fThe days of single-discipline artists in the DIY underground are fast drawing to a close as multi-discipline artists sweep them aside while performing six other key tasks. In 2022, artists are expected to compose, arrange and record the music, write their own press releases, film and star in their own videos and manage their own wardrobes. An early adopter of this staunchly independent mindset is Paris-born Neue Grafik, a composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist based in London, because everyone is these days apparently. Finally capitulating to his own physical limitations, Grafik formed a band, Neue Grafik Ensemble, who have just released their second album, Foulden Road Part II, on Total Refreshment Centre. Featuring Grafik on piano, rhodes and synths, Emma-Jean Thackray on trumpet, Matt Gedrych on bass and Dougal Taylor on drums, the band masterfully interprets Neue Grafik’s jazzy, broken beat production style into a sweaty live setting, where it can sow revolutionary seeds on an industrial scale.
What sets artists like Neue Grafik and peers like Sault aside from the seething throng is the sheer scope and diversity displayed in their craft, combined with an integral and vocal social conscience. They were not content with mastering one instrument, and they see no reason in applying similar limitations to style, tone or current political consensus. Foulden Road II is inspired by and dedicated to Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in Paris, so this is clearly a consensus to be contended. Opening track “Black Bodies” features poet MA.MOYO reflecting on the death of Traoré and a whole spate of similar incidents globally while clarinets squeal and skip round the ether, coaxing you in sweetly before slapping you with another uncomfortable truth. “Black life is not a gamble to make when blinded by hate/Black lives are not yours to take.” When the percussion, bass and piano swell and bring the track to a shuddering crescendo, we could do with an early interlude to recuperate.
Neue Grafik Ensemble do not oblige, instead following hot on the heels with “Queen Assa”, funky from the jump and incorporating French and African rhythms into the jazz soup. As anarchist and activist Emma Goldman once famously opined, “If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.” After “Queen Assa” has enthusiastically put this into practise, a dub breakdown gives us some much-needed respite before the inevitable freak-out at the end. “Step to It” brings rising London rapper Lord Apex into the fold, and he rises to the occasion with the presence and style we’ve grown to expect. “It’s black magic, mathematics, I embody the sun/I call my brother S-U-N ‘cos he shine like one/Black is brody, not a rapper but he fly like one/Grafik heavy on the mix, black is every colour mixed.”
Proceedings take a more reflective turn on “Breath,” as muted piano chords and wistful double bass drink together in solidarity, taking in the metamodern poetry of JJ Akinlade, allowing a short break for people to search metamodern. Akinlade uses Afrofuturist tropes to ascend earthly struggles and evoke “cosmic conundrums” and “dimensions too complex to mention,” ushering in a future centred around Planetary Progression. While this may sound like I’m welcoming you to a wellness clinic, the picture painted is breath-taking in its grandeur, soundly rejecting the “out-dated modes of reality” and aiming for our cerebral evolution. About time someone took on the responsibility.
Smooth jazz-house takes the wheel on “Officer, Let Me Go To School,” which then transforms into a frantic funk scratch underlined with a piercing jazz squall to blast the listener out of their complacency and straight onto the cultural front-lines. This one last instrumental free-for-all gives way to Foulden Road Part II closer, “Running on a Flame,” featuring regular collaborator Brother Portrait. The rapper and poet glides over the hazy, psychedelic downbeat, giving it a passing nod as he flits by. Brother Portrait’s drawl and ability to invoke vivid mental images at will temper the more abstract leanings without tempering any ambition. “Mind been a medley of men/Been a garrison for demons, cacophony of long lost friends.” His effortless, assured tone carries us all the way to kicking-out time and leaves us with the pledge to “Rage against the bad heart, leave Babylon destroyed,” proposing rebirth through destruction, which is increasingly looking like the way to go. Neue Grafik has curated another celestial entry into his canon with Foulden Road Part II, inviting the cream of London Town to help realise his vision. Each mentality of struggle is shown in painstaking detail, while never forsaking danceability. The album is a sprawling tapestry of sound collages, samples, deft musicianship and a sturdy refusal to allow things to continue as they have throughout the epochs. If any of that hits with you on any level, grab Foulden Road Part II here.