Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Album review: A sufi and a killer - Gonja Sufi (Warp)

I was originally going to review this album upon its release about a month ago – I didn’t simply because I couldn’t get my head around it. It’s taken that time to fathom out exactly what is going on here. San Diego born Gonjasufi’s influences, to my ears, include the Stooges, Issac Hayes, the Beta band, the Muslim call to prayer, Frank Zappa and middle eastern funk and yet it doesn’t really sound like any of them. Snaps of beats and guitars are sung over in a voice that is at best earthy and to some ears at least, shambolic. Easy listening this ain’t.

Despite being on Warp records, Gonjasufi is a close associate of Flying Lotus and his Brainfeeder collective. Both Lotus himself and labelmate Gaslamp Killer have provided production on the album. If you’ve heard work by either of the two A Sufi and a killer is closer in sound to Gaslamp’s earthy beats than the cleaner digital sound of Flying Lotus. This isn’t really comparable to say Lotus’ LA LP or Hudsun Mohawke and other exponents of the ‘wonky’ sound as it’s become known instead drawing on the history of rock n roll to create something new.

The album starts with a real middle eastern vibe reminding this listener of the many Turkish psych reissues of recent years. The early highlight is the sitar driven Ancestors which, of all the tracks on the album, is the one that sounds most like Flying Lotus. Directly following it is Sheep which sees Gonja singing rather bafflingly about being a sheep rather than a lion, one of a number of tracks touching on religious themes lyrically. Somehow it still manages to be a quite lovely foray into folk music of a sort. He then moves onto a number of pieces (many tracks are less than two minutes long which makes the term song somewhat redundant) which evoke the spirit of garage rock n roll and acid rock – my personal favourite is Cowboys and Indians which starts off as a Sabbath stoner riff before being overlaid with African harmonies. Following track Suzie Q meanwhile summons the spirit of Iggy Pop. The third quarter is my favourite part of the album, drawing on orchestral soul and even disco. The beat on Change sounds like it could have been lifted directly from Hot Buttered Soul while Dust and Candylane provide different variations on p funk style grooves. This isn't simply a retro trip however as the cut up beats and Gonja's unique singing style create a frazzled but innovative approach which recalls both the strung out blues of the Mojave desert (where he resides) and the sounds of the current LA abstract hip hop scene. The final part of the album again has a real acid rock vibe at its heart (although both the Chemical Brothers and hip hop are in there somewhere) with Gonja’s melancholy vocals providing an emotional pull. ‘This rogue path I’m on I know is the only way’ he mumbles on Holidays and one can’t help but feel this is his approach to not only his music making but also his life.

Final song Made is a lovely coda which gives way to a bizarre reinterpretation of Status Quo’s Pictures of Matchstick Men. Somehow this feels entirely appropriate – as if the spirit of psychedelic music of 60's London has been passed to the crazed fuzzy beatmakers of the West coast.

Despite the range of sources and the crazy vocals it never quite falls apart. Admitedly on occassion it feels like a little too many ideas are crammed in - a greater sense of space would be nice, but Gonja’s magpie like tendencies bring to mind some wildly eclectic mixtape made by your cooler younger brother. This is indeed a wonderful mess. Gonja Sufi’s achievement is that he’s managed to create something clearly influenced by what has come before and yet something completely new. What that something is I’m not exactly sure – this is a form of music which is truly unclassifiable and for that reason alone this could be an important album. I suspect it will appeal to music critics and musicians in particular – people who take their music really seriously (I note that this week Jim Goodwin of the Doves was raving about it) and as such its influence may take some time to be felt or perhaps it is destined to be merely a cult classic. Either way, if you are serious about hearing where music is heading (as well as where it has been) you should seek this out.

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