Ancient Egyptians imagined death as a journey through a treacherous underworld of demon reptiles, onerous puzzles, and grueling trials. To help the dead navigate these obstacles and reach eternity, the Egyptians assembled The Chapters of Coming Forth by Daycommonly known as The Book of the Dead. The tome offers spells, prayers, and adventure, a breadth that Ibeyi embraces on their third album, which takes its name from one of the book’s many entries. Since 2014’s Oya EP, named after the Yoruba deity of storms and death, the French-Cuban sister duo has bent heavy emotions and weighty subjects into lithe, elegant shapes, building shrines from personal and historical tragedies. On Spell 31they rework their signature layered spirituals into fleet grooves that shimmer with color and joy still channel pain and loss.
Where Ash and Ibeyi were spectral and skeletal, evoking aching absences, the songs on Spell 31 are rhythmic and sinuous, engorged with blood and energy. The twins have credited the shift to a change in their writing process: Normally, Lisa-Kaindé would initiate songs on the piano and Naomi would mold the percussion around her sister’s melodies and lyrics. This time, the rhythms came first, Naomi and longtime collaborator Richard Russell making beats and Lisa-Kaindé writing to them. Her melodies “had to gain muscle…and be able to live up to the beat,” Lisa-Kaindé explained in an interview. The resulting album isn’t an outright jamboree, but the rhythm-forward approach gets bolder, more lively performances and arrangements.
“Made of Gold” pulses with textures and voices, Ibeyi and Pa Salieu declaring their resilience over a thicket of rumbling bass, shrill yelps, and rattly percussion. “My spell made of gold, gold, gold,” Lisa-Kaindé sings for the hook, a buoyant harmony backing her. The line works as both incantation and earworm, a one-two punch Ibeyi also land on “Lavender & Red Roses,” a collaboration with Jorja Smith that evokes the lush melodies of We Are KING. “Lavender and red roses,” the trio coos, their voices tender and warm as they dedicate the floral offering to a hopeless former lover. The song is the rare kiss-off that’s as sweet as a kiss.
Amid the revelry and uplift, Ibeyi still evoke the bone-deep grief and despondence that feature their early work. “Creature (Perfect)” builds to an epiphany that sounds more paralyzing than freeing. “I don’t have to be perfect, don’t have to be perfect/I finally see, I’m just a creature,” Lisa-Kaindé wails, stretching the last word with downcast trills that recall Björk. “Tears Are Our Medicine” offers a similar mix of pain and triumph, the sisters dolefully reaching their upper registers over a spare bassline and a faint drone. “Look at my eyes and cry with me,” they softly request.
On “Los Muertos,” over solemn hums, dulled stomps, and the Santería chant of “ibaé,” which is used to honor deceased loved ones, they recite the names of lost relatives and friends. The song is celebratory despite its gravity, the “ibaé” sourced from a song by Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz’s late father, famed conguero Miguel “Angá” Díaz. Ibeyi also sample their father on “Rise Above,” a soulful but limp interpretation of Black Flag‘s punk standard. Their version, which they reportedly recorded without hearing the original, includes a perfunctory reference to George Floyd’s murder, and is more respectable than galvanizing.
Luckily, “Rise Above” is the album’s sole misfire. Ibeyi continue to celebrate and probe diaspora, building bridges between the sounds and traditions of their transatlantic heritage. There’s a quiet audacity to their growing syncretism, which here casually yokes together Egyptian funerary lore, South African sangomas, Santería rituals, and British rap. The wacky sprawl feels in step with The Book of the Dead, which historically was a varying, unofficial collection of texts rather than a stable, canonical book. In Ibeyi’s deft hands, tradition, like death, is a gateway to strange wonders.
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