Published on February 27th, 2014 | by Jonathan Wallace0
Young Fathers – Dead
Calling your album Dead doesn’t exactly promise a party, and to that end Young Fathers deliver few surprises. Take them at face value as hip-hop however and your expectations are much likelier to be challenged (unless perhaps your hip-hop collection is already coming down with acts boasting lineage from Liberia, Nigeria and Scotland). It might be difficult to imagine cold what such a combination might sound like, but once you’ve heard it, generally it adds up.
The beats are the most obvious link to Africa – ironic though that may be since chief producer ‘G’ Hastings is the Scottish element of the trio. The rhythms on the whole are far from that generally associated with hip-hop. Instead think of a Sub-Saharan drumming tradition communicating the patterns of life. On second thoughts, a closer comparison is the defiant yet resigned cadence of a slave spiritual. As I said this is no party. Mind you, that gospel link is noteworthy and one that Young Fathers employ as the album’s greatest strength. The most successful tracks here have at their core a powerful choral refrain, a multi-voiced, harmonised hook that (almost) enlivens the proceedings. Don’t forget that title though.
The music on Dead is another element incongruous with hip-hop. There are comparisons to be drawn with with underground hip-hop for sure (Dälek, the more esoteric Def Jux stuff) but worth more of a mention is a shared musical thread with current neo-psychedelic US indie rock. Textures reminiscent of Fuck Buttons or Animal Collective consistently creep around in the murk. A plethora of haunting tones, whirs and ambient noise swirl around to keep your attention and to maintain the often ghoulish atmosphere. At the same time, Young Fathers exhibit a certain confidence with both their sonic restraint and liberal use of space. The album’s signature sound though, has to be a vintage synth that is modulated to all bejesus. If you’ve ever listened to an LP with the hole cut slightly off centre you’ll get the idea. It’s here, there and everywhere and thankfully rarely as extreme as on ‘Just Another Bullet’ where it induces seasickness on even the most solid of dry land. They can leave that keyboard at home next time they visit the studio.
However gloomy the musical stew, it’s lyrically where Dead earns its title. Kayus Bankole and Alloysious Massaquoi have flow, a good turn of phrase and a decent vocabulary. Their subject matter is distinctly sombre. An overall abstractness is flavoured with glimpses of underclass existence, violence, political strife, psycho-sexual encounters and references to their West African roots, throughout which appear regular references to death and killing. The effect is self-consciously powerful but fundamentally exclusionary. Sketching outlines and allowing the listener to fill in the gaps is a tried and tested lyrical ploy but it only works when the outlines are captivating enough to persuade that listener to bother engaging. Either this is strictly abstraction or the language is too personal to the artists as to generate any empathy from the listener. Let us in.
Young Fathers have conceived an original blend in their craft and in doing so have created a credible platform to deliver their message. Whether they have a message or not is, as yet, unclear. Perhaps Young Fathers are determined to stay true to their art, remain underground and have no desire to encourage mass appeal. Only the more upbeat ‘Get Up’ comes close but is undoubtedly a highlight. The rhythms and sounds show signs of life, but the words, though impressive are nonetheless the evidence of the coldness on Dead. Jonathan Wallace
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