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3 February 2023

Heavy Heavy by Young Fathers: a revolutionary adventure in rhythm

On their fourth album, the Mercury Award-winning band fuse avant-garde pop and hip hop to create a truly exhilarating sound.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

It’s been five years since Young Fathers released an album. If you haven’t revisited their back catalogue in that time, you’d be forgiven for forgetting how hard their tracks swing. As soon as the opening bars of “Rice”, the first track of their fourth album Heavy Heavy, set in, it’s all go. And you can’t imagine why you’d ever want to sit down again.

The Scottish trio – Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and G Hastings – met as teenagers two decades ago, and began performing their original pop songs (complete with dance routines) in an under-18s hip hop night at Edinburgh’s Bongo Club. Everyone else there was rap-battling, but they didn’t care. After releasing two mixtapes, Dead, their debut album proper, won the Mercury Prize in 2014, the year everyone thought FKA Twigs was a shoe-in. The following year they were lauded for their provocatively named White Men Are Black Men Too, on which they challenged racial prejudice. But while a forthright realism about the violence of working class life permeates all of their music, the group’s main interest isn’t politics. It’s rhythm.

In 2014 Young Fathers’ sound was totally idiosyncratic. Nine years on, there are still no other artists making music like theirs. From the beginning, they have made a habit of not caring what anyone else is up to, just following their group instinct – a sensibility still evident on the band’s new record, which fuses experimental rock, art pop, hip hop and noise. Looped riffs were once a constant of their often abrasive, always catchy music. The technique is present on this new record, but it no longer forms the nucleus of every track. The trio became fed up with the arduous, ponderous studio process they engaged in for Cocoa Sugar (2018). So this time it was just the three of them, in a basement. They avoided retakes and over-thinking, and didn’t worry about background noise seeping on to tape. It’s almost as if the sheer intensity of the record allows us to sense how small the room was, its walls close to giving way under the energy.

[See also: Is techno about to die?]

Heavy Heavy features ten tracks, none of which run to more than four minutes. It’s not a bulky album, but a crowded one, executed with a clever lightness of touch. “I need to catch more fish, baby/I need to eat more rice,” they sing playfully on “Rice”. The trio barely take a breath before launching into “I Saw”, with a beat reminiscent of Tame Impala’s great stomping number “Elephant”. All three band members trade vocals here, their overlapping chants creating a mood that’s collegiate, not competitive – though a melancholy lingers, a tiredness evident in their repeated “I’ll keep walking the line”. Eventually that litany becomes a rallying cry: “Brush your teeth/Wash your face,” they call, its effect remarkably galvanising for what could, in the hands of a lesser band, be a twee, childish line.

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Young Fathers’ affinity to jerky pulses is present even in the album’s softest moments, such as on “Geronimo”, the closest they will ever get to a lullaby. It appears in the form of alarms and twitches on “Shoot Me Down”, and a jangling shuffle on the jubilant “Sink or Swim”. However gnarly the sound, there’s joy too, ensured by the band’s bare-boned percussion and bright vocal calls. While Hastings, who handles most of the band’s instrumentation, has strings, synths, drum machines and even a “bin with chains” at his disposal, by the penultimate song it is the piano that emerges as this record’s anchor. The honky-tonk keys on “Holy Moly” transports us to dancehall. On the final song, “Be Your Lady” (“I wanna be your lady/Forgetting I’m the man,” is the heartfelt refrain), piano provides sparse accompaniment to the track’s balladic beginning and – after all hell has broken loose in between – a grounding endnote for the whole record.

Young Fathers are known for their incendiary live shows, where they bring out the contrasts of their music to rousing effect. Nothing beats the excitement of real bodies moving together in the same room, but the band get impressively close to that emotional height on this record. Heavy Heavy’s production – also by Hastings – is neither shiny, nor showily lo-fi. And while genre-blending has long been a staple of contemporary pop, the indifference with which they treat generic boundaries feels almost revolutionary. Only Young Fathers could take so many influences, dabble with so many textures, and produce a sound so defined.

Heavy Heavy is out now on Ninja Tune.

[See also: Sam Smith: “Gloria” review – a bland, contrived pop record]

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