Album Review: McNeal and Niles – ‘Thrust’/ Wilbur Niles and Thrust – ‘Thrust Too’ : Late seventies lo-fi funk gems re-discovered.

The Breakdown

Infectious groove music crackling with unrestrained soul, jazz and rock energy, late seventies garage music with a different kind of engine. The 'Thrust' and 'Thrust Too' re-issues defy any serious beat music enthusiast to pass them by.
We Are Busy Bodies 8.8

Super curators We Are Busy Bodies are at it again, digging up those buried sounds and the forgotten stories from music’s underground archive. Last year saw them spotlight Almon Memela’s joyous South African funk and the pristine latin jazz of Virgilio Armas after near fifty years gathering dust. Now comes another retrieval from the backroom box of obscurity, the under-loved work of guitarist/producer Wilbur Niles. Much sampled but seldom celebrated this lo-fi funk luminary based in Cleveland, Ohio made infectious groove music crackling with unrestrained soul, jazz and rock energy, late seventies garage music with a different kind of engine.

The first pair of Wilbur Niles vinyl reissues from the We Are Busy Bodies team, defy any serious beat music enthusiast to pass them by. There’s the seminal debut album from 1979 ‘Thrust’ by McNeal and Niles featuring Wilbur on guitar, percussion and synth, his then girlfriend Machelle McNeal on keys and vocals plus a buoyant group of musicians. Recorded in sessions outside their day jobs (Niles as a carpenter and McNeal as a postal worker) Thrust was made from a love of James Brown/Jimmy Smith funk, the hope of future possibilities and the industrial shadows of Niles’s northern state home. It’s also an album with back story credentials, part recorded in Devo’s makeshift Man-Ray studios in Akron and energised by that irrepressible DIY, ‘let’s do this’ mindset.

Opening cut ‘Ja Ja’ captures that spirit, a tune that’s authentic, assured and atmospheric. From sultry keys and grand chords the track slides into a shimmying smooth funk vibe. There’s a touch of Azymuth calm and Brother’s Johnson melodic ease mixed with Niles own subtle guitar flourishes. Inspired by the story of King JaJa, a former slave who gained freedom on abolition to become successful 19th century Nigerian entrepreneur, this is not the usual subject matter for getting down. Here is music with a prog undercurrent, that’s individual, quirky and yes, charming.

The unexpected continues as Thrust unravels. ‘Hypertension’ bumps into a surly disco sway, pauses, then plays out hard riffing over an urgent Shaft hi-hat rush. ‘Summer Fun’ swaggers to a rough and ready four to the floor but always sounds intriguingly weary. The slightly mechanical counter riff, the near swooning vocals, the sinewy incidental synths meet in ragged unison. It may not be polished but the song pictures any hot city summer. ‘Punk Funk’ goes on to say it all, from the wild, histrionic drum intro to the fuzzed up guitar muscularity. The lush synth wash and shredding Niles solo inject a raw energy similar to those first Strut Nigerian funk comps.

Side two of Thrust sees a shift of studio and a tightening of tone. The band also has a revamp, Niles and McNeal at the centre but with others contributing greater range (via organ, vibes, timbales etc). Everything is slightly more polished and although the relish of the opening side recedes, there are high points to compensate. The funk shuffling strength of ‘Untitled’ makes for more than an out-take with Starvin Marvin’s Hammond B3 bringing an eyes closed thrill. ‘Quiet Isle’ builds a sultry and memorable jazz funk dreamscape but it’s the album’s closer, the prime prog-funk statement of ‘One Slave, One Gun’, that seals the records buried treasure status. From an agile vibes solo to a psyched-out Hammond counter and through to the samba timbales crescendo, the element of surprise never goes away.

The same can be said for the companion Wilbur Niles release ‘Thrust Too‘ that We Are Busy Bodies are letting loose alongside his debut. It’s a fascinating second episode in the R n B maverick’s journey, recorded this time in the relative sophistication of a local studio used to make jingles. This 1980 follow up revealed a more direct sound from a newly assembled band (now named Thrust) with Machelle McNeal focusing more on production duties. What it might lack in that lo-fi warmth as a result of these shifts it more than makes up for with its range and ambition.

That may be because this follow up is more of a collective effort. Thrust, the band, share the billing, writing duties and the same commitment to groove invention as their leader. It also seems that drummer John Mitchell had a specific influence on Thrust Too with the record’s rhythmic depth a defining feature. Check in with his futuristic solo effort ‘Sevens Up’ or ‘Electric Earth’ as it powers through in Buddy Miles/Santana live style. For a slightly gentler vibe, the Mitchell/Niles combined congas bring a fizz to the smooth jazz balladry of ‘First Time Home’ while the pair’s co-written ‘Machelle’, pulses with soft stepping affection.

Other combinations stand-out. Bob Freid’s sax intertwines intuitively with the Niles guitar choreography, pushing through the higher registers in ‘Hang Ten’ then punching hard on the fantastically loose and soulful ‘Parrott City’. Such a wave of effortless musicality consistently cruises through the album allowing Wilbur Niles exceptional fret work keep ahead of the tide. Those subtle wristed razor-sharp flicks, those full toned bluesy runs, the suppressed sustain and snarling McLaughlin-esque solos, here is a guitarist who could bring both style and dynamism.

Maybe at times Thrust Too treads safely but it does so with a real sure stride. No-one could catch the Sly/Bootsy powered Survival Of The Funkiest and not get caught up in its wild, synth blasted, all floors party freak out. Featuring the flowing vocal trio Coffee, Cream and Sugar, Thrust add a raucous hip-hop dimension to their bustling street funk and look forwards. The tune also feels like some kind of a statement, Wilbur Niles making a commitment to endure with his music which has taken him all the way to these 2023 re-issues. These two initial Niles/Thrust records never made a real dent at the time but he continued making music, including six albums worth of diligently created, fine blended soul, funk and smooth jazz. Now all made available digitally via We Are Busy Bodies alongside Thrust and Thrust Too, the music of Wilbur Niles still plays on….we should be thankful.

Get your copies of ‘Thrust’ and ‘Thrust Too’ plus other Wilbur Niles re-issues at We Are Busy Bodies Bampcamp pages HERE or from your local record store.

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