By titling their third album Ghost Rock, Michigan-based Afrobeat revivalists Nomo have done more than simply file another entry in their impeccable catalog of horn-heavy funk. The title is a ready-built genre tag, a statement of intent that conjures such seminal records as Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool and the Clash's Combat Rock, which were staked much like flags signifying those artists' stylistic shifts.
The thing is, as descriptions go, "ghost rock" is actually ill-fitting here. There's nothing remotely rock about the hypnotic percussion patterns, elegant horn riffs or fuzzy, ring-modulated likembé thumb pianos that make up Nomo's futuristic Third-World sound. And the closest they get to a ghostly remove are the bubbling loops of likembé and analog synth, whose ethereal and warped tones were previously only used as subtle texture but now tend to dominate the mix. If anything, Nomo mastermind Elliot Bergman's choice of words shows a band leader itching to shake his project's world-music stigma and present something to fans that does more than accessorize their record collections like so much safari-print furniture from Pottery Barn.
If Ghost Rock is Nomo's attempt at becoming an indispensable band (in other words, the one-stop shop for a music you can't get anywhere else), there are two shadows that they need to crawl out from under — namely, Nigerian funk genius Fela Kuti, who coined the Afrobeat term himself and whose records 30 years ago with his band Africa 70 are still the gold standard in this genre; and Konono No. 1, a Congolese collective which, like Bergman, makes its own crude traditional instruments and amplifies them into unrecognizable sound shapes on their African-flavored percussion feasts. In this search for indispensability, Ghost Rock succeeds, and here's how: The record is less fatiguing than its influences.
For all the awed talk of Afrobeat's endless groove, however, that lack of editing is also sometimes its greatest limitation, with songs that generally swell well past the 10-minute mark and wear out their welcome. In fact, Konono No. 1's appealing blend of the primitive and modern can quickly turn abrasive as their metallic textures drone on monotonously with few harmonic shifts. Thankfully, though, not only does Bergman exhibit more discretion than his forebears, he's also as good a composer as he is a sound designer. Ghost Rock strikes a flawless balance between post-rock studio experimentation, spellbinding groove and smartly scored horn hooks.
Although Ghost is built with too much analog warmth and ethnomusicologic affection to live up to its name, that's a good thing, as it's also too next-level and bubbling over with technology to be called simply Afrobeat. Call it Afrosynth. Or moonfunk. Or just call it Nomo.
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