/ 21 November 2012

Lark: Sticking to a basic formula

Gong is Struck.
Gong is Struck.

When Cape Town electro act Lark sprung onto the scene in 2005 with their Mouth of Me EP, the then-duo of Inge Beckmann and Paul Ressel was like a breath of fresh air to a pretty stagnant local music scene.

Ressel’s banging beats and Beckmann’s vocal gymnastics secured their place as artists in a scene of artisans, while their dynamic live-show, even as a two-piece, allowed them to reach a large South African audience.

Their sound, which has been described as "glitch opera" and "Nintendo-electro” was fresh and new in a local context and earned the band high praise. They were the darlings of South Africa’s burgeoning music scene.

Along the way they recruited bassist Simon "Fuzzy" Ratcliffe, the sound engineer and session musician at Sound & Motion Studios, and popular session musician Sean Ou Tim on drums.

The now four-piece got to work on their debut album and in August 2006 their album Razblutio was released to rave reviews and a subsequent South African Music Award for best alternative album.

Things went a bit quiet after that, and Ressel moved overseas. Lark became a band that did small national tours every couple of years, playing to fans who were still captivated by their early music. Between 2006 and 2012 Lark released only a live DVD and an EP,  V, which only featured two new songs.

Now they are back with their second studio album titled Gong is Struck. So what can Lark fans expect?

Well the basic formula has not changed much, but the album is definitely a little harder than their previous efforts.

When I caught the band playing at Rocking the Daisies last October; they were fierce on stage, like an electronic Led Zeppelin.

The show was powerful and captivating, so when I heard there was a new album on the way I was excited to hear how this new impressive strut would translate in the studio.

The answer is that it hasn’t, really, and Gong is Struck is still too close to the band’s work of five years ago.

Which begs the question: How is Lark relevant to a South African music scene that has moved in leaps and bounds since 2007?

Well, the answer is: A lot less than they were. Especially when one considers the traction that electronic artists like Sibot, Spoek Mathambo, Tshe-Tsha Boys, Motel Mari, DJ Mujava, Dirty Paraffin and Die Antwoord have garnered at home and internationally in the last five years.

The album opens with a ghostly atmospheric piece titled Long Mantra, but I found that on repeated listens I kept skipping through this dull piece to track two. Not a great start.

Ascending splutters into life with some gentle notes, before the thumping bass heavy beats subsume them. Beckmann’s raspy vocal is impressive as usual, but the power and authority this song has when performed live is just not there.

Seek to Find is a gentler electro squelcher that offers glimmers of the push towards a new sound, and when the beat really kicks in (almost three minutes into the song), it really began to grab my attention.

Afflatus is another laid back electro groove, but it really doesn’t do a lot to keep the listener’s attention. It sounds a lot like the band’s early Depeche Mode-esque work.

Stole the Moon starts with haunting piano and Beckmann’s vocals, and soon morphs into an orchestrated mood piece. This song shows off Beckmann’s vocal dexterity and range, and should be applauded for taking the band to a new place.

The album’s curveball is a cover of Margaret Singana’s 1986 theme song for the TV series Shaka Zulu, titled We Are Growing. While the cover is interesting, it is hardly essential listening.

I Am Zeus is a dark complicated electro groove, the closest the band comes to replicating the intensity of their recent live shows, and probably the album highlight.The album's closer He Not A Man has a dubby feel to it and, along with I Am Zeus, is among the best of the new material.

Ultimately, Gong is Struck sounds like a transitional album for Lark, an album that finds them somewhere between where they found themselves in 2007 and where they are heading to. If this album signifies the resuscitation of Lark as a proper working band, which will result in yet more new material, then they may be one still to watch.

But if this album is just a once-off from old friends reuniting for old time's sake, then they have failed to stake a claim for their continuing relevance in the South African music scene.

It’s not bad to listen to, but it’s hardly going to change your life in that way that great music can.

For more in-depth album reviews, see our special report.