Classicism can be a tough game. On the one hand, you get to pull moves from the best of the best, secure in the knowledge that your source material is an unquestionable storehouse of awesome. On the other, you risk coming up short in comparison, unable to step out of the shadow of your influences. High Noon, the new album from the D.C.-based Afrobeat ensemble Funk Ark, is an example of both the payoffs and pitfalls that come with this approach.
From the first track, the music demonstrates the group’s intimate knowledge of their genre of choice. Lead by the organ and the super-tight drummer, punctuated by horns and the treble bite of guitar, the band launches groove after groove into the realm of stratospheric polyrhythmarity. The one-two punch of the opening tracks “Chaga” and “Road to Coba” is enough to have the most jaded of funkateers nodding along to their superb recreation of the classic Afrobeat burner. The album isn’t entirely a retro-trip either, expanding stylistically into the more straight-ahead funk space of the title track, and the excellent Latin-tinged detour of “Rinconcito.” In addition, the band tends to keep most tracks far shorter than the records of their '70s forefathers, a decision that makes for a far tighter album, but that reduces the chance for the kind of epiphany that can only really happen in minute 26 of a Fela monster.
Unfortunately, it is the dogged specter of Fela that High Noon is ultimately unable to (Lagos) shake. Although the playing, arrangement, and production are uniformly excellent, the album somehow lacks the spark necessary to fully realize the band’s musical intent. Without a vocalist to take center stage, the songs tend to fall back on the structure of head-solo-head, with the result that after a few cuts, the album begins to feel a little uniform. Although the soloists are accomplished, none of them provide the charismatic presence necessary to make the tracks feel more like statements than excuses to jam. That said, High Noon is still an excellent album, and anyone who likes Afrobeat will certainly enjoy it. Also, the group will definitely be unstoppable live.