Album Review: Antibalas – Where the Gods are at Peace

Stands on the verge of getting it on and chokes at the last moment.

Genre: Afrobeat with progressive rock and jazz fusion influences
Country: United States
Release date: September 15, 2017
Label: Daptone Records
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: DAP-046

Duke Amayo – lead vocals, vibraphone, congas, percussion
Martin Perna – baritone sax
Jordan McLean – trumpet
Raymond Mason – trombone
Jas Walton – tenor sax
Marcos Garcia – guitar
Timothy Allen – guitar
Nikhil P. Yerawadekar – bass, keyboards, percussion
Will Rast – Hammond organ, electric piano
Reinaldo Dejesus – congas, percussion
Marcus Farrar – shekere
Kevin Raczka – percussion
Miles Arntzen – drums
Zap Mama – vocals (tracks 4 and 5)
Morgan Price – alto sax
Lollise Mbi – background vocals
Domenica Fossati – background vocals
Mayteana Morales – background vocals



Gold Rush



Hook and Crook



Tombstown I: Good Doer


II: Mami Water Town


III: Gates of Zion


Total running time:


Every Afrobeat ensemble dwells under the shadow of Fela Kuti. It was, of course, Fela who created the style in the first place, and his gravitational pull on it is so absolute that none can escape—to play Afrobeat is to be, to a greater or lesser extent, a Fela Kuti worship band. Brooklyn’s Antibalas have, until now, been seemingly comfortable in their role as torch-bearers for Fela’s legacy, with their previous self-titled album having been a particularly conservative effort that toed the line between homage and blatant imitation. Sure, songs like “Dirty Money” and “Him Belly No Go Sweet” were fun Fela Kuti soundalikes, but they were practically note by note from the Fela Kuti playbook. Perhaps they themselves were aware of this, as it was five long years until their next album, and it, Where the Gods are in Peace is by far their most ambitious work yet.

As a mostly American ensemble, Antibalas is well grounded in jazz and Anglo-American art rock, two forms of music that, like Afrobeat, tend towards extended compositions with lots of development. A few other ensembles, most notably the Canadian ensemble The Souljazz Orchestra, have tried it before, but their understanding of Afrobeat was much more limited than Antibalas’ (who have an actual Nigerian member who does much of the songwriting) and a lot of their music comes off as fairly conventional jazz fusion with Afrobeat influences. Where the Gods are in Peace is a far more developed work that blends the African and the American together to much greater effect.

While traditional Afrobeat tends to deliver most of its melodies as quick stabs so as not to get in the way of the rhythm, Where the Gods are in Peace mixes these sorts of leads with longer, more sinuous melodic lines, especially from the organ and guitar. It is also more inclined to do variations and developments on the melodies as well as the rhythms, though the groove remains Antibalas’ first priority. However, one element that gets its priority significantly downgraded is the hand percussion, always a prominent if not dominant element in most Antibalas music, which is now mostly buried in the mix beneath the drums, and only can really be heard in the infrequent moments when the drummer backs off.

The production is quite disappointing both in vinyl and digital forms, and the overloud, overbearing drums are a major part of that. The entire drum kit is subject to massive dynamic range compression, so the drums and cymbals ring out loudly and then get sharply cut off. Complex polyrhythmic textures produced by the drums and percussion are turned into a lumpy, thumpy bludgeoning. The guitars are all but inaudible most of the time except for dedicated lead spots, while the horns saturate the soundstage with the slightest breath. Even on the vinyl the dynamics of this music are extremely limited, which undermines its artistic aspiration. Everything is either 100% or zero, with no light and shade. This is especially frustrating because previous Antibalas albums like Who is This America? had quite good productions with strong dynamics and expansive soundstages that put the music in the best possible light.

