“In the city,” says Blackhaine on ‘B£E’, the aching centrepiece of Honest Labour, “…there’s no one left”. He could be speaking about any number of cities in the UK. After a poetic verse that mirrors the beauty, despondency and isolation elsewhere on the record, he’s swallowed up by a sweep of cinematic strings – another voice buried under the weight of Space Afrika’s opaque soundscapes.
The Manchester duo are documentarians collecting found sounds and vocal fragments, adding layers of rich electronics and subtle beatwork. On last year’s breakthrough hybtwibt? mixtape, the result was a powerful snapshot of political tension and community action, all told through fractured ambient and half-there techno. Honest Labour is more ambitious and refined in its execution, incorporating strong vocal features and even some hazy guitar playing – but the creeping energy that has made them stand out remains their most powerful tool.
The tracks here work as connected vignettes that form to create an ineffable sense of place, or an internal feeling the band share. It’s teaming with detail. Some moments that stick out are the comforting noise of ‘Ladybird Drone’, which recalls whirring machinery and rain hitting a tin roof. The suffocating low-end of ‘Indigo Grift’ gives Andy Stott a run for his money, while Bianca Scout’s airy vocal presence on ‘Girl Scout Cookies’ plays brilliantly with the heaviness of the bass playing.
The band incorporate trip-hop, warped techno and classical with ease, all with skeletal song structures and elusive melodies. As the album progresses you occasionally wish they’d flesh out their ideas, or sit in a moment just a bit longer. ‘U’ with kinseyLloyd and the previously-mentioned ‘B£E’ prove what they can do when allowing an image to fully form, but perhaps these moments hit with such a weight because of the space around them.
Many tracks disappear soon after arriving, blurred by grey skies and city traffic, but the group are keen to leave a lasting impression. Second to last is ‘Strength’ with LA Timpa, a tense and monolithic hymn performed as if in another language. The title track concludes with an optimistic piano loop – a gentle yet sturdy foundation for Space Afrika to build on with layers of cello and ambience. Just like ‘Strength’ before it, there’s a hymnal quality, but the tone is thankful rather than repentant. After the crushing atmosphere of much of Honest Labour, it’s a reminder that even after the gloomiest days, light will shine on your face again.
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