The first thing you notice about Shabaka Hutchings' latest project, Sons of Kemet, is the unexpectedly large feel to the recording's soundscape. Not only does it have the hallmarks of a warmer analogue past but the reverb is at times extraordinary, being akin to hearing the band play in an immense auditorium with twice as many musicians as the relatively paltry core quartet listed in the credits. Drummer and producer Sebastian Rochford explained in interview that this was achieved by passing the band's microphones through echo machines from which he did live improvised takes that were underlaid behind the original recordings. Rochford also passed Hutchings' clarinet through a tape machine that had an intermittent 'wobble' and replaced the pristine original version with the tape version. Whatever the technique the result is arrestingI'm not sure whether Rochford achieved his intention of the sound being that of the band playing with all of their ancestors around them but it sounds remarkable and adds greatly to the collection.
The effect of this expansive sound world is to emphasise the feeling of a collective endeavour that complements Hutchings' discussions of the principle of universal consciousness from Kemetic philosophy. As I understand it, the main idea is that the aim of our lives should be to raise our consciousness to empathise with others and musically this shows in the band emphasis on the overall sound and the mutual trust required to build it. In Hutchings' own words "So many small things are happening... Things move almost by themselves. I don't need to push it in any particular direction." Hutchings' personal sense of connection to this philosophy is further reinforced by his shared name with the last Nubian King to rule over Upper and Lower Egypt who also, apparently, wrote the ideological Kemetic principles that became the foundation of Greek philosophy and western thinking.
Philosophy aside, the album's foundation is the heavy rhythmic stew provided by the dual drums of Rochford and Tom Skinner, with Oren Marshall's tuba filling the place where you might otherwise have expected to find the bass. Marshall's contribution in particular adds to the unusual feel of the albumthe tuba sometimes sounding as if distorted like an electric bass guitar, yet at the same time its earthy brass sound gives a hint of an early reggae feel. Of course this is no ska sing along, as is made abundantly clear by the album's closing cover of the Melodians "Rivers of Babylon." The piece is played not as the original's reggae ballad, but more like it were part of some strange ancient ritual and not a rewrite of a psalm. It really is a very very long way from both Kingston and Boney M.
If there is to be a reference point for this remarkable music, then perhaps the faster tracks bring to mind the spirit of post punk innovators Rip Rig & Panic or Pigbag. Certainly opener "All Will Surely Burn" or "Inner Babylon" would not sound out of place on Dr Heckle and Mister Jive, and serve as a reminder of a distant time when the leftfield and interesting could still infiltrate the pop charts. Like those bands Sons of Kemet sound like a fantastic live actgreat to hear in the sort of small club where the walls sweat and the audience is free to dance. "Going Home"'s dub effects and "Song For Galeano"'s Augustus Pablo feel show a more explicit reggae influence but never to the extent that the album could comfortably be pigeon-holed.
And that, ultimately, is the great strength of the collection. The blend of influences and innovative production lift the collection onto a higher level beyond that of simply well played, innovative, danceable jazz. Props too should go to the Naim label for their ongoing dual commitment both to sonic excellence and young British jazz that has once more borne fruit in this excellent collection.
Track Listing: All Will Surely Burn; The Godfather; Inner Babylon; The Book of
Disquiet; Going Home; Adonia's Lullaby; Song for Galeano; Beware; The
Itis; Rivers of Babylon