Armonico Hewa is OOIOO’s sixth full-length album and first since the release of Taiga in 2006. As usual, the band has some fun with language in creating its new album title. “Armónico” is Spanish for “harmonic” and “hewa” is Swahili for “air”. The band suggests “air in a harmonious state” as a translation of the title. Harmony is certainly an apt description of much of the album, which places a greater emphasis on the synchronic than the diachronic. It is not that the music lacks forward momentum, rather that there is plenty of space given over to exploring simultaneity.
The group’s line-up is the same as that used for Taiga: Yoshimi (guitar), Kayan (guitar), Aya (bass), and Ai (drums), with all four women providing vocals. The tracks are shorter than on previous releases, with most tracks emphasizing short bursts of guitar distortion, prominent percussion and vocal exercises. What remains constant in OOIOO’s work is an obsession with rhythm and the poetry of phonemes. Constantly returning to variations on the “O-O-I-O-O” theme, the group explores the interplay of letters, syllables, and rhythms in speech and music. Phonemes are fascinating units in this sense. They represent the smallest units of differentiated sound in spoken language. Deconstructed, combined and recombined, they are inherently musical, allowing the constant possibility to invent new sound patterns.
Endlessly exploring the borders between sense and nonsense, OOIOO’s music is dreamlike yet shot through with vivid moments of wide-awake lucidity. Theirs is a soundworld which lowers you into the murky depths of consciousness, only to guide you to the verge of crystal-clear revelation. For example, witness the triumphant moment when “Irorun” resolves into the subsequent track “Konjo”.
Although it has been fashionable in recent years to label this type of music “freak folk”, there is a longer history of reference points to be mapped out. To take just a few examples, one could identify a line running from Arthur Lyman through Exuma, Can and Faust to Sunburned Hand of the Man. What binds these artists, and what OOIOO tap into so successfully, is a strong sense of ritual, of giving oneself over to a soundworld that aims towards trance-like states, motorik repetition, and an exploration of the presymbolic world. This rhythmic drive also places the music in the realm of minimalism. Comparisons can be made between some of these tracks (“Uda Hah” and “Irorun” are good examples) and the voice and drum compositions of Steve Reich and similar composers.
While there are no epic tracks along the lines of those found on Taiga and 2003’s Kila Kila Kila, the middle of the album is taken up by two longish pieces. “Ulda” briefly conjures up the spirit of Japanese New Age synth artist Kitaro, more specifically his former group Far East Family Band. Dark synth hues are explored over tentative drumming, then an English lyric enters for a while until sense is discarded in favor of wordless vocals. “Polacca” begins with rhythmic chanting followed by funky wah-wah guitar, then evolves into spiky psychedelic jamming and phased vocals, Ai’s drums and Aya’s bass driving the band forward to a glorious change of tempo midway through, which in turn leads to a section of submarine propulsion and drowned vocals and a climax that sounds like machinery breaking down.
“O O I A H” is a splendid singalong of happy nonsense that mutates into a synth and guitar workout that has its controls firmly set for the heart of the sun. In addition to extended Damo Suzuki-style exploration of syllables and phonemes, additional vocal harmonies are strongly in evidence throughout the album. In many places, and most notably on “Hewa Hewa”, the band’s music is based on a form of call and response, which, given the ritualistic elements to OOIOO’s music, seems like a logical progression from earlier drum-heavy pieces. That said, percussion remains key to the band’s sound. Like the mutating linguistics of the vocals, it remains difficult to pin down the styles used to any particular place. “Orokai” would not sound out of place on a Congolese album such as those released by Konono No. 1 or Staff Benda Bilili. Indeed, Konono provide an excellent comparison with OOIOO in terms of the attainment of full-on rhythm ‘n’ distortion.
Armonico Hewa proves that OOIOO are far from running out of ideas. As if to show just how good they can be, the group saves the best for last. Having quickly set up a locked-in trance groove on “Orokai”, they throw in some freaky gypsy/soul brass, which just as suddenly drops out to leave a bass break that leads, without missing a beat, into the final track. Hardly has the listener got over the blissful brass than they find themselves implicated in the playground chant of “Honki Ponki”, an ending which cannot fail to leave a smile behind. No matter how dark the forests that OOIOO occasionally travel, it seems the band is ultimately driven to find the open pastures and high, harmonious places where the air is clear.