Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect – as well as giving a brief overview of the music itself. Today, we’re taking a look at a fascinating new compilation from Soundway, covering the fertile Synthpop scene of ’80s South Africa.
Soundways Records have long focused on compiling and anthologising music that may, at least to a typical Western audience, be considered fairly obscure. Their latest release is one such collection and it’s a veritable goldmine for those intoxicated by slinky, taut electro-funk grooves and quintessentially ’80s sonic presentation. ‘Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth-Boogie in 1980s South Africa’ is that collection; it’s a very thorough triple LP selection of music from a movement that many may currently be unfamiliar with. Highlighting a broad range of artists and picking standout tracks from a raft of extremely rare private press albums unreleased outside of South Africa, the collection serves as more than just a primer for an entire musical movement. The pieces included have been ordered and chosen in such a way that the album feels cohesive and consistent and the production style and instrumentation remain similar from song to song, despite the changing artists. The music here is likely to be of great interest to the ever-hungry market of deep funk-heads, the smooth, danceable grooves, hooky basslines and immediate melodies finding an appealing middle-ground between funk and pop. Most, if not all, of the albums that have had tracks featured here remain unavailable on any format other than vinyl and haven’t even been reissued – meaning that for those without the inclination or cash to hunt down valuable originals, ‘Gumba Fire’ is the only way to acquiring these excellent grooves.
Spread over three heavyweight slabs of wax, this is a quality pressing throughout and one that presents the music included in almost certainly higher quality than previously available. Sides contain 2 or 3 tracks each, meaning that there’s no risk of overcrowding the grooves so sound quality remains impressive throughout. Side length is still reasonable however, as few of these tracks last less than 5 minutes each – some considerably more. There has, presumably, been some degree of remastering here as the sound quality and sonics are excellent; drum machines and percussion are punchy and direct, vocals have presence and synths shimmer, whilst the bass work positively pops out of the speakers. As is perhaps inevitable with almost any ’80s recording, the soundscape leans towards the bright side but that fits the character of the songs well; these are, after all, songs to boogie and have a good time to, first and foremost. All three of our discs are clean and well pressed – they sit flat and warp free on the platter during playback and have been pressed with high standards, our copies being free of any obvious surface noise or other such defects. All three discs sound great and there’s really nothing to fault here – especially impressive given the really rather reasonable price point on a triple disc set (£22).
Packaging and presentation is as slick as the music it contains. The striking three-tone artwork is classy and fits the aesthetic of the era well, the thick spine boasting not only a vivid yellow colour scheme but also bold black font that ensures the album will never be a challenge to pick out on the shelf. The sleeve itself is actually a traditional gatefold – the kind usually associated with double LPs rather than triples. From new, the first LP was housed in the first pocket whilst the second and third discs sat in the second. Whilst, admittedly, a triple gatefold of some form (either a doubled-up gatefold or a fold out three piece) would be have been preferable, this gatefold is still very nice and entirely reasonable given the affordable price point. Even for those that usually leave it on, the shrinkwrap is well worth removing in this case as the inner gatefold spread is made good use of, in-depth liner notes contextualizing the records printed on one side, whilst full colour reproductions of various album covers from the featured artists are included on the other. Our one minor complaint is that the records themselves come, from new, in generic black paper sleeves with no polylining; they’re about as high quality as paper inners can get but we would still recommend swapping them out for polylined inners for the sake of protection. The records are adorned with very attractive labels, which tick all the boxes; they look good, they clearly show which side is which, they indicate playing speed and they even give track times and the names of each artist.
This is an excellent release throughout and one that’s easy to recommend. The collection itself is excellent and presents some fine cuts from various rare and expensive synth-funk LPs. Sound quality is impressive and the records themselves are just as good, the packaging likewise leaving a strong impression. A great collection.