Nkisi 7 Directions

[UIQ; 2019]

Styles: techno, gabber, the future, the past
Others: NON Worldwide, GAS, Nnedi Okorafor

There, by the grace of those pulsating, effusive bass drums, lies the beat. Engrossing and sturdy, the rhythm invites us into the song by virtue of its familiarity and reliability. Within the stanchless polyrhythms and expansive keyboards, the beat forges a path to an unclear destination. It suggests direction and purpose, evokes foundation and constancy. The indestructible beats of 7 Directions, the first full-length album by Melika Ngombe Kolongo a.k.a. Nkisi, propel their songs forward, offering an unyielding movement that allows each track to discover its shape and identity, even if that very identity is hastily cast off mere moments later.

The songs here on 7 Directions don’t offer resolution — they resist it: they feel perpetual, as though they may run on forever, renewing and reinventing themselves as often as they see fit. Take “II” for example, whose timid intro makes use of scant snare claps, a vibraslap, and a chopped soundbite of a woman gasping for breath; by minute five, a host of new synth sounds have occupied the track, intensifying the frenzy and feeling of discomfort in the song. In the final few seconds, those additional keyboards have exited and a pounding bass drum introduces itself, only to languish in the song’s fadeout. A blighted conclusion, the ending of “II” — as with the endings of many of Directions’s tracks — feels almost arbitrary, as if Nkisi is teasing the promise of a graceful dovetailing of the song’s disparate sections and then purposefully withholding it.

But the album’s aversion to organic dénouements isn’t an act of malice toward the listener. Instead, it intimates a sense of limitlessness, a notion that the music will exist and endure long after we stop hearing it. During Nkisi’s Boiler Room set a few years back, she began her performance by quietly intoning: “This world is ending/ This world will never end” over what sounds like a sample of monastic chants. These two lines of course seem contradictory, but when paired together, the couplet sounds like a statement of perpetuity, as if the artist is saying her music will prosper through the eons in spite of its perceived ephemerality. The same is true of 7 Directions: endings are temporary, they are only as final as we understand and allow them to be.

Perhaps the most obvious tension here is in the disconnect between the tactility of the tracks’ percussion and the frailty of its vitreous synthesizer counterparts. The forceful, hammering drums intimidate and threaten those cold, glossy keyboards that both intrigue and alienate the listener. On album closer “VII,” a high-pitched whining sound cries out against a barrel-rolling onslaught of floor toms. Based solely on the merit of brute force, it seems obvious which of the two instruments will conquer the other, yet the track (and the album) ends in a stalemate of sorts. By the time “VII” comes to a close, the two sounds feel inexorably linked in an off-kilter kind of harmony. Therein lies the brilliance of Directions: the insistence that dogged persistence can (and will) cultivate accord.

What Nkisi retains from her gabber-besotted youth isn’t necessarily the genre’s compulsory 1-2-3-4 kick drum salvo, but rather its pugnacity and immediacy. “III” boasts the album’s most gabber-reminiscent sound; kicking in around the 1:45 mark, the hard-hitting beat pummels through a haze of ambient synth fog, disrupting the more experimental techno style that begins the song. Traces of the genre exist throughout, if nowhere else than in the intensity of these seven tracks. However, it’s the way Nkisi recontextualizes the album’s gabber-related elements that prevent her music from devolving into a stale 90s throwback. Through its sci-fi bent and the globally conscious perspective of its creator, 7 Directions finds new ideas to communicate in electronic music’s rich, corrugated history.

While 7 Directions lacks the instant gratification of the dancefloor bangers that comprised Nkisi’s Kill EP, its moody excursions prove equally thought-provoking. The interiors of these songs are starkly unfamiliar but also strangely comforting; they seem carefully calculated, yet not without the feeling of spontaneity and surprise. This is challenging music, a collection of sounds that establishes a percussion-based bedrock and then immediately asks us to abandon it. In doing so, we discover an expanse of uncharted territory, a brave new world.

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