Reviewed by James Fleming
The true test of a band’s artistic prowess lies in their stripped-down, raw musicality. Some bands have proved they’re not one-trick ponies by playing, recording and releasing ‘unplugged’ concerts (Nirvana, Alice in Chains), while others just missed the jump, landing flat on their faces (Bryan Adams) – others arrived halfway between triumphant success and glorious failure. Losing the something that made them special in the first place, but gaining something else in the process, KONGOS are one such band.
Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, KONGOS are, quite possibly, one of the most original bands stalking their way across the planet today. Combining alternative rock, kwaito (a sort of South African house music that emerged in the ‘90s, in case you didn’t know) and hard rock, their amped-up sound is a celebratory sounding affair, with a Kasabian-esque stomp as well as traditional flourishes of lap-slide guitar, reminiscent of Alabama 3 at their genre-bending best.
However, their acoustic tracks (have a listen on Soundcloud) are far more intimate. A song like Hey I Don’t Know loses the energetic acid-house beat and driving bass line that powers the electric version along. Hand-claps fill up the space left by the percussion, but they’re by no means an adequate substitution. Likewise, the humble acoustic guitar is no substitute for the fuzzed-up slide guitar on their raucous plugged-in version.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fine version and light years away from being even close to bad. But like I said, the acoustic version lost that great, body-moving beat – and just like I said, it also gained something.
— KONGOS (@KONGOS) October 8, 2015
What it loses in energy, it makes up for in intimacy. The songs here lure you in with lush, finger-picked guitar work and folk tinges of accordion and slide guitar. KONGOS’ traditional influences shine through on these recordings in majestic fashion. What was once a riotous beat is now tender, and a searing slide guitar solo becomes a gentle caress of the strings.
The touches of Americana across these three songs betray their folk influences, which can sometimes be lost in the four-to-the-floor beats of their full-on live sound. The accordion has more space to breathe in these stripped down recordings, the lyrics gain new-found emphasis and the beautiful guitar picking provides a laid back atmosphere, mirroring perfectly, the dry, dusty plains of their home-base of Arizona.
KONGOS have a way with a hook that would make more experienced songwriters green with envy; never repeating anything so often that it becomes annoying.
A listener can latch onto any one of the fine elements that make up the KONGOS’ sound: the soulful vocals, sparse guitar playing, or the powerful but subtle basslines.
The cynical side of my brain says this is just another band for the advertising generation, alternative folk-rock for a saccharine, undernourished world. But, the other side of my brain says this group has fused together several contrasting elements into a genuinely new sound that is also palatable for radio airplay. These acoustic versions of three of their biggest hits are particularly suited for the airwaves – inventive, tuneful and fun.
They might have lost some of their stomp in the transition from amped-up rock n’ rollers to gentle acoustic tunes, but as the KONGO boy say: “the Devil is not into details”.
Feature Image: Johnny Marlow Photography