DIY

REVIEW: KOKOKO! - Tokoliana / L.O.V.E. // Tongos'a / Likolo

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Phillipe Roberts

Go ahead and drop those thoughts of trying to tie KOKOKO! down by boxing them into any lineage of influences. These Congolese DIY revolutionaries are their own heroes, positioning themselves at the forefront of a groundswell of artistic radicalism currently seizing their native Kinshasa. A loosely organized collective of musicians, their relentless grooves are quite literally designed from the ground up; without a speaker in sight, the crew assembled a small hoard of junk instruments using readily available metal and plastic scraps. KOKOKO! are purpose-built, recycling and refining yesterday’s rubbish into “the sound of Kinshasa’s tomorrow.” For now, that sound is distilled into a scant four tracks that manage to cover a tremendous amount of emotional and musical territory without skipping a beat.

On the two EPs that make up their current discography, the band is produced by French artist Débruit, an enthusiastic musical excavator whose last album, Débruit & Istanbul, fused his modern electronic and hip-hop sensibilities to collaborations with local musicians. Débruit took an even more active role here, playing in live incarnations of the band at clubs and street parties until those freeform jams crystallized into discrete songs. On the recordings, however, his influence is felt to varying degrees, and comes through more clearly on the earlier Tokoliana EP, where his thick slabs of synth lend some familiar tone and take a more commanding role in dictating chordal structure.

But even on his most pronounced turn, the title track, Débruit is keen to highlight the harsh textures and mangled beauty of KOKOKO!’s organic instrumentation. The track has a post-punk strut to it, courtesy of an scratchy one-stringed bass line that croaks with just the right amount of distortion, light reverb on the drums, and dark, insistent vocals from singer Makara Bianco that deliver a hypnotic warning in Lingala: “We are devouring each other.” A sharp staccato rhythm from an impossible “guitar” (made of what I imagine to be steel pipe) blasts along, adding a funky edge that makes “Tokoliana” their strongest candidate for neon-lit success. The B-side, “L.O.V.E.,” winds down the pace for a smoother vibe without sacrificing any grit. Live or sampled, the brittle bent notes and unpredictable harmonics played on the wire harp are unnerving but mesmerizing, snapping you to attention if you get lost in the whirl of R&B vocals panning from right to left.

Tongos’a, arriving two months after Tokoliana, throws a similar one-two punch, but the closer, “Likolo,” may be the most intriguing track of the handful. Showing off the band’s frightening versatility, “Likolo” rounds off those edges for a slow-burn, bass-heavy disco track that piles on the anthemic chanting to elevate existential lyrics to a collective battle cry. “We are all naked bodies under the sky,” Bianco cries, heart tearing at the seams, “We all know how it’s going to end.” Given how thrillingly unpredictable KOKOKO!’s journey has been so far, here’s hoping they keep that particular spoiler to themselves. Four tracks in, they already sound limitless.

VIDEO PREMIERE: Spodee Boy - Electro Spodee

Will Shenton

The charm of Spodee Boy's latest music video, "Electro Spodee," is its simplicity. Deviating a bit from his usual DIY, basement-rock sound, Nashville's Connor Cummins employs a drum machine (hence the name of the song, presumably) to craft a charmingly weird tune that almost wouldn't make sense delivered by anyone other than the puppet featured in the video.

Fresh from a split EP with Datenight on Drop Medium, the video, created by Santiago Cárdenas, is a trip. The vocals are high-pitched and cartoonish, the instrumentals propulsive and hypnotic, as the aforementioned puppet sings against a psychedelic backdrop. Apparent non-sequiturs float by in the background—a shoe, a juice box, various other sock puppets—and we periodically see Spodee Boy himself in profile, eating a floating guitar or staring coolly into the distance.

True to form, "Electro Spodee" is bizarre, catchy, and bit-sized at just over two minutes. In short, a track that's guaranteed to make you hit the replay button.

PREMIERE: Pompey - Fractions

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Will Shenton

On his latest track, "Fractions," Pompey (AKA Montreal's Alex K.S.) polishes up his production without losing any of the endearing quirks that make his music so likable. Using almost childlike shouts from backup vocalists Thanya Iyer and Daniel Gelinas in the chorus, it's a song that emphasizes the innocence of our anxieties and the ways they can be softened by love.

The lyrics are simple, but powerful in their structure. Each chorus lists the myriad hesitations of our narrator: "I say 1 out of 2 of my thoughts that are true / I say 1 out of 3 when I want to be me / I say 1 out of 4 when I try to be more / Like the people I adore." The infectiously playful melody seems to belie the track's confessional nature, but when we reach the end, we realize that this is an optimistic tune after all. After a bit of stammering indecision ("I say 1 more / I say 1 more..."), the singer comes to terms with his vulnerability and admits, "I say 1 more thing when I'm with you."

