Richly Creepy Vintage Afrobeat Grooves from Karthala 72
Karthala 72, right down to their name, evoke the crazed, surreal, most menacing side of the psychedelic funk coming out of Nigeria and Ethiopia in the 70s. Is their recently issued album Diable du Feu (Fire Devil) in fact an obscure treasure from that era? As you probably guessed by now, it’s not: the band is from Brooklyn. But hearing the music, you could easily fool someone who wasn’t hip to the scheme. And Karthala 72’s take on that era is spot-on, right down to the haphazard, seemingly on-the-fly production complete with dirty, distorted bass. What’s coolest about this album is that most of the songs are short: even though most of them are one or two-chord jams, they never go on so long that they get boring. The effect is just the opposite: the listener is left wishing they’d go on for twice as long because the band is thrashing the living hell out of them.
The album opens with the title track, a creepy chromatic horror surf guitar riff rising over circular, blippy bass and boomy percussion. Swirly sax takes it back from chaos to that evil opening riff – and then they’re done in less than three minutes. The raga-funk Marche de la Mort (Death Market) is sort of Within You Without You done as macabre Afrobeat, while the slow, hypnotic Bahari Farasi works call-and-response guitars into a surreal clave groove.
Armour Sombre is a brisk Afrobeat-rock shuffle with clattering percussion that harks back to 80s noiserock bands like Savage Republic (who ironically were influenced by the original stuff from Africa) as much as it does Fela. The same goes for Dans le Coeur Du Feu (In the Heart of the Fire), the A-side of their 2011 Electric Cowbell 7.”
The B-side of that single, Dolores sets surprisingly blithe sax against a brooding one-chord trance vamp. The longest jam here, Triomphe Dieu de la Mer (Sea God’s Victory) pairs echoey East Bay Ray guitar with trippy, echoey, distorted Rhodes piano that builds to a weirdly bluesy jam over an omnipresent percussive groove, rising from a slither to a gallop. They follow that with Trop Fort (Too Strong), which comes together out of a woozy dub-flavored intro with more offcenter chromatic reverb guitar and an even creepier Ethiopiques horn riff.
The brief Le Vieux Chien Marcel (Old Dog Marcel) is the closest approximation of the imitation James Brown coming out of Africa forty years ago, followed by Kishindo Hekalu Wa Roho, which starts out like an amazing Lee “Scratch” Perry dub of an early Black Sabbath track and ends up like Savage Republic. The album closes with the ominous stoner funk of L’Expansion Bantoue (Bantu Takeover).
That’s the nuts and bolts of what Karthala 72 sounds like. Emotionally, this album takes you on a heart-racing, darting tour of the ill-lit back corners of some nameless, dusty third world city of the mind where danger lurks around every turn and the pungent, skunky smell of Durban poison hangs heavy in the air. Creepy dance music doesn’t get any better than this.