Album Review: Ammar 808 – Global Control / Invisible Invasion [Glitterbeat Records; September 2020]

Electronic music has always been a soft target for the purists. To use an ex-colleague (jazz guitarist, quelle surprise)’s metaphor, the fundamental difference between a handcrafted armchair and a cheap mass-produced imitation is the latter’s lack of the most universal characteristic known as ‘human element’. Or a human error – if you happen to be a diehard purist.

Tunisian producer Sofyann Ben Youssef, better known as Ammar 808, is no stranger to this aesthetic bias: “Instead of having the machine imposing itself on the music, I wanted to impose the music on the machine,” he described his approach in an interview in 2018. His vigorous debut Maghreb United – three North African male-vocalists flanked by Youssef’s analogue muscle power – did just that. In line with “reverse Orientalism” Youssef vouches for, it also showed yet again that any artist is harder to beat on their home ground.

By contrast, Youssef’s away match in Indo-futurism, titled Global Control / Invisible Invasion, proves to be tough going. Skittering beats and blooming basslines of ‘Marivere Gati’, ‘Duryodhana’ and ‘Summa Solattumaa’ make you wish he had left his 808 at home. Even K. L. Sreeram, the man behind frenetic konnakol in Slumdog Millionaire’s ‘Liquid Dance’, faces an uphill battle against the drum machine in ‘Mahaganapatim’, which is saying quite a lot.

As expected, when drum patterns become sparser and vocals sit right in Youssef’s arrangements, abracadabra! The album gets its juju back. The penetrating, well-modulated voices of Kali Dass and Susha add serious depth to the fever-dream-like trinity of the album – ‘Ey Paavi’, ‘Arisothari Yen Davi’ and ‘Pahi Jagajjanani’ – that matches its predecessor’s intensity.

That basic blueprint is in 99% of all dance music because it works. Much of Talvin Singh’s Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (1997) is merely sample-based drum ’n’ bass with a South Asian twist, and yet the compilation is remembered as a musical landmark among an entire generation of British Asians. What we can take away from that is: make the humblest of ingredients count, and there is no limit to what you can achieve.