On this sophomore release High Noon, Afrobeat revivalists the Funk Ark amplify the energy and enthusiasm of their debut, From the Rooftop (2011). Those instrumental jams moved at mid-tempo and drew equally from New Orleans funk, Latin jazz, blues-rock, hip-hop, and, of course, Afrobeat. But, here, their agenda is almost strictly Fela-inspired. The 8-piece ensemble kick into gear a high-powered attack of African and Latin polyrhythms and yet make the controlled chaos of the album sound easy.
High Noon doesn’t give us any type of introduction. Instead, the Funk Ark hits us with “Chaga,” a hard-hitting beat with complex percussion, rhythmic guitar stabs, driving basslines and loud horns. Tracks “Hey Mamajo” and “419” continue the same Nigerian funk assault, but slowly build up in energy while the urgency of “Chaga” is right at the onset. Sometimes the rhythm section–namely bassist Marc Blackwood–falls too far into the background with these type of tracks. It takes away from their efforts to execute successfully their “Fela agenda,” but the horns’ musicianship often picks up some of the slack.
The soloists do an exemplary job of maintaining the energy of the LP, especially on the three previously mentioned cuts. Whether it is bandleader Will Rast on keys or Matt Rippetoe and Elijah Balbed on sax, these almost jazz-like improvisations are equally vital to pushing the groove forward as the rhythm section. The musicians do pay a little more attention to melody, unlike Fela’s many scorching, freewheeling solos. Nonetheless, there aren’t any fancy sequences or experimentation with jazz harmony. The underlying rhythms still dominate.
The Funk Ark take few respites from their incessantly, pulsating drive. But, when they do, fortunately, the band indulges in Meters-inspired, Southern R&B and funk, like on the title track and “Funky Southern.” Here, the rhythm section stands out. On the former, bassist Blackwood waddles through the swampy funk and blues of wah-wah guitars and muscular horns; but then he holds a steady riff on the latter, allowing the organ stabs, tambourine, and country-fried guitars get its “Chicken Strut”-like groove percolating.
Many of the bands from this burgeoning soul/funk revivalist scene do not strive for highly original work on wax. They focus on authenticity to the original sounds and superior musicianship, both things the Funk Ark score high marks on. However, the opportunities that the band takes to show self-identity never take shape. In particular, the electric vibes on “Road to Cuba” create different timbres than the usual Afrobeat track, making the song hard to digest easily between “Chaga” and “Hey Mamajo.” Even the hot cut “Rancho,” a Santana-like jam laden with ranchera, feels like a last minute addition. It’s easy to criticize the band for not consistently sticking to their Fela roots, but High Noon very clearly demonstrates their strengths: spirited Afrobeat and badass funk.
- Cyril Cordor