Film of Life (Tony Allen, 2014)

How old is Tony Allen? He’s undeniably hip, recent collaborations with Damon Albarn, Flea, Paul Simonon and Danger Mouse to his name; and yet it feels like he’s been on the planet forever.

The answer is 74. To draw a comparison with his Western contemporaries, the Nigerian pioneer is older than, say, Neil Young, Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney; and while the old Anglo-American greats seem to share a tendency to look back or dig their heels in, Allen’s forward motion is refreshing and remarkable.

Film of Life is more of a consolidation than a mission statement or a retrospective. It may lack the epic and historic punch of his ’70s work, but as a collection of music it’s difficult to fault. The rhythms are certainly sinuous – on ‘Boat Journey’, for instance, one groove is followed by another, and soon another, until the three coalesce into one complex yet coherent whole. As with the rest of the album, the song’s so-so lyrics are buoyed by consistently impressive and imaginative music. The mouth organ-hooked ‘Tiger’s Skip’ and the Damon Albarn-sung ‘Go Back’ are memorable and truly beautiful, their wistful tone not stopping them from plaintively pirouetting onwards.

'Film of Life'

So naturally cool is the music that it’s a shame Allen feels the need to occasionally utter ‘cool’ things like “Check it out”; he more than established his street cred during his Fela Kuti days. Each song is imaginative, playful and sexy in its own way: opener ‘Moving On’ features a childlike riff in the minor key, ‘Afro Kungfu Beat’ is gorgeously percussive, and the treated vocals and ominous tone of the galumphing ‘Tony Wood’ (which should be read in the same way as Hollywood, Bollywood, or indeed Nollywood) linger post-listen. In various places synthesisers and wah-wah pedals are deployed to great effect. The instrumentals and the songs are equally compelling; although ‘Koko Dance’ drags a little, stretching a catchy riff for nearly seven minutes, guest star Kuku’s auto-tuned vocals are musical enough to save the song from drowning in itself, and at points the track sounds bizarrely like an Afrobeat version of the Stones‘Shake Your Hips’.

Throughout the album, Allen’s drums follow an increasingly familiar ‘stuttering’ pattern, with the fills deliberately arrhythmic; at first, this edges the listener towards a series of mini-climaxes, but after a few songs one might be left wishing Allen weren’t quite so fond of this technique. Still, ‘Ire Omo’ and ‘African Man’ are redolent of that old Fela Kuti fire, with the vocal talents of Nigerian a cappella duo Adunni and Nefertiti giving the former song a rounded, rousing kick. Fela’s music could be intensely, almost alienatingly alpha masculine; Allen is less uncompromising, but possibly more seductive.

Film of Life is an odd title for this album; according to Allen, the album isn’t a summation or a retrospective, and although it’s possible for music to be ‘cinematic’, such a word couldn’t describe this record. But despite the misnomer and the uninspired album artwork, this album is a winner. On first listen it might seem simple, almost naïve; but it becomes increasingly complex as the record progresses, and with every listen. It builds convincingly until its final track, by which point your head feels like an echo chamber for stray rhythms and juddering off-beats. Afrobeat is alive and kicking.

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