America's leading proponents of Afrobeat, Antibalas are the sort of band who lovingly embrace the notion of New York City as a cultural melting pot, but on 2020's Fu Chronicles, the group come clean on another influence along with Afrobeat, Latin jazz, R&B and dub: martial arts. Lead singer, keyboard man, and songwriter Duke Amayo is a senior master of the Jow Ga Kung Fu style, and in their early days the group practiced at his dojo. While there are the odd keyboard swells and melodic passages here that could have come from the score for a classic Kung Fu movie of the '70s, Fu Chronicles reflects Amayo's passion for martial arts in its themes and feeling rather than as a homage to the canon of Run Run Shaw. Tunes like "Fight Am Finished" and "Fist of Flowers" reflect both the aggressive energy of battle and the discipline that comes from the rejection of needless violence, but even when this music has no audible connection to Kung Fu, it's clear that the focus and stamina that make a fighter great are not lost on these musicians. Fu Chronicles was cut primarily live at Daptone's recording studio in Brooklyn, New York, and the interaction of these 16 musicians (and the seven backing vocalists) is something special, tight but full of lean and sensuous groove, and the arrangements allow the players to shine individually and as a collective. Fu Chronicles also reflects Amayo's memories of a time before their Brooklyn neighborhood became hip and gentrified, and this bubbling cauldron of rhythms sounds like the product of an era when ideas from different creative disciplines could pour from windows and cohere into something more than the sum of the parts. Simply being able to re-create the sound and flow of Fela Kuti's glory days would be an accomplishment to be proud of by itself, but on Fu Chronicles, Antibalas once again show they're not just borrowing but building on their influences, and this album speaks to the head as much as the hips.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming