It’s been 5 long years since the last album from Antibalas, NYC’s foremost Afrobeat ambassadors. Since then, they’ve passed the time with a few endeavors- a side project or two, some woodshedding, helping a few friends with albums and, lest we forget, the massive Broadway hit FELA!. In that musical, they assumed the role of Fela’s backing band, cutting down the genre’s notoriously lengthy live workouts to the far stricter demands of the stage. On the heels of that triumph, the band has returned with a new self-titled LP on Daptone Records, on which they present six funky, rhythmic jams perfect for a (new) nation of afrobeat fans to chew on.
Recorded at the Daptone’s House of Soul studios with the help of Gabriel Roth, an old producer and band member, the new album sees the band reconnecting with their roots, welcoming founding members back to the fold (Roth is joined by founding guitarist Luke O’Malley) while kicking out the jams with an album of remarkably straight-up afrobeat.
Given the dictates of the genre, this means that the album is beat heavy, with a thick layer of percussion matched and tested by the polyrhythms and counter-parts generated by a host of sound makers. This kind of density is one of the benefits of the size of the group. The 12-piece band is able to support numerous syncopated parts, laying down a solid foundational drive, and never straying from this musical interstate once it is established. “Rhythm is what make a good Afrobeat record,” says Gabriel Roth, and Antibalas takes this dictum to heart, employing every instrument in the service of the all-powerful grove.
But it comes at a cost. While the album gives its listener a healthy dose of afrobeat goodness, ultimately it’s just that. Don’t expect anything groundbreakingly new. While the members of Antibalas are as tight as ever, playing with a power and intensity that few modern-day afrobeat bands can match, its hard not to hear something a bit tired in this album’s single-minded focus on the form. As a result, the tracks lack much variation, and the breakdowns and solos (many of which are surprisingly confined) begin to seem predictable.
That said, the album definitely has a number of stellar moments. The initial single,“Dirty Money,” is politically-inclined gem, kicking off the album with a warm, organ-lead jam filled with celebratory horn skronk and the powerful vocals of Amayo, the group’s singer. It is also among the records most topical tracks, excoriating the corporations that profit at the expense of the workers during the current “Great Recession.” Connecting Fela to Occupy, it is the closest that Antibalas comes to matching the fire of the master. Other album highlights include “Him Belly No Go Sweet,” which features powerful horn hits, an exciting use of space, and tight percussion. While “Sare Kon Kon,” is another explosive jam filled wild horn races and a catchy melody.
While Antibalas has long had a significant audience, their role in FELA! brought the band to the international mainstage at an altogether different level. This has given them the opportunity to present afrobeat to a wide-ranging, international audience. While Antibalas does not explore any new territory, it is a excellent synthesis of the classic style, capturing the essence of the funky, Nigerian jam that is afrobeat.