Review: Skinflint, Chief of the Ghosts
The unforgivable flaw of Chief of the Ghosts, the latest release from Batswana metal trio Skinflint, is that try as I might I could not figure out how to get the cover art to show up on iTunes. I wasted a whole afternoon f***ing about with tag editors trying to get it to work, and I’ll waste the whole evening being furious about it now. I remember some meeting last year where editors were talking about starting some sort of rating system and it’s a mercy they never did, I’d have had no choice but to dock the score firmly for that and even if Skinflint are my enemy now it’d be a shame to see the reputation of a good album like this in the gutter.
On their website and in interviews, the band talk about their music having an African influence. Musically it’s there (though I only heard it at its most obvious, in the syncopated handclaps of Borankana music in the album’s opener and the intros to a couple of songs,) but the backbone of Chief of the Ghosts is formed by what I guess I’d call traditional metal – if I had to define it, the kind played by Black Sabbath and their immediate successors. All the signifiers you’d expect are there – harsh, growling vocals from Guiseppe Sbrana, guitar rolling over low, churning bass from Kebonye Nkoloso, and fast, purposeful drumming from Alessandra Sbrana – and they’re thrown down with a passion and pace that makes them as satisfying as any point in the last fifty years. They know how to get range out of the stuff they’re using, within songs and between them: the album sweeps from tense scene-setting and slow-burning melody to galloping, shout-along choruses and flaring solos, and along with an economic runtime it makes for a taut, exciting listen front-to-back.
Their background is much clearer in their lyrics, which spin African folklore into four-minute blasts of gore and flame. I couldn’t tell you how fast or loose they’re playing with these stories to make them work as songs, but even if I was in a position to play at arbiter of what’s properly African I’d be willing to split the difference because they make them sound cool as hell. It makes me wish I knew more about this stuff – like the leopard men from Anyoto Aniota seem to be based on an actual historical thing, a load of secret societies over around West Africa who disguised their murders as leopard attacks, and I’d love to know what their deal was (There’s stuff on the internet – this piece has a decent look at one society’s functions over time – but on the whole it all feels pretty vague and contradictory. This book looks like it could be useful if anybody who’s on the same continent as the Sydney Jones wants to check it out. Maybe it’s sad but I miss that library.)
So they’re drawing from a different occult tradition to their influences, but Skinflint share something key with more canonical metal bands – the ability to tell a story. Sbrana writes in vivid, painterly detail – he’ll take time in the middle of a song to mention the exact species of bird that’s being killed, or devote an entire verse to describing cattle becoming possessed by spirits. That kind of documentary precision doesn’t sound like it has much of a place in a genre that’s all about power and fury, but Sbrana has a way with meter that makes these touches dovetail right into a track’s momentum, and rather than slowing the songs down it breathes life into them in a way that’s rare in any genre – look at his gruesome description of a reanimated corpse’s first steps in Ndondoncha, or the climax of Iqungo, a violent, forensic account of an exorcism bellowed in how-to levels of detail over a jackhammer of a bassline. It makes the songs feel tangible in a way that kicks Chief of the Ghosts from a solid metal album into something that really leaves a mark on you.
Botswana has a strong metal scene with roots stretching back into the 1970s (which is well worth looking further into, here’s another thrashier band I’m liking), and over a decade’s existence Skinflint have become something of an international figurehead for it, the ones who invariably get mentioned in profiles. I guess these things are always to some degree down to circumstance – they were, for instance, one of the few bands from the scene whose stuff I could easily find for sale – but on Chief Of The Ghosts, they show a narrative flair and command of the genre which more than justifies their success.
Chief of the Ghosts is available for purchase from the band’s website. The band are touring Europe this month, but as far as I can tell only in the Low Countries.