Kongos are not just another band made up of a famous songsmith’s progeny. These four sons of John Kongos, who spent the 60s climbing the South African charts before scoring hits in the UK, have the drive, chops, and creative acumen to stand on their own.
While Lunatic‘s ballads occasional slide into overwrought dramatics, there is an overarching theme of well-traveled individuality and authenticity. The hard-rock numbers set speakers ablaze with a spark unlike anything else heating up radio.
The pulsing, mercurial melody of ‘Come With Me Now’ pulls you in like a manic siren’s call. Impressively, this full-bodied rocker is built on the struts of an addictive accordion riff. Musical tension builds up to a triumphant release in the chorus’s declaratory scream of “Oh come with me know/I’m not gonna take you down/Oh come with me now/I’m not gonna show you how.” The crisp ring of the Southern blues guitar solo is positively arresting and adds a dynamic complexity to the militant track. During live performances this song blows up a room. On record it launches the rest of Lunatic into heroic orbit.
After ‘Come With Me Now’, I’m happy to follow Kongos through the remaining tracks like an enchanted child after the pied piper.
Oddly, Kongos chose not to fully capitalize on this momentum. ’Sex On The Radio’ follows the eclectic opener with neither the charm nor charisma to match. It is effective hum-along pop peppered with sustained power chords and emotional croons. The vocal line successfully burrows in your memory and stays there until long after the album is over, but the song as a whole is predictable and familiar. It comes off more like an echo of Kings of Leon than the product of a distinctly different musical voice.
‘Escape’ and ‘Kids These Days’ pull more freely from the reserve of Kongos’ strengths. ’Escape’ is apocalyptic romance. The ominous rhythm bubbles like the end of the world under a gentle guitar line and lover’s plea. There’s something particularly hypnotic about the tranquil promise of safety floating through the end of days. ‘Kids These Days’ starts of as a more traditional interpretation of classic rock before erupting into an accordion-led parade through raising ambient chaos and distortion.
Kongos perfectly execute abrupt changes in tone and style. ‘As We Are’ and ‘Traveling On’ are the most intimate ballads on the album. Both of them slow the pace down to a near-halt and fill the void with unfiltered emotional surges. ’As We Are’ conjures up narrow cobblestone streets for the vocals to walk down, emotional and naked. The instrumentation rises from the background until it seems that each brother is soloing at the same time, while still fending off cacophony with carefully orchestrated agreement. Conversely, ‘Traveling On’ holds on to its hushed tones and chamber atmosphere for the duration.
‘Hey I Don’t Know’ is a defiant stretch of attitude bolstered by a screaming guitar that positively slays listeners with its impassioned bluesy rampaging. ’Take Me Back’ ties dark brooding verses to a pained chorus.
Kongos sound most at home at the intersection of mainstream hard rock and centuries of traditional folk. ’I'm Only Joking’ is born from that instinct. The thumping rhythm and cutting guitars front an assault in stereo. The vocals are protected by thunder while waving the banner of an unforgettable chorus. Even at the verge of chaos, the score is meticulously composed. Anticipation builds toward levy-busting release in consecutive sonic surges that hammer classical elements against hard rock.
Enigmatically, this quartet is both a profoundly unique voice in the mainstream and a tributary of prevalent currents. At times, the reflections of bands like U2 and Kings of Leon are perfectly clear. In the very next moment, those same reflections are thoroughly obscured and devoured by waves. In those later moments, Kongos simply cannot be held back.