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Okzharp & Manthe Ribane - Closer Apart Music Album Reviews

The mostly solid debut album from the South African producer Okzharp and vocalist Manthe Ribane foregoes their earlier sound for something slower and more ponderous.

Much of the electronic music that the wider world hears from South Africa is by turns tough (gqom), weird (Die Antwoord) and frenetic (Shangaan electro). Okzharp—aka South African producer Gervase Gordon—is no stranger to all three. As one third of the group LV, he contributed to tunes like “Sebenza” and “Boomslang,” which flowered with the energy of a bristling South African scene, while his two EPs with vocalist, artist, and dancer Manthe Ribane hid a muscular energy among their drum machine bounce.

For their debut album Closer Apart, Okzharp & Ribane (alongside filmmaker Chris Saunders, who has produced a sumptuous video accompaniment) have rung the changes. Out goes toughness and energy in favor of what Ribane calls her “‘Lady’ side.” “I grew up listening to jazz, classic, and Gospel, I am a very soft-spoken person and it resonates with being confident with that,” she said. What this means in practice is that the BPMs on Closer Apart are lowered to a crawl, the production nods more to R&B than dance-floor house, and Ribane’s vocals, which had the rebel-rousing swagger of a confident MC on early tracks like “Maybe This” and “Fede,” are delivered in a tone that is altogether more ponderous.

It is a move that makes a certain sense for an electronic act on their debut LP, as they move away from the ephemeral thrills of the track in favor of a format that is theoretically more lasting. And yet, it puts a focus on Okzharp & Ribane’s songwriting in a way that leaves them exposed. The album’s lyrics, the majority of which are in English, are often poor, relying on the kind of rhyme-restricted universal truths that would make even Noel Gallagher give it a second edit. “Make U Blue” raises the ghost of high school poetry in couplets like, “I got something I need to say/Hey is that ok? /I’m gonna say it anyway,” while “Why U In My Way?” buries the asininity of “What is that you say?/There’s no yesterday/Don't you fade away” amid endless repetition of the song title. This situation is hardly helped by the slow, deliberate, and sometimes rather tuneless way in which Ribane delivers her lines, her voice drenched in the kind of modish vocal effects that only serve to date the album.

The production, meanwhile, is solid rather than brilliant. The drum machine programming may be full of stutter and invention but the instrumental melodies rarely rise above the acceptable and the overall sonic palette invites comparison to Okzharp & Ribane's Hyperdub label mates. Opener “W U @” has the misty instrumental mope of early Burial, for example, while “Make U Blue” recreates the wipe-clean synth sound of Fatima Al Qadiri’s Asiatisch. At times—notably on the disjointed “Never Thought”—the music and vocals are working at cross purposes, as if shunted together by necessity rather than invention. Okzharp has said the album was made “in hotel rooms, planes, and airports in the brief periods of time that we spent together” and you wonder if Closer Apart has come out undercooked.

What makes this particularly galling is that when Okzharp & Ribane do connect they create moments of verve, invention, and emotional impact that rival anything on their first two EPs. “Time Machine” brilliantly captures the mournful disconnect of being lost in an airport, complete with vividly surreal imagery (“Airport queues/Cerulean blue/Viper trails/Cross the skies”), while “Treasure Erasure” balances drumline energy with a melody of ecstatic melancholy. Best of all is lead single “Dun,” which marries a tough, lolloping beat to queasy keyboard blips and a grand-standing vocal performance from Ribane at her cocksure best.

That the best track here is also the one closest to Okzharp & Ribane’s brash rhythmical past is telling. On paper, the decision to mix the raw invention their early work with the melodic catharsis of jazz and gospel sounds fascinating, while Closer Apart’s weirdly gorgeous companion video makes a case for Okzharp & Manthe Ribane as an enthralling visual act. But the album itself feels frustratingly limp, making you wish Okzharp & Ribane had stayed true to the kinetic force that lit up their EPs.

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