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Gonjasufi explores a dark realm on ‘Callus’

| Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Gonjasufi explores a dark realm on 'Callus'ANDREA SAVAGE | The Observer

Sumach Ecks — better-known by his stage name Gonjasufi — is one of alternative hip-hop’s best-kept secrets. While he engaged with the music scene from a young age, Ecks’ breakthrough came when he was discovered by Warp Records following a guest appearance on Flying Lotus’ seminal 2008 record “Los Angeles.” Ecks was subsequently signed to the label and released his debut LP, “A Sufi and A Killer,” in 2010.

Everything about “A Sufi and A Killer” was unprecedented, from the exotic lo-fi beats skillfully engineered by guest producer The Gaslamp Killer — to whom the album owes the second half of its title — to Ecks’ unique vocal delivery. Being ethnically mixed, Ecks channels an ambiguous yet decidedly exotic spirit in his hearty, sepulchral-sounding croon; his father is of Ethiopian descent, and much of the psychedelia on “A Sufi and a Killer” recalls the spirit of Rastafarian tradition and music. Indeed, while the fuzzy ambiance of that album was gripping by itself, it happened that Ecks’ slow-burning vocals was the feature that set him apart from other musicians in a similar aesthetic vein. They would prove to be the common denominator in his future releases, which have otherwise been quite musically diverse.

On his latest record, “Callus,” Ecks is anything but conservative. In fact, Ecks’ willingness to traverse darker, more abrasive territory on this third LP is refreshing, especially as his efforts are often successful. There is no trace of The Gaslamp Killer’s fun-loving influence on “Callus,” and in this sense the record is closer to Ecks’ low-key sophomore effort “M.U.Z.Z.L.E.” than it is to “A Sufi and A Killer.” But on this album, longer and more artistically focused, the stakes feel higher than ever for Gonjasufi.

The cover art, a lithographic representation of Golgotha — the purported site of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion — sets the album’s eerie tone. While Ecks does not explicitly address religious themes on “Callus,” much of the sound and lyricism connotes motifs of mortality and desperation. Fortunately for Ecks, the characteristic rust of his vocal delivery is very effective at complementing and indeed shaping the album’s mood.

But most captivating about this album is its production and overall craft. The hip-hop sensibilities of “A Sufi and A Killer” have been almost wholly replaced by an option for the heavy percussion of industrial music. Hallucinatory drum loops punch and spin around the listener, while a sandpaper-like guitar grates in the remaining space, threatening to slice right through Ecks’ heavily-processed croaks. Some of these songs also veer into the territory of seemingly incompatible genres, particularly on paired tracks “The Kill” and “Prints of Sin.” The former bursts into a heavy-handed metal lead, then evolves quickly into the latter, a track whose downtempo electronic psychedelia for a minute threatens to imitate Pink Floyd.

With all its experimentation, it is especially surprising that “Callus” rarely falls flat. While the album is not an effortless product, an uninitiated listener would never guess that Ecks is working in starkly unfamiliar territory. In any case, the music Ecks produces under Gonjasufi is intentionally rough, so that a permissible lack of polish would be hardly noticeable to begin with; it adds to the aesthetic, if anything. Indeed, Ecks is wise in playing to his strengths on “Callus” even as he innovates, so that even if this record is not one of the year’s most airtight albums, it is certainly one of its most well-informed, exciting and ambitious products.

Favorite Track: “The Kill”

If you like: Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer

Label: Warp

4/5 Shamrocks

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