It's no stretch to say that an album of this nature could have been an unmitigated disaster. You do not approach a subject like apartheid lightly; Cheri MacNeil must surely have been aware of this when she started work on her new album. Paul Simon had enough trouble working with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo when creating Graceland in the mid-80s, breaking the cultural boycott against the apartheid regime in South Africa and releasing the album amid a storm of controversy in the process. It's been 27 years since then, but apartheid remains a subject that is rarely spoken of, and even more rarely touched upon. An outsider most likely wouldn't have dared to make an album like Rivonia; even for a South African woman such as MacNeil to do so is a seriously brave move, one for which she must be commended even before a discussion of the album contents begins.

She's no stranger to lofty topics, capturing my attention with 2011's musically adventurous and lyrically hard-hitting Idealistic Animals. Even though I was introduced to a staggering talent, I came to the album three months too late, and MacNeil was there and gone in a flash. I didn't even know she was working on anything until I got the press release for Rivonia. I was surprised, and this soon turned to shock as I read its contents. 'Is she really going there?!' I thought, as I'm sure many at City Slang must have done - but she really did go there, and has addressed a thorny issue with aplomb, highlighting her musical brilliance in the process. Idealistic Animals didn't pull any punches, but Rivonia is on another level, emotionally speaking: 'Brother, my brother is dead in the gutter,' she exclaims on opening track, 'Down Under, Mining', while 'Took Them Away' is a visceral account of the arrest of 19 members of the African National Congress (ran by Nelson Mandela) in April 1963, an occurrence which would change the course of South African history.

Mandela also crops up on a few other tracks, with 'Man of the Book' being written directly about him; sometimes he makes his way into the lyrics indirectly, with the topic of South Africa's first interracial elections being explored on '27.04.1994'. That song features more gripping lyrical content and the first major appearance of the album's expanded soundscape - the middle section sounds absolutely huge, with the song building towards a spine-tingling conclusion. The human outlook explored on the record lends it extra gravitas - with no crowd-pleasing audible anywhere - and there are some beautiful musical touches here and there, which combine to make some parts of the album searingly intense, with the "I'm coming back from the dead, you can't hold me down here" coda on 'Back From the Dead' rendered almost overpowering in the process, and the devastating 'Teller of Truths' is the emotional high point of the record, addressed to a grieving son whose mother has been killed.

For all the intensity - and it must be said that parts of Rivonia are not for the faint-hearted - there are moments of catharsis too, such as the stunning a capella closer 'Victory', which enlists the help of a 16-strong choir to give this breathtaking, bold and beautiful album the send-off it deserves. Its concept was risky to begin with, and MacNeil wouldn't have been faulted for playing it safe, but she went in entirely the opposite direction. Frequently, the album makes for distinctly uneasy listening, but frankly, music like this should challenge its listeners more often. Its creator is truly coming into her own as an artist with a distinctive voice and important, poignant things to say. Are you listening?