‘Better Men’ is Speedboat’s most socially-conscious EP to date
Watching KONONO NO.1 live can be exhausting. Stripped down to a more tour-friendly six piece, while the Congolese band’s set at the Scala last month wasn’t the five or six hour set of legend, it barely gave anyone in the audience a chance to breathe, pausing only momentarily between songs before launching straight into another. Curiously though, while parts of the audience seemed bewildered by the non-stop action, the band themselves nonchalantly soldiered from one number to the next, exhibiting little on-stage movement save for their sole female member and dancing foil (who admittedly did show a few signs of fatigue but smilingly refused to give in).
But if the band themselves are virtually motionless, their “Bazombo Trance” comes with the type of relentless driving force you might expect from a band whose instruments are made from disused car parts (a true industrial outfit then, and ecologically sound too). It might be difficult to tell the songs apart – each song hurtles forward with the same incredible forward thrust, making it hard to know where one ends and another starts, but this quality is what makes Konono’s albums so radical and why, for all the contrived comparisons, they still don’t really sound like anyone else. Anything more in the mix and it would probably be a disappointment.
Though on this evidence, it might not be. Whether their own decision or that of Belgian producer Vincent Kenis, ‘Assume Crash Position’ seems to present the band in a more relaxed mode, opting for less distortion in favour of a purer production and a seemingly sweeter tack all round. Rhythmically it’s as thickly packed as usual – Konono still specialise in making percussion sing, with little time for much else. This time around though, that little else lends to a pleasing tweak of their usual setup, with limber guitars, offhand melodies and various instrumental flourishes that though never intrusive – the ikembes and drums still come first – make ‘Assume Crash Position’ a minor but still surprising twist of Konono’s usual formula.
Nakobala Lisusu Te, the closing track takes it even further, the most melodic piece the band has released so far. Bazombo Blues rather than Trance, it’s an uncharacteristically delicate, ultra-spare lament based around nothing but fragile acoustic ikembe picks and a casually woeful vocal. Whether the band always had this side but kept it hidden until now to keep their presentation simple, or they’ve just started branching out a little, who knows – for a unit that’s undergone so many personnel changes and survived some 44 years, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn there’s more to them than originally set out. But it’s a smart way to close an album from a band who most thought only had one lane, even if it’s still a seriously glorious one.