Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Album of the Week #16

Artist: William Onyeabor
Album: Who is William Onyeabor?
Year: 2013
Label: Luaka Bop

Enigmatic afro-electro-synth-funk

Who is William Onyeabor? It's a question I pondered for the first time earlier this year - and thank goodness I did - even though nobody appears to be any closer to answering the original question. The mysterious Onyeabor released no fewer than eight albums between 1977 and 1985, then suddenly disappeared without a trace, retiring from music. No interviews, no explanation. It was only last year that record label Luaka Bop elected to gather together his finest work in the latest compilation in their World Psychedelic Classics series. Now, finally, his pioneering music has reached the widespread audience that it deserves.

Even now, it's an album that sounds futuristic and otherworldly in its soundscapes together with its bewildering fusion of afrobeat, funk and synths. Three of the songs on the collection go over the ten minute mark, which gives you some idea of the ambition and scope that underpins this compilation. But arguably the most incredible feature of this record is its total isolation from any other scenes, influences or genres. Recorded in Onyeabor's own studio, this almost mythical figure was doing things on these albums that matched or even surpassed the work of his contemporaries in Europe and America. Just as the electronic scene was slowly gathering pace across the water, this trailblazer had already made his own revolutionary sonic explorations .

It was after the recent release of the Searching for Sugarman-esque documentary, Fantastic Man, that a little more light was shone on Onyeabor. His retreat into a life devoted to religion comes as less of a surprise when you consider a lot of his lyrics, which addressed themes of materialism, war and love. These themes simply add another string to his considerable bow. Funky looped guitars and synth fade in and out to jittery afro rhythms and electronic beats on Good Name, whilst Atomic Bomb's bizarre, soaring electronic sounds are the perfect complement to its melodic chorus.

Who is William Onyeabor? is a supreme collection of songs from an almost unknown talent in the field of electronic music. He marries strong melodies with layer after layer of skittery noises and loops to create a sound that the likes of Damon Albarn, Alexis Taylor and Pat Mahoney have since confessed a love for. Yet it is the total single-minded nature of the record and the artist which sets it apart from other work. It makes the record utterly unique, and most importantly, a joy to listen to.

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