Album Review: Ibeyi – Ash

By on Friday, 3rd November 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Ibeyi Ash coverFrench-Cuban twin sister duo Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, collectively Ibeyi, released their sophomore album ‘Ash’ at the end of September, at the youthful age of 22 years apiece. Their self-titled debut LP only came out 2 years ago, but in the interim the pair have attained a sense of maturity and confidence in their music-making, as well as moving on to address more serious and socially relevant thematic material.

Song titles like ‘I Carried This for Years’ and ‘When Will I Learn’ convey the kind of heaviness that comes from living in a constant state of fear and oppression. The former track is a dramatic and singularly appropriate lead-in to the rest of the album. Its synthetic-sounding choral voices in the former track immediately set a tone of anxiety or even dread, while the cacophonous overlay of the vocal and instrumental parts implies chaos and confusion. Nearer to the end of the album, ‘When Will I Learn’ is more introspective, taking refuge in the music itself as the lyrics lament, “I can’t climb on tall trees, I don’t bend like the reeds, but I can play on the drums . . .” as a contemplative piano melody emerges from the context of drum machine rhythms and filtered vocals.

Early single ‘Away Away’ is another song where the sisters find freedom in their music, employing soaring vocal harmonies and joyful Afro-Caribbean rhythms under mixed language lyrics in a combination that sounds distinctly celebratory. By contrast, recent single ‘Deathless’ featuring saxophonist Kamasi Washington (below) gives some insight about what Ibeyi might be seeking refuge from, namely cultural and sexual oppression. Written about Lisa-Kaindé’s detainment by a racist police officer when she was, as her lyrics state, “innocent / sweet sixteen / frozen with fear”, its stylistically metaphorical video treatment emphasises rebirth after trauma. Bold, concise lyrical lines, jarring rhythmic shifts, and a deftly-rendered solo from Washington place this among the LP’s outstanding moments. Read more about Lisa-Kaindé’s encounter with the police officer in this interview with NPR.

‘I Wanna Be Like You’ expands on the longing for freedom with a fortuitous outtake from the recording process, where Lisa-Kaindé asks portentously, “Can I have a tiny bit more of my voice?” The song’s deep, sensual bass is viscerally entrancing, and sister Naomi’s distant backing vocals serve to heighten the hypnotically seductive soundscape. The flip side of that coin is album standout ‘No Man is Big Enough for My Arms’, whose title speaks for itself in terms of feminism and self-realisation. Its powerful musical treatment, including vocal samples from former First Lady Michelle Obama, is squarely on point with its message.

Several tracks on ‘Ash’ use autotune on the vocal lines, not as a crutch to hide poor singing, but rather as an intentional sonic device. In the Spanish language song ‘Me Voy’, which features guest vocals from Mala Rodriguez, the autotune filter creates a sharper and edgier sound in contrast to Ibeyi’s usual soft sensuality. Eponymous album closer ‘Ash’ combines synthetic filtering with natural vocal harmonies to create a brilliantly vivid, yet darkly dramatic effect.

Like its predecessor, ‘Ash’ the album relies heavily on Ibeyi’s signature sound, comprising Lisa-Kaindé’s softly sensual vocal style and Naomi’s pervasive organic rhythms. Neither is necessarily unique in and of itself, but for Ibeyi, lyrics and rhythm take on equal importance, intertwining inseparably and providing both momentum and dramatic impetus to the songs. With this new record, Ibeyi have purposefully expanded their sonic palette in both areas to encompass a set of broader, more outward-looking range of lyrical themes, demonstrating an astonishing musical growth in the process.

8/10

Ibeyi’s second LP ‘Ash’ is out now on XL Recordings. The pair are currently on tour in North America, playing tomorrow night in Philadelphia. Our past coverage of Ibeyi, including a live review from SXSW 2015, is back through here.

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