Refreshingly straightforward and relatable, "Fractions" bodes well for Pompey's forthcoming EP, More is Less, which will be released this spring.

VIDEO PREMIERE: LUKA - Realize

Phillipe Roberts

“Did I have a face or an empty smile?”

On “Realize,” nylon-string crooner Luke Kuplowsky, aka LUKA, doesn’t so much decode the cryptic language of dreams as marvel at them. With a bleary-eyed whisper of a voice, so hushed you might feel a phantom breath drifting across your neck, his serene meditations on dreams and push-pull intimacy recall Yo La Tengo at their coziest. The microphone picks up every creak in his inflections, and smoke-filled lines like “For everything I say and do / Gets turned backwards / And everything I feel about you / Turns inwards” pour into the cascading guitar lines with the careful restraint of words left unsaid for far too long. Brushed drums skip along behind, swaying in the aquatic shimmer of pitch-shifted electric guitar to accentuate the sinister undertones of realizing the personal cost, in empathy and compassion, of sustaining love.

The accompanying video, directed by Pierce Desrochers O'Sullivan, plays up the gentle isolation of the song, casting a black-clad LUKA against sparse oceanic backgrounds. Aiming for a kind of DIY surrealism, the VHS-style video shows his form, often reduced to a distant outline, fixed and frozen while gusts, grainy seagulls, and sloshing waves clash around him. Escape in the form of jump-cut vanishings and a mysterious levitation comes slowly, before a soft fade lifts him from a partially submerged jetty, softly erasing him just as the trance-like tune comes to a close. There’s an unobtrusive but quietly psychedelic quality to entire affair; an additional layer of fantasy that complements the original’s haunting closeness.

REVIEW: Melkbelly - Nothing Valley

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Phillipe Roberts

For artists percolating in global DIY, “debut album” is often a misnomer. Regardless of our fixation on the LP format as the defining unit of measurement for musical expression, these bands have usually been kicking around the scene for years, nervously fine-tuning their sound in bars and basements; chances are, they’ve “debuted” dozens if not hundreds of times before your needle hits the wax.

Melkbelly, who've just released their first long player after three years as some of Chicago’s leading noise-rock luminaries, are living that storyline right now: “emerging” from relative obscurity (having opened for such famous nobodies as Speedy Ortiz and Built to Spill) with a world-conquering debut of their own. Unapologetically refusing to pare down their wide-ranging sludge voyages in favor of pop appeal (they already have it in spades, thank you very much), Melkbelly turns up both the gain and the hooks for a more-is-more approach. Nothing Valley wisely takes the money and runs for the hills.

Previous releases by Melkbelly, even last year’s Mount Kool Kid/Elk Mountain split, failed to capture the frighteningly raw power that the four-piece brings to the stage, often sounding like you were hearing them from behind bulletproof glass. Their Breeders-by-way-of-Lightning Bolt ferocity means that Miranda Winters’ sing-song melodies are prone to spectacular and spontaneous combustion at any given moment. Seeing them can feel a bit like watching Godzilla stomping through downtown Tokyo—rapturous awe at the size of their sound, and sheer terror at the knowledge that they could bring it all toppling down with a flick of the tail.

Nothing Valley captures this unpredictability like never before. “R.O.R.OB” revels in one of Winters’ most earwormy melodies and the album’s most straightforward groove, before a round-the-kit thwack from drummer James Wetzel sets off a quarter-time dirt bomb of dissonance for the last two minutes. When Melkbelly collectively stomps on their fuzz boxes, they make sure it hits. Even confined to headphones, the hard-charging final two minutes of “Middle Of” leave craters in your eardrums, with Wetzel going off on the snare against an ascendant, sinister riff that feels like it’s running away from you.

Wetzel puts in his finest performances yet, keeping the reins tight on freakout jams and eagerly leading the band up and over difficult transitions through his assertive rhythmic fervor, but the core of Melkbelly’s staying power is the ever-evolving songwriting genius of their frontwoman. Sounding like a post-apocalyptic Kim Deal still dripping with radioactivity, Winters' melodic wit has never been sharper than it is on the one-two punch of singles “Off the Lot” and “Kid Kreative.” Her voice twists and turns like a knife, commanding and unfuckwithable on their catchiest songs to date.

The Melkbelly of Nothing Valley is devious and daring, their enthusiasm for huge riffs and shapeshifting song forms absolutely unquenchable. Coming into the haunting season, it’s fitting that the affair ends with “Helloween,” a cackling inferno of a victory lap, closing out the album with its most satisfying fuzzed out solo. Playing in the mud like carefree kids, Melkbelly uncover gem after gem of urgent, unsanitized rock. Here’s hoping they never give up the dirt.