ALBUM REVIEW: Skinshape – ‘Umoja’: a fine interweaving of Afro-Anglo guitar pop

DORSET-born Will Dorey is a man with a far-reaching, eclectic musical vision, which he gives to the world via the medium of his recording alias Skinshape.

He’s a fellow traveller alongside artists such as Ninja’s Romare and Albert’s Favourites’ Huw Marc Bennett (whose debut album comes next month) in that Skinshape actively embraces the beauties and joys and creative possibilities of marrying styles and cultures to fashion food for our feet as well our brains. And in this era of fake-tanned, chest-beating populism, we maybe need that more than ever.

He’s about to release his fifth album in six years in the shape of Umoja (It translates from the Swahili as ‘Unity’).

No slouch is William when forging soundwaves for our ears. His self-titled debut in 2014 – picked up by a Greek label after he caused something of a devotional stir on SoundCloud – and the following year’s Oracolo, both contained a seductive form of slow, soulful breaks, informed by Africa, and with William’s trademark guitar playing spiralling through it all – at once psychedelic and African and with this really evocative, reverbed tonality powering away; sounding as if overheard by chance on some partly detuned longwave station.

By 2018 and his first release, Filoxiny, for his current home Lewis Recordings (home of Edan, Leron Thomas, etc), the dreamy psych was being spliced more and more with diverse equatorial and cinematic cadences for a blissful trip, mostly best enjoyed horizontal and sundazed. 

For Umoja, he set out to fully embrace the African tints and influences which have informed so much of his output so far – a melody here, a styling, a vocal hook there. And he found much of it in his adopted home, that great cultural meeting of waters, London. Not that it was necessarily a smooth process, as he says: “[It] was a real journey, full of highs and lows. 

“Some days I almost felt like giving up and other days I felt exhilarated. But when it finally came together towards the end I felt glad I had made the extra effort to go all out and make something different.”

As always, all the instrumentation comes to us courtesy Will himself; he’s one of those instinctive multi-instrumentalists who can turn their hand to anything, coax what he needs from it. Oh, except the drums. Not them: “I always prefer those to be played by a true pro,” he says.

He knows what he wants, but it’s about the feel; that beats the technicality in every hand played. A valve amp and a mono tape machine and he’s away. He thinks that “ … people over-complicate things when they record”.

Time to step in and see what William has been cooking up for us in Umoja.

It’s a sprightly manoeuvre out of the blocks with his guitar chopping in a jazz/highlife stylee on “Sua Alma” – which translates from the Portuguese as ‘your soul’. Fittingly, D’Alma is on vocal duties, trilling us a tune. Everything is swathed in reverb beautifully and softly, adding just enough blur to smooth things like an Impressionistic painting: yes, the sharpness of modern production isn’t present. Good. Oh, will you look at those colours? A double bass thumbs away and the percussion interplays and weaves with the guitar. There’s a stall being set out for the next 40-odd minutes.

“In The End” plays in over really skeletal percussive pings; Will’s guitar has this aquatic psych processing which is off-kilter and curiously addictive. He takes the vocals on a track on which he tries to look past the grind of it all, sometimes – “finding time to rest your head is hard enough” – but there is “something left in the end”. It’s groovy, quirky, London-via-Africa pop. The guitars are lovely. Take a listen to the YouTube embed, below.

Idd Aziz takes the lead on the jittery, polyrhythmic organ groove of “Afande”, singing in Swahili of a woman who has ‘arrested’ the narrator: “I want you to pass me a sentence, officer / Put me in handcuffs”. Believe me it sings a lot more beautifully in that other tongue. “Afande” dovetails nicely with the fully Senegalese groove of “Kourou”, on which Moudou Touré, from the family line of the group Touré Kunda, one of the first African acts to really break out worldwide back in the 80s, brings grace over swaying beats and crisp brass.

I adore “Azon De Ma”, a bright psychedelic shimmer of an Afro-funk instrumental. At moments it sounds like the baroque sketches of that great lost 80s’ indie band, Felt; in atmosphere it’s as if “Albatross” hadn’t quite retired to its hammock at 3am, instead eyes closed, smiling, was still just about grooving away at the side of the dancefloor outdoors somewhere, well past the witching hour. Play it again, Sam.

It’s back to the crisp chord chops for “Amigos E Inimigos” (‘Friends and Enemies’, in the original Portuguese), a mysterious and possibly lovelorn tune, interplaying between that straight-backed guitar and a lovingly recorded and meandering guitar. “I got tired of searching / For a reason why you look at life this way,” sings a world-weary D’Alma. 

“Sun” is as languid as the title demands. “Sunny day, don’t go away / I need you in my life for the good times,” drawls Will, the tune laidback and full of his trademark evocative guitar lyricism. It’s a very fine Afro-Anglo pop song, is what it is. 

“Sudan” has the deep infectious groove you need, the guitar spiralling, precise and metronomic, and yet loose enough for your hips. Out front, Idd Aziz weeps for the titular nation and its bloody fractures. Moudou Touré returns to sweep us east to the other coast of the continent on “Doullé”, everything sweeping and shuffling around that addictive double-beat drum hook. The guitars break for the skies and my, what a guitarist William is when he sets free; so much feeling in that playing.

Umoji concludes in the brittle instrumental grace of “Lehin Ti Aye Ba Iku” – “After Death”, in the Yoruban language; of this is how it sounds beyond the curtain, maybe that ain’t so bad. Again, it’s all about that guitar, recorded with such atmosphere, as it winds across a skeletal and precise rhythmic land.

Is Umoja a departure for Skinshape? Yes and no. All the elements of the Africana have been present in the weave for a long time. It’s a full immersion into this end of the colour wheel, yes; and what it actually presents as is a really nice Afro-Anglo future pop odyssey. Think Graceland with actual charm and understanding and empathy and absolutely no cheese, perhaps. It’s a really curious listen: it asks you to come back for more.

Skinshape’s Umoja will be released by Lewis Recordings on digital, CD and a variety of vinyl pressings on September 4th. (Purple and green vinyl pressings have already sold out; trad black and clear variants are still available). To order your copy, click through to Bandcamp here.

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  1. Jessie Ross
    March 5, 2021

    Nice review, top album!

    • March 6, 2021

      Thanks Jessie, much obliged! Chris (writer)

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