London trio The Invisible’s eponymous debut impressed enough to earn them a Mercury Prize nomination, but it still felt more like a statement of potential than a fully fledged masterpiece. That potential has been realised spectacularly on Rispah, the brilliant, captivating follow-up. The distinctive, mesmeric quality of the group’s sound is still very much intact, but it has been refined and enhanced. The arpeggiated guitar lines remind of Radiohead, but it’s clear the group’s musical concerns lie well beyond the bounds of mainstream rock and pop. All three members have a background in jazz, with bassist Tom Herbert also playing in Polar Bear, whilst singer and guitarist Dave Okumu is also preoccupied with minimalism, sound design and African traditional music.
If anything, Rispah feels like a classic case of looking back in order to move forward. It returns to a time when British alternative music was radical, inventive and fascinated with sound, production and arrangement; comparisons with The Cure circa Disintegration, mid period Talk Talk or ar kane actually seem more accurate. It’s a bold, creative and unashamedly serious statement.
Okumu has described the record as “a love letter to grief”, a particularly pronounced theme given the loss of Okumu’s mother during the writing of much of this music. A sample of some women singing traditional Kenyan spirituals at Okumu’s mother’s funeral are interspersed at the beginning, middle of the end. The whole album feels conceptually and musically coherent – a suite of distinct parts all contributing to a broader whole. Within this, the music veers through different moods. The start is dark and brooding, but also urgent and scintillating, from the introspective but powerful Generational to the simultaneously sullen and thrilling Lifeline. As the album progresses, the musicians become more preoccupied with texture, space and silence. The melodies seem subsumed within the overall contours of the sound. It demands total concentration from the listener.
Okumu’s lyrics are direct and monosyllabic when audible (the opening declaration that “this is serious” or the confession of insomnia in Lifeline – “can’t sleep tonight because I’m so lonely”) – but much of the time it is hard to discern what he is actually singing. This hardly matters, however, when the overall mood is so methodically and successfully crafted. The sense of feeling, tone and sound sometimes seem more important than the literal meaning. Some of the songs seem a little obtuse or abstract at first (particularly The Wall, which feels fragile and haunting) but they eventually reveal considerable depth and subtlety. All contribute to Rispah’s overall vision – and its heightened sense of (self) awareness.
Whilst many listeners will immediately identify with Okumu’s spidery, melancholy guitar lines, the lithe, attacking grooves created by Tom Herbert and Leo Taylor (whose abundant auxiliary percussion interweaves brilliantly with Okumu’s melodies) do so much more than simply support these ideas. Although Rispah sounds very much like a studio construction, it leaves room for the conversational approach of a band that sounds relaxed and liberated. Sometimes the rhythms are clipped and awkward, sometimes smooth and flowing (particularly on the aquatic sounding Surrender).
Rispah is not as comfortable a listen as the group’s debut – the robotic funk of Lifeline is probably the closest it gets to a pop song – but it is delivered at a quite astonishing pitch of intensity and power. The album ends with its longest tracks – extended adventures that veer between turbulence and a state of grace (particularly the closing Protection, bravely chosen as a preview track for the album). The feeling of claustrophobia and oppression that sometimes characterises this music is tempered by a subtle melodic sensibility and a riveting group dynamic. Rispah is a brilliantly sustained meditation that offers a full, enriching experience.