Album Review – Boy Azooga – 1,2, Kung Fu!

Aside from one or two misfires and some half-baked albums, the best of 2018 has come from the expected sources – Hookworms, Courtney Barnett, Cardi B, Kacey Musgraves, Janelle Monáe and Nils Frahm among them. The records we expected to rule and make the biggest impact – Jack White’s Boarding House Reach and Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino – have not resonated with critics as one would have hoped. Newer acts, like Shame and Goat Girl, have made some real noise this year – it is those coming-through-the-ranks acts, I feel, are going to make the most interesting albums of this year. In terms of stealing the show and making a pitch for The Album of 2018, there is every chance Boy Azooga will be in the running…

Boy Azooga - 1, 2, Kung Fu! artwork

Many might be scratching their head and wondering who Boy Azooga are. Initially a solo project of Welsh musician Davey Newington, the guys have just played in Swansea for Radio 1’s Biggest Weekend and enthralled their home crowd. Since the release of the single ‘Face Behind The Cigarette’ – a short and brilliant burst – ears have been pricking up and a lot of interest has come the way of the Welsh band. They have, more recently, played in Amsterdam, Manchester (supporting Deerhunter) and Cardiff: already acclimatising themselves to the country-hopping demands of the musician lifestyle. The Heavenly Recordings-signed troupe have held their latest LP in vinyl form and are preparing to unleash it to the world. Their live performances speak for themselves – can that translate into an album that satisfies the senses and gets people talking?!

1, 2, Kung Fu! must rank among 2018’s best-titled albums – there have been few standout titles – and has so many captivating cuts. The fantastic single, ‘Jerry’, shows the boys are capable of surprising and snaking in all directions.

‘Jerry’ is, in fact, one of the most instant and arresting songs from Boy Azooga’s album.

‘Breakfast Epiphany’ opens proceedings with an unexpected balance of riparian strings and glitchy, electronic blips. Vocals swoon in and the river of sound bends and contorts with peace and breeze. It is a song that reminds one, on the one hand, of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young but is more out-there and adventurous. Our hero takes his time – before time takes his away – and there is a wrestling sense of a man planning something big but not wanting to rush things. He is urgent and determined but has a casual, beard-stroking zen to things! It is a gorgeous and calm way to open 1, 2, Kung Fu! – one that brilliantly leads to the rousing, short blast ‘Loner Boogie’. Taken as a concept, the dreamer and procrastinating man goes from the slumbers of the morning sun to the booze-spiked rawk of the night – standing at a party and looking like a fool; busy and cool kids ignoring him as our hero scans the jobs in the paper. Maybe those initial aspirations were high-minded and a little lofty: that reality has crashed and the boy is assessing. He is isolating himself and seems to be safe in the carapace of social alienation. It is the first big stormer from the album and, complete with a stunning closing scream, the listener has their mind stretched, nourished and smashed only two tracks down!

‘Face Behind Her Cigarette’ returns to the Morse code-like electronics of the opener but takes it in a more groove-minded direction. Going from experiential and progressive tones of the opening track to a straight-out punk slam,  we now mutate into more disco directions. It is almost like the band is traversing various time periods and dancefloors; a collation of dreams and personal pitches from a restless mind determined to find happiness and ‘himself’. The strut and swagger of the song backs words that highlight an alluring figure who might be a teasing siren or a villainous muse – the hero is lured to the rocks and surrendering to the strange buzz and scented smoke of the night. ‘Jerry’ is the band upping the spacey quotient but, like ‘Breakfast Epiphany’, they blend the weirdness with something romantic and tender. Newington, in his vocal sound and the scenes painted, seems to take us into his bedroom as he scans his diary pages and notes scrawled on the wall. Casting visions of a special smile and semi-idyllic scene, ‘Jerry’ is a song that boasts so much musical richness and compels the listener to dig deep and come back time and time again.

‘Taxi to Your Head’ is another easy highlight that gets odd and psychedelically staggered before combining early groove with rifled percussion and odd timbres. This is fat bass and hip-wiggling funk: you get visions of a man on taxi rooftops and abandoning his inhabitions to the liberty and darkness of the night. ‘Losers in the Tomb’ employs computer game samples and noises; there is a sense of nostalgia in a song that goes into Coral territory. Its lyrics are distinctly that of Boy Azooga but the melody and composition shifts put me in mind of current-day The Coral. ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘Waitin’, between them, possess folk calm and contemplation; on the former song you get visions of a mess and a situation that seems to have got out of control – delivered with such soothe and dreaminess it does something weird to the heart and soul. ‘Waitin’ has a similar timbre and, again, shows the band is capable of doing hazy and delirious alongside the more primitive and raucous numbers. Zapping organs and evocative notes make it another standout from a busy and inspiring album.

It might take a few listens for 1, 2, Kung Fu! to settle in and spread its wings – it is a busy and packed album that demands enough patience to unfurl and blossom. The obvious and immediate songs like ‘Loner Boogie’ (a sonic standalone that, ironically, has no compatriots) and ‘Face Behind Her Cigarette’ show one side to Boy Azooga: more flourishing and experimental songs like ‘Taxi to Your Head’ and ‘Breakfast Epiphany’ displays another. Lesser bands would struggle to coalesce these worlds so effectively. The musicianship, kinetic kinship and confidence of Boy Azooga makes 1, 2, Kung Fu! an instant winner that gets stronger upon every listen; it’s an album perfect for the blissful sun and those darker, rain-lashed moments too.