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EP Review: Mumford & Sons ‘Johannesburg’

mumford & sons

British folk-rockers Mumford and Sons might have been carving out a unique sound since 2007, but you’ve never heard anything like their African-inspired EP ‘Johannesburg’. With a cinematic composition that could have come straight out of ‘The Lion King’ soundtrack, ‘Johannesburg’ is equally tender, powerful, and surprising.

Opening track There Will Be Time shows off Mumford and Sons’ impressive collaboration instincts, merging their unique sound with Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal’s cultural influence. An understated guitar chord progression in the first verse blends seamlessly with Maal’s proud vocals, but the chorus soon becomes the hero of the song with its irresistibly catchy lyrics and melody.

The passionate lyrics meet their match in the band’s emotional vocal delivery and instrumental conviction as they sing, “In the cold light I live to love and adore you/It’s all that I am, it’s all that I have”. Just as the track reaches its peak, the thrashing guitars and drums give way to a playful African instrumental, the aural equivalent to breaking out of the jungle and into a clearing.

“Thrashing guitars and drums give way to a playful African instrumental, the aural equivalent to breaking out of the jungle and into a clearing.”

Like There Will Be Time, Wona is a refreshingly intricate blend of traditional rock and passionate African music. The first verse combines playful strings and shimmering synthesisers before quickly working in an energetic percussive rhythm. In the chorus, Mumford’s soft, sweet vocal delivery is lifted by accompanying harmonies as the guitars and drums intensify. The passion in the vocals grows throughout the song, creating a delicate instrumental and vocal balance in the lead up to the final reprise, “In the dawning light, I’ve found you breathless”.

Fool You’ve Landed demonstrates the beauty of simplicity, opening with a sparse instrumental before breaking into an upbeat, harmony-laden soft-rock number, complete with alternating African and English vocals. Steady drum rhythms and summery guitar melodies make Fool You’ve Landed the most mainstream of the EP’s five tracks, but by no means the least interesting – the vocals are as colourful as ever, and with a few soaring guitar fillers, the song holds its own amidst its complex multicultural companions.

Ngamila opens to thick vocal harmonies over piano and guitar melodies, and only grows more complex over time.  Characterised by a lingering instrumental echo, the song blends edgy with emotional, and as the driving drum beat kicks in, Mumford’s vocals establish a contrasting sense of intimacy and warmth. Finally, thrashing drums and electric guitar in the chorus add contrast and variety without severing ties with the African style, solidifying the unlikely bond between rock and tribal music.

“If you aren’t already channeling The Lion King at this point, Maal’s vocals in Si Tu Veux will have you purring.”

An anthemic chorus steals the show, filled with perfectly pitched vocals and goosebump-inducing passion, but equally impressive once again is the balance achieved between rock and rhythm. As the smoke of heavy beats and strong harmonies clears, the sweet, mellow African rhythms make a beautiful ending to an infectiously energetic, powerful song.

If you aren’t already channeling The Lion King at this point, Maal’s vocals in Si Tu Veux will have you purring. The conviction and passion of his vocal performance against a magnificent African instrumental backdrop is nothing short of breath-taking, and more than enough to transcend language barriers. Gently simmering synthesisers beneath the vocals set the stage for a dramatic performance, while restrained drum rhythms fill the song with anticipation. Si Tu Veux grows on a tantalisingly slow incline as multi-layered harmonies fall into place, but its final form is well worth the wait.

If a winning piece of music is one that paints a picture in your mind, then ‘Johannesburg’ is one winner after another. The EP is the first step in a brave new direction for Mumford & Sons, and the fans who follow them on this new leg of their musical journey are sure to reap the rewards of something magical.

Album Rating: 5


Written by Jess Martyn