Having very much enjoyed Vodun’s first album, Possession, and having seen their drummer Zel Kaute perform in the improvised Jonesing Jams – Fireball alongside the likes of Electric Octopus’ Tyrell Black and Nicholas George from GNOB, the opportunity to photograph and review the launch of Vodun’s new album Ascend was far too good an offer to pass up…
I was lucky enough to get a listen to Ascend before the launch party and the first thing that struck me was the Vodun have taken some really big steps since Possession. What intrigued me the most is that in Possession, it can sometimes feel like the songs stampede along at such a breakneck pace they seem cramped and even a little rushed in places, whilst in Ascend, Vodun appear to have taken the courageous step to include more space in their compositions, letting the tempo vary more freely and naturally. The result (to my ears at least!) is that Vodun’s sound has become less cluttered, and has grown much richer, more intensely layered, and there’s more space to appreciate the real sense of craftsmanship, maybe even perfectionism in the way the songs are constructed and that makes it a very compelling listen indeed. Ascend is also really well produced creating an incredibly clean and sharp sound that one moment emphasises the delicate edge in the voice of front-woman, Chantal Brown, whilst unleashing a sudden tsunami of jaw-droppingly heavy guitar riffs and richly textured drum beats from new guitarist Linz Hamilton and drummer Zel, the next. All of which left me very interested to see how this evolution in sound would translate from spinning disc of gorgeous blue and white vinyl to the stage upstairs at the Oslo in Hackney…
By the time I arrived, the first act of the evening, Manchester’s The Hyena Kill, had already taken to the stage. With Oslo beginning to fill up, The Hyena Kill had already started to draw an appreciative crowd forwards. Despite only consisting of two artists, Steve Dobb on guitar and vocals and Lorna Blundell on drums, they kick out one hell of a noise. It’s a tense, aggressive, snarling sound that might just originate from the dark spaces somewhere between sludge and hardcore and contrasts with the relatively static performance on stage. That’s not to say that there’s any lack of energy. Far from it! The songs were driven by some truly thunderous drumming (which was the death of several drumsticks and a snare!) from Lorna on to which Steve layered some seriously heavy riffs with the occasional bluesy twist.
Next up came the heavy punk sound of Bruxa Maria, joined on this occasion by composer and sound artist Robbie Judkins. Whilst this was one of the most enthralling performances I’ve seen in a while it was also one of the most uncomfortable to listen to. There was something about the combination of Gill Dread’s off-kilter guitar tuning and her howling vocals which when combined with the discordant, fuzz-laden, screeching from Robbie’s table of electronic wizardry created something that was the perfect soundtrack for your very darkest, most distorted nightmares. Not a performance I’d listen to on my own in the dark by choice, but if I ever had to, I know I’d be compelled to listen to the very end…
The word Vodun means “Spirit” in the Fon and Ewe languages of west Africa and is a religion practiced by the Fon people of Benin and Togo. It’s religion that emphasises ancestor worship and holds that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the living, with each family of spirits having it’s own female priesthood. Vodun deities are born to every family, so because the ancestors are always present it’s also a religion that’s malleable and adaptable. It’s survived colonial and totalitarian suppression, slavery and transport to the new world where you might just have heard it called Voodoo.
In Vodun (the religion), all creation is considered divine and song and ritual are an important part of worship. Vodun (the band!) take this aspect to heart and put a lot of effort into preparing for their performance. The stage and the venue were decorated and they’d brought their own lighting engineer who was not afraid to make use of the Oslo’s extensive rig. I suddenly found myself surrounded by fans covered in tribal face paint… Vodun describe their performances as Rituals and as the band took to the stage with their costumes and florescent face and body paint. All it took was a few bars of the opening song, ‘Mawu’ (meaning the creator goddess), and it was clear from the energy on stage and how the crowd reacted instantaneously, that this was going to be a particularly special ritual to celebrate the launch of their new album!
The set started with just Chantal, Zel and Linz on stage, but that didn’t last, Vodun had brought friends… After greeting the audience after the opening song, Chantal introduced the next song ‘Providence of Ancestors’ by “…welcoming one on stage”, her mum Deborah Lewis-Brown. Deborah’s readings at the start of ‘Providence of Ancestors’ and extended version of ‘Ascend’ were hauntingly beautiful and the perfect introduction to the powerful songs that followed. Yet there was still plenty of space on stage to fill…Debra was joined by Emma Houston in providing backing vocals, Anselmo N’etto (from Ibibio Sound Machine) bringing additional tribal beats on the congo drums (and various other percussion), and Oliver Selwood (from Knifeworld and the fantastic A Sweet Niche) brought the magnificent, and rarely seen beast that is the baritone sax to the party! These additions took a sound that was already a rich and heady mix to a whole new level… Deborah, Anselmo and Oliver all feature on the album. As does Chris Georgiadis (of Turbowolf). Chris wasn’t able to join tonight’s ritual, so Jake Harding from Grave Lines stepped up to deliver an absolutely cracking duet with Chantal on ‘New Doom’ with their mixture of vocal styles complimenting each other perfectly. Vodun were even joined by a dancer (Odilia Egyianwan), who ensured the audience was treated to a visual as well as sonic feast!
I was surrounded by a very appreciative crowd with plenty of smiling faces which also hosted some pretty wild dancing down at the front. Everyone was clearly enjoying participating in this particular ritual! And Vodun proved that for them, participation is what it’s all about as towards the end of the set Chantal started handing out hand percussion instruments to the crowd, who, with out any hesitation, contributed their own rhythms to the fearsome beat laid down by Zel and Anselmo. A fantastic and joyous end to an incredible set!
Three very different, and very accomplished bands makes it hard to choose a highlight, but it was obvious that the energy of Vodun’s ritual blew the crowd away! Their music is fresh, full of energy and originality and they create a show that whilst highly theatrical, is quite unlike anything I’ve seen live recently which makes it something very exciting.
If pushed to choose a high-point in Vodun’s performance it wouldn’t be the thunderous guitar work of Linz, or even Chantal’s powerful yet delicate vocals, it would be Zel’s drumming. It’s drumming that drives the songs forward at a blistering pace, but, at the same time is also beautifully textured. It carefully incorporates numerous afrobeat rhythms, razor sharp breaks and changes in tempo with spectacular staccato bursts of cow bell percussion to layer contrasting accents on to the beat and create the foundation for the rest of Vodun’s music. In Zel’s drumming you can hear near obsessive attention to detail and precision that’s captivating and clearly someone right at the top of their game… (and I am now a firm believer that there should be more cow bell in rock!)
One thing’s for certain though, the music that helps me drift off in to a restful, dream-laden sleep tonight won’t be the combination of Bruxa Maria and Robbie Judkins…
Providence of Ancestors
Oguns Flight (Extended)
Review & Photography by Simon Shoulders