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Fantasma
Free Love Calum Bradbury-Sparvell , March 20th, 2015 12:11

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Spoek Mathambo probably wouldn't call Drake a f**t. He and Die Antwoord, both heralded as products or authentic representatives of a restless post-Apartheid youth, have undeniably pursued different paths. While the latters' status as the controversial South Africans du jour has seen them don blackface and clown around with Harmony Korine and Neill Blomkamp (although not at the same time), Mathambo has styled himself as a cultural emissary for his Township Tech and the myriad other manifestations of new music in urban South Africa. This role and his unmistakeable but ever-mutating sound has earned him and his colleagues places on the respected Sub Pop and Soundway rosters as well as several gushing Guardian articles (one of which labelled him a "kind of Kanye South"). Few would be afforded the awards and international respect Mathambo still enjoys – and undeniably deserves – after daring to reinterpret Joy Division.

But the Sowetan MC, musician and producer wants that respect to expand to encompass his peers; he spent much of 2014 making Future Sound Of Mzansi, a documentary about musical innovation in the townships screened in locations as far apart as Edinburgh, Wellington and Addis Ababa. Fantasma feels like another arm of this project; Mathambo is joined by Kwaito and Bacardi House pioneer DJ Spoko, Maskandi master Bhekisenzo Cele, rock guitarist André Geldenhuys and drummer Michael Buchanan. Cherry-picked to represent the diversity of South African music under a new umbrella – Guzu – the members' collaboration is unprecedented and worth celebrating but – on Free Love at least – lends itself to some underwhelming music.

Asides from a series of adept, scattershot raps, 'Basbizile' is a modest beginning, slow and groove-driven. Fluid guitar lines gurgle under and trickle over a boom bap-ish beat but never seem to crest. The video for latest single and second track 'Shangrila', filmed on the beautiful beaches of Yzerfontein, is so cartoonishly vibrant it practically vomits colour but stripped of visuals it seems almost as directionless as the opener. Durban vocalist Moonchild evokes M.I.A.'s deliberately flat, semi-bored singing but lacks the swagger to pull it off. Elsewhere it gets worse – 'Breaker' sounds like an incongruous mashup of A$AP Rocky and the rhythm section from Linkin Park, and 'Sophiatown' is a forgettable jam at best.

The first track to truly impress is 'Higher Power'; a driving Spoko beat is made deliciously cluttered by chimpmunked self-sampling, live percussion, a winding bassline, noodly guitar and some fiery raps from Mathambo before giving way to an explosive and surprisingly rocky chorus belted by Jo'burg sisters Nandi and Nongoma Ndlovu. The pair's striking harmonies also save 'Fire & Smoke' and closer 'Umoya' from ending up as nondescript as 'Sophiatown'. Mim Suleiman is equally great on 'Cat & Mouse', but the best guest slot is irrefutably JOSIAHWISE IS THE SERPENTWITHFEET on 'Sefty Belt'. The single, which featured on last November's Eye Of The Sun EP, was one of the best and most underrated songs of 2014 – the marriage of Wise's soulful vocals with Geldenhuys' guitar is neck-pricklingly good and Mathambo spits yet more earnest bars.

Although these five genre figureheads have admirable intentions in combining forces, in practice Free Love suffers from the same pitfall as many other "supergroup" albums: it is less than the sum of its parts. Guzu could still work, but as yet little of it rivals Cele's work with Vukazithathe or Spoko's Bacardi House bangers. Mathambo has tried too hard to assemble a tour de force for modern South African music and in the process obscured the individual strengths of its many scenes.