Kansas City’s lone afrobeat ensemble Hearts of Darkness is releasing their second full-length album entitled Shelf Life this Saturday, August 25th at Knucklehead’s Saloon. Their first LP only featured six tracks, some of them admittedly pretty long, but this sophomore release has nine. If you’ve seen them live, you know their sets can go up to two hours, so some of these songs they’ve been doing for a while and just hadn’t recorded them.
Upon first impression — and I don’t know much about recording or mastering or whatever — but I’m a little underwhelmed by the audio quality itself. There’s nothing specifically wanting or glaring about it, but it’s got that hollow sound of a live album. I’m not sure if they’ll be pressing it to vinyl like the previous LP, but it might sound a little fuller that way.
Hearts of Darkness began as basically a Fela Kuti cover band, and I honestly wasn’t too fond of them in those days. Now that they’ve expanded their catalog of original material, it’s noticeably less Nigerian, but appreciably more American, with some aspects endemic to Kansas City. The structure of many of these songs, in fact, faintly recalls Kansas City bebop, with each musician contributing their own flavor to different portions of each song, creating transitions in mood within each track that keep it from getting boring. From what I understand, they have an ever-changing squad that averages about fifteen band members, and they come from a vast variety of musical backgrounds. It’s that injection of personality that has brought them out of the cover band or genre revivalist stigma and into their own.
Tracks like Chippin’ Away, Suspicious People, and the title track Shelf Life are particularly tinged with American funk and hip-hop. Some bits pulse with early 1970s r&b grooves, others lean towards more of a jam band funk, and emcee Les Izmore oscillates between his roles as a rapper and an ostensible band leader, punctuating the tunes with energetic interjections. The third joint, Standing On The Corner gets a little more heavy, showcasing the low end of the bari sax and a very ’70s guitar solo. This song contains two of my favorite moments on the album, wherein all four vocalists lay down a staggered pattern of the line “America made us,” followed by the horn section ending the song on some intricate melodic layering of their own. Other songs like Come Forward and the 151 BPM scorcher Six Feet definitely bring that Nigerian energy that would make Fela proud and make a crowd sweat. This album, though, is quite a bit more sultry and mellow compared to traditional afrobeat. Round and Around and Got to Hustle are highlighted by Brandy Gordon’s vocals which lie somewhere between sassy 80s r&b and modern neo-soul, especially in concord with Izmore’s raps.
Shelf Life closes on Numeration, which makes sense because it’s the album’s most succinct summation of these elements into one song. It’s got that African jump to the rhythm, complex horn stabs, powerful soul in the vocals, Izmore’s most frantic verse on the album, and some grimy saxophone in the breakdown. Mostly, though, its content and lyrics are characteristic of the band’s persistent theme. Their songs typically represent a worldview that is, perhaps justifiably, paranoid of a modern technological dystopia. On this album, Numeration most clearly conveys that message, in much the same way that Unplug Yourself stood out on their debut.
You could procure the album Saturday on iTunes or Amazon, or wherever else people buy music these days… or you could cut out the middle man and grab it at Knuckleheads Saloon. They’ll be playing two sets. Kansas City’s soul revue, The Good Foot, is opening for H.O.D. and they put on a pretty flash performance themselves. Check the details on the facebook event page.