Album Review: ‘Do Not Be Afraid’ – Vula Viel

Vula Viel make the kind of music that defies lazy categorisation. Legendary protopunk wildman Iggy Pop described their music as “…beautiful… dance to it, make love to it, consume it, listen to it, stare at the clouds to it!”. Which pretty much captures the multifaceted experience of listening to their spectacular sophomore album, Do Not Be Afraid.

It’s at once primal, sensual and transcendent: this is not so much an album as a journey, a sojourn into a sonic world of profound beauty and deep grooves and wild territories. It’s melodic and feral, ethereal and heavy, experimental and inclusive; a cathedral of rhythm and sound like nothing else I’ve ever really heard. Do Not Be Afraid is a sense poem, a ritual of esoteric melody, an invention so idiosyncratic every song is a new landscape, a collection of joyously polyrhythmic pieces that swirl and sing and fly aloft in a wide open sky, a sound hymnal that beckons you to lose yourself in the ceremonial trance of being. In other words, a really fucking great album, and genuinely unique to boot!

Vula Viel are a triad of London-based musicians led by Bex Burch on the Gyil, a Ghanaian xylophone carved from the sacred wood of the lliga tree, with Ruth Goller (Acoustic Ladyland, Melt Yourself Down) on bass and Jim Hart (Cloudmakers, Ralph Alessi) on drums. Bex spent three years living and farming and studying the Gyil tradition with the Dagaare people of Upper West Ghana before returning to the UK to form Vula Viel.

Do Not Be Afraid opens with ‘Well Come’ which announces itself with a driving woodblock-driven rhythm and something that sounds like a conch shell being played in a subterranean cave on the coastline of a distant shore. It’s at once exotic and familiar and all of sudden the groove opens and the gyil’s sonorous voice finds an updraft and soars skyward. It’s a marvel: stunning, immersive and gently euphoric. In ‘Do Not Be Afraid’, the title track of the album, everything is hushed and the gyil rises gently forming a melody both contemplative and head-noddingly groovy. A simple, sparse vocal almost chants: Do not be afraid of what you believe, be afraid of not believing… It’s a call to the beating heart of our shared humanity, a whispered yet bold incitement to live, to exist, to open your ribcage to the vicissitudes and turbulence of existence and be. A skittering rhythm joins the musical fray and the vocal motif circles as everything builds and spirals and I’m happily lost in a cathartic whirlpool of beautiful noise.

Well Come

In the next track (‘I Learn’) you can hear the buzz of the holy wood of Bex’s gyil and all of a sudden it’s as if you’re in the room with this incredible band, immersed in the deep funk of the drums and hand-clapping and percussive flourishes and Ruth Goller’s fuzzy, harmonic basslines which roil like a desert wind. ‘Inside Mirror’ continues the jam, as Vula Viel effortlessly meld these disparate instruments into a cathartic storm of sound.

Next up is ‘Fire’ and it’s all sass and punk. ‘Fire‘ is a distorted and heavy beast, a wild creature on the prowl within your very own psychedelic fever dream. There are few bands as joyously daring and innovative that sound this comfortable together as a collective, each musician exploring deliciously experimental new continents whilst the whole thing holds tightly together; an intricate, unified cloud of unknowing.

I Learn

So by now you’ve probably guessed I like this album… you guessed right! It’s a singular and magnificent ride, a dance of space and chaos that unfolds like some kind of natural phenomenon. Do Not Be Afraid is simultaneously primitive and complex, awe-inspiring and deeply familiar, as if Vula Viel are uncovering ancestral archetypes of sound, revealing ancient secrets and dancing along new avenues of musical consciousness that have been there all along hidden just beyond the perimeter of our senses. It’s both unique and oddly intimate, and is without doubt one of the most accomplished and wonderful albums I have heard in years. This is music that exists for the sheer vertiginous ecstasy of playing and creating something true and wild. Immerse yourself in it, go crazy to it, dream of it, tell your friends about it. Because this is music that is daring and beautiful and rare and alive, and what more of music can you ask than that??

~ Oliver Porpoise Firefly

Snap up your copy of Do Not Be Afraid here!

Catch Vula Viel on their ‘Do Not Be Afraid’ tour at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch on April 4th (tickets here) or elsewhere on their UK tour (details here)

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