The physical vinyl itself, at least, is of excellent quality. It’s a 200-gram record, but there are none of the non-fill and other manufacturing issues commonly associated with superheavyweight discs, and the surface is extremely quiet. The vinyl mix removes the overall compression, but the compression done to individual instruments is still preserved—they basically hit “Undo” a few times in their DAW rather than bother to do a proper vinyl mix. The jacket is rather flimsy and I’m surprised it didn’t crack a bit at the top or bottom, but the Roger Dean-like album cover is beautifully printed. Less beautiful is the disc label, which has an obnoxious moiré pattern printed on it which assaults the eyes and makes the label text far more difficult to read.

This is not even all the people who play on the record.

At least, if the musicianship on this album is not well captured by the mix, it is excellent. The organ’s role is greatly expanded on this album compared to most Afrobeat, and uses the full range of the Hammond’s sonic palette instead of just imitating Fela Kuti’s piano-like lead playing all the time. Even when the sax, brass, guitars, drums, and percussion are all going in different directions, they’re still all able to lock into the groove in their own way, which is a difficult thing to achieve in a band with a dozen plus musicians. The saxophonists have an incredible amount of agility and sometimes inject classical ornaments and phrasing into their leads—even Martin Perna’s big baritone sax has none of the sloppiness you often hear in low-register sax playing in popular music. Duke Amayo’s singing is a bit more refined in technique than on previous albums, but still retains a raw feel and the characteristic Nigerian English dialect of Afrobeat. Unlike Fela, Amayo frequently code-switches between the Nigerian vernacular and standard English so the lyrics are much easier to understand. The lyrics retain Antibalas’ solidly left-wing politics, definitely socialist but not quite revolutionary—nobody will be Up Against the Wall in the vision of a better society presented in “Hook and Crook” even if they probably should be.

It is probably fitting then, that the most confrontational song on the album is also the best. “Gold Rush” is an uptempo, aggressive opener that unfolds from a single jazz-rock drum beat into a dense polyphonic overture led by the horn section, which frequently splits into saxes and brass to play two interlocking melodies, to which the guitars and organ sometimes adds a third or even fourth line, with the drums and percussion likewise playing different but related things that fit together into a rhythmic texture that subtly changes and morphs as the music proceeds. Then many of the instruments drop away and the song goes into a lyrical section involving a framing story where a cowboy named Coloma (any resemblance to “Columbus” being most definitely intentional) asks a very privileged white question to a Native American leader and gets the bloody history of European imperialism thrown back in his face—millions of hostile conquerors sweeping across the land with no justification other than naked force, in a maelstrom of bloodshed to seize the natural resources the indigenous people had wisely left undisturbed in the name of “progress” and “development” and other nebulous abstractions conquerors use to make their lusts seem noble. What isn’t abstract is the violence, the cruelty, the indulgence in base acquisitive instincts—the gold rush. I’m not sure how to feel about a Nigerian using a Nigerian dialect of English to sing about the plight of indigenous Americans, but if this is appropriation, at least it comes off much better coming from a fellow in the struggle against racism than from the white overlords. Amayo might not know the dispossession of the Native Americans personally, but he knows dispossession. As the song nears its conclusion, it becomes louder and denser, the themes introduced earlier in the song being recapitulated as the rhythm builds to a frenzy and the tone of the lyrics become ever more accusatory. As the music reaches peak intensity, Amayo belts out a plaintive “where is my gold? / Buffalo soldier asking / Indigenous warrior wanna know”, but everyone already knows the answer, except, of course, for the people who stole all the gold and insist on pretending it was theirs all along.

The following song “Hook and Crook” is the shortest composition and the most straightforward Afrobeat song on the whole record, sounding a lot like the self-titled album but a bit dressier. It also has the most positive outlook, having little of the anger of “Gold Rush” or the sorrow of “Tombstown”, and relying mostly on major scales. The drums back off considerably here, especially the snare and cymbals, allowing the percussion to define more of the rhythm. The middle of the song has probably the best sax solo on the record, a tenor sax that starts out sounding like something straight off a Fela Kuti record with Africa 70, before steadily and seamlessly morphing into a more jazz idiom as it gets faster and more intense. The lyrics speak less of the horrors of colonialism than the dream of a reciprocal, egalitarian “permaculture” after it is vanquished and the will of the people to overcome capitalism and the necessity for marginalized people to remove the colonialist framework constraining their thoughts to be able to fight oppression; any ideas on how they might fight are apparently left up to the individual listener. Overall I think it’s not quite as great as “Gold Rush”, but it never drags or becomes boring.

“Tombstown” is where Antibalas reveal the full sweep of their ambition, a three-part quasi-symphonic suite riding on an afrobeat groove. It goes on for over fourteen minutes, there are dynamic buildups and breakdowns, themes that are introduced, developed, and recapitulated, several different moods that are cycled through…and it drags. Central to the idea of afrobeat is the groove, the one groove that continues with no breaks through the entire song, keeping the energy up, keeping the dancers moving. It cannot radically speed up or slow down, it cannot change direction, and it certainly cannot stop. The Africa 70 orchestra’s massive improvisational adventures on Fela Kuti records all worked in service to advancing, deepening, and extending the groove for as long as necessary. Long-form symphonic composition, whether used in its original form with a European orchestra or with other arrangements, works via more of a narrative logic, and tends to wander, shifting through keys and tempos and speeding up and slowing down, sometimes dropping into ambience and building things up again anew, but always maintaining the churn of new and interesting ideas that provide its backbone, the counterpart to the rhythmic motor of afrobeat. What Antibalas tried to do was have it both ways, to force a symphonic suite to conform to a groove, and it cannot help but seem like a compromise. It presents all these grandiose melodies that parade forth one after another and the song tries for some grand emotional journey, but the musical connective tissue that would make this a journey and not a series of scenes would require a much more mutable rhythm, so here the groove turns against itself and becomes more of a loop, repeating endlessly, on and on, confining the music.

Not all of it is so flawed though. This song is kind of backwards from most flawed suite-type pieces, in that it’s the middle movement that is the most compelling. “Mami Water Town” uses a contrasting bass line and chord progression from the rest of the song, and where the opening and closing movements are very optimistic, even joyous, “Mami Water Town” is full of grim foreboding, with lyrics, pregnant with symbolism, describing white pirates arriving in Africa to buy captives to work the fields in the newly colonized Americas, and Duke Amayo really sells it with a hard, frantic edge of anxiety in his voice as he describes the Europeans picking out slaves: “Who, me? Yes, you! And you! And you, and you too!” Everything here works in the dream logic of metaphor and imagery, with some pretty wild poetry about a European “sheriff” with no face descending on a chariot of fire in pursuit of Amayo as the dreamer, building up a thunderous, climactic wall of brass, and then—it slips right back into the groove without missing a beat and brings back the old major chord progression for the third movement. Such climaxes into recapitulation are common in this sort of composition, but with only chords and a bass line separating the contrasting section from the main section, there’s not enough of a change, and the climax becomes an anticlimax when you realize there are four and a half more minutes and it’s not going anywhere except for some belting contralto vocals from guest singer Zap Mama to provide some novelty, but not enough. Not enough to satisfy this piece’s ambitions. It wants to be an epic, but the rules it is following will not allow that, and instead of breaking the rules of the two styles and doing something truly unprecedented, Antibalas play it safe, reining in their Afro-prog vision on the very cusp of its realization.

This is an almost record. Almost revolutionary, almost a landmark achievement, almost a reinvigoration of a doddering, decrepit instrumental music tradition in North America, which has been spinning its wheels while electronic music in various forms has been advancing for the past quarter century. In the end, Antibalas found a possible road out of the 1992 that never ended, gazed upon the musical promised land somewhere far off in the distance, and then turned back towards the safety of being a conventional success rather than risk an interesting failure. Our entertainment machine no longer tolerates interesting failures. For every In the Court of the Crimson King there has to be a Their Satanic Majesties Request (or several), and if a band releases even one such bizarre experiment and it flops, at best they’ll never be able to do anything without the corporate overlords being involved, and just as often their careers simply end. But somewhere, beyond rock music, past the gates of Zion, with capitalist culture vultures far behind, is the town where the gods are in peace, the instrumental music of the future where all that was repressed is made manifest. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see it someday.

Rating: 80%

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