With a ten-man lineup, Austin, Texas-based band, Hard Proof, has been working since 2008 to bring afrobeat to an American audience. Afrobeat—combining West African styles and instrumentation with American funk and jazz—is a popular genre south of the Sahara, but likely to sound hectic to the uninitiated. With so many influences in the mix, it’s easy for it to become bloated or lopsided. With their sophomore album, Stinger, Hard Proof navigates these pitfalls with seeming effortlessness, marrying the best inspirations from two continents.
While there are cool, jazzy influences throughout Stinger, they’re mostly structural—the interweaving of band-wide syncopation with windows for individual solos. There are also plenty of call-and response phrases, with the response often coming from the big band horn section, which evokes Africa and Latin America in equal parts. The horns lead about half of the nine tracks, though there’s diversity as well. They blare together on tracks like “War Gin” and “Boss,” then get more soulful on “Lots”. A crackling electric guitar solos over “Trickle Down” before laying down somber support on album closer “Soul Thing,” the much-needed cooldown for Stinger. My favorite track, “Men of Trouble,” added a hypnotizing flute that had me wishing it had made more appearances.
For the most part, the album’s heat is maintained by the funk-focused rhythm section. The up-tempo drums are ever present, but especially blazing on album highlight “Incendiary,” which also features some of the album’s strongest bass grooves. Throughout Stinger, traces of West African percussion are peppered in for occasional polyrhythms, but perhaps only truly get to shine on the short “A.R.A.S.”. If a track’s melody veers closer to one continent, it’s as if the rhythm grounds things in the other, allowing for versatility and more importantly breathing space across the band. One of the smartest moves Hard Proof makes is the length of the nine tracks, each typically five to six minutes. These relatively brisk songs allow each musician to say their piece without running ideas into the ground, making for a concise package that’s both easy to listen to and hard to define.
For all the substance and diversity Hard Proof brings to their music, Stinger never feels needlessly eclectic. This is urgency at its most relaxed. The tools and forms of West African and American music are translated, localized, and blended into a crisp, accessible, and consistently fun album that is sure to garner new fans of afrobeat.