DJ Spoko: War God

Marvin Ramalepe grew up in a northern township in South Africa, and similar to other artists from disadvantaged places, he has distinguished himself by inventing a world. Ramalepe, who produces as DJ Spoko, has wrapped himself in a style he calls Bacardi House, a frenetic amalgamation—named after the rum popular amongst his fans—of house music, kwaito (a South African hip hop variant), and Shangaan electro. War God, which follows the Ghost Town EP on True Panther, is his first album available in the West, a 20-track tour of Ramalepe’s distinct, tireless style.

War God wastes no time introducing itself. There are no intros and outros in Bacardi House, only snares and synths, a torrent of which course through nearly every track on War God. It’s a style defined by short, staccato attacks, countless pricks of drums, a steady drizzle of fake horns, fake flutes, and fake keys. This is music imagined and created on a computer, defined by its replicability, its acclimation to headphones and laptop speakers.

The kick drum—deployed in a metronomic four-on-the-floor pattern as often as not—isn’t optimized for the big room soundsystems of Europe. Mixed low, it doesn’t pin the track down so much as provide a loose structure for Ramalepe’s spicular melodies. The tracks, and the snares especially, tend to be mixed dry—with little reverb—lending them presence and urgency. As such, there is no escaping War God, no balling yourself up in its repetitions, no zoning out to an endless succession of barely changing beats. This is poised, almost bitterly attendant music, music that refuses to retreat into the background.

The sounds, which are mostly synthesized, vary between traditional synthesized elements of house and techno (see the lazer-drop kick sounds of “Bula Ma”) and sounds meant to emulate the woody marimbas and prickly kalimbas more often heard in South African music. The scales scan as distinctly non-western, even as the kick drum offers its familiar concussions. There are few sustained notes on War God, and certainly nothing as somnambulant and passive as a pad; each track is a cluster of notes, most with enough softness and give to prevent the track from becoming too percussive, but nonetheless swift enough to prevent relaxation or stasis.

The material on War God is less alien than the dance styles presented on compilations like Shangaan Electro and Congotronics, two other African electronic musics that have been embraced by fringe Western audiences. Less isolated and singular, Ramalepe’s productions feel akin to Lisbon’s Principe Discos label—itself music birthed by the African diaspora—conversant in the familiar styles of house music (Principe’s DJ Marfox recently released an EP on Lit City Trax).

War God spans 20 tracks and more than 85 minutes. As an immersion experience—a gateway into Ramalepe’s harried visions—it’s fine. As an album, it falters, gasping for air as Ramalepe offers up yet another four-minute bushel of bobbing tones. Ramalepe rarely employs recognizable samples (outside of percussion, perhaps) and only one track—the heated “Oreng Mo”, featuring DJ Mujava—employs a vocalist. War God, as a result, feels mournful and uninhabited. Rarely does music this busy also sound this lonesome. At times, it’s difficult to imagine these tracks in a mix with anything but themselves. War God‘s form—a twist on house music—is recognizable, but its atmosphere often feels otherworldly, like Ramalepe has followed the bare minimum number of rules to qualify as modern dance music.

And that’s great, even if the material on War God never fully congeals into an album. War God is the product of someone immersed in a singular world; it is necessarily limited, and Ramalepe has a lot less to learn from the average house producer than the average house producer has to learn from him. War God is vital, transfixing music that demands your attention, and the onus is on you to figure out what to do when it does grab it.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork