throwaway commodity.
White Men Are Black Men Too solidified the band's standing as an excitingly unpredictable band. At times the album felt like a group trying to glue a broken bottle back together, so splintered and disparate were its various elements. New album, Cocoa Sugar, is, without doubt, the bands most accessible to date but don't think for a moment that they have compromised their sound in pursuit of mainstream success. For every hook or vocal melody, there is a contrasting, experimental noise, as if the band are at pains to scuff up the sound if things become too comfortable. It's this juxtaposition that makes the album such a thrilling listen.
Opener "See How" sets the blueprint for the album as a whole. More stripped back than previous work it rides a deep, shadowy grime beat backed by the majestic power of a gospel choir. Music writer G. Hastings adds strangulated saxophone notes that he warps and bends to add a little dissonance. Rather than overly downbeat, the song comes across as more world-weary but with an overriding sense that 'what will be, will be'. "Fee Fi" with its chanted, repetitive hook line, shuffling beat and slightly off-kilter, old-time piano sound takes its maverick cut-up approach from J Dilla. Willfully lo-fi, it contains one of the album's darkest and most sinisterly delivered lines with "Give me slice / I like your flesh / I know what's best."
"In My View" can rightfully stand up as one of the most straightforward but catchiest songs the trio have ever written. Carried by a thick synth bassline and minimal beats it shows off what the band is capable of when they push themselves to write more linearly. The soulful "Turn" simultaneously mixes more radiant dance beats with forthright, reflective lyrics - In a way coming across like a Jamie XX mix of a Massive Attack track. In comparison the relatively stark, "Lord" relies on bright, fluttering piano notes and a gospel choir, giving it an expected spiritual quality. However, this is a Young Fathers song. Never ones to take the expected path they deliberately add sonic jolts with long droning notes like short, sharp electric shocks. The effect is dazzling.
Equally thrilling is the way in which each of the three members contributes on the album. Whether it be a rap, a vocal hook or melody, each song manages to be representative of the three artists in the group. That can easily be seen on "Tremolo" where the interplay between the three-piece works to excellent effect. The trio takes fairly rudimentary clashes of percussion and funereal organ and elevates it to become magnificently life-affirming - something far more than the sum of its parts. The spiritual element and the importance of faith are present throughout, from the gospel choirs to the lyrics on songs such as on "Holy Ghost" where Kayus Bankole passionately declares "I got the holy ghost fire in me."
Elsewhere, the rip and ripple of "Wow" marries a twitchy, rumbling beat with spaced out almost deadpan vocal delivery - like TV on The Radio experimenting with grime. "Wire" squeezes together a pulsating dub grove and then folds in some jungle, afro-beat and even some trance to create a rumbling bed for the mesmerizing refrain of "Oh yeah fucker I can dance / Oh yeah fucker I can love."
The skittering "Toy" provides another nimble vocal work out for Kankole and Alloysious Massaquoi with killer lines like "I'm chasing shadows in the gallows / Collecting what was stolen from me" and the chorus of, "You're just a broken a little toy / You silly boy." Again, it's devastatingly effective. Closer "Picking You" provides a stunningly heartfelt conclusion to the album. Accompanied by marching drums and full, organ chords the three come together perfectly for a poignant coda of "You'll never find your way to heaven / But you can follow me."
At times consciously oblique, Cocoa Sugar is an album that retains an enigmatic quality. Provocative when it needs to be, it steers well clear of addressing current world issues explicitly. It doesn't try to answer the difficult questions; rather it invites the listener to delve into their minds to find out the answers for themselves. As a result, this is an album that will resonate in five, ten, 15 years times - and they did it on their terms.