Five years ago, the FatCat label paired the Congolese ensemble Konono No. 1 and the Dead C on a 12” EP. By doing so, they emphasized the group’s noisiness, which was the result of playing handmade likembes (thumb pianos) through a homemade PA. Dusted’s reviewer enthused about the vigor conferred by distortion and advised listeners to catch the band “before they buy some decent amps and ruin everything.”
Nowadays they play with Bjork and Herbie Hancock, and their latest release Assume Crash Position is the record that reviewer was afraid of. Producer Vincent Kenis has dialed back the distortion and added well played, universally recognized instruments like guitars and keyboards. But something like this had to happen; if you go back to Konono’s first recording, a 28 minute-long jam on the Ocora compilation Zaire: Musiques Urbaines a Kinshasa, you’ll find that neither their sound nor their repertoire has changed much over the years. Several songs on this album can be found on their first full-length Lubuaku (Terp). If they didn’t do something new production-wise, there wouldn’t be much point to making another record.
The record starts off a bit scary, with a squelchy synth poking its damp nose out of the mix within the first 11 seconds of opener “Wumbanzanga.” But after a few stabs, it disappears and stays that way. Nzila Mabasukisa’s chattering guitar and Duki Makumbu’s loping electric bass soon register some more lasting contributions. Mabasukisa possesses that essential quality of soukous guitarists, the ability to play like a human tape loop, and the way his figures lock right into the likembe and drum patterns underscores how Konono’s music fits into the continuum of modern Congolese music rather than standing off to one side. Makumbu hot-dogs it a bit, but it’s actually fun to hear him bubble out of the mix for a minute.
The next tune, “Thin Legs,” strips things back. There are no guitars, and no likembes either, just a battery of drums, singers and police whistles. The shifts between enhancement and nakedness make the point that Konono isn’t dependent upon distortion; it’s the songs — and the energy with which they’re put across — that defines Konono’s sound. Kenis’s editing hand inserts variety, pacing and a bit of drama; for example, he cuts from bandleader Mingiedi Mawangu’s solo version of “Makembe,” which stops when a wall across the street from his house loudly collapses, to a richly textured full-band version (listen above). But he doesn’t get in the way of the hurtling jams, the longest of which stretches nearly 12 minutes, and those jams still carry all involved.