Formed in 2008, Hard Proof are somewhat of an underground Austin supergroup, comprised of members of many funk, soul, blues and jazz bands that are all rooted in the Texan capital. The horn section of Hard Proof have even aided big names outside of their geographical and stylistic home, most notably Spoon, Gary Clark Jr., The Walkmen, Band of Horses and Dave Matthews Band. With such impressive and diverse experience under their collective belts, the meeting of such professional minds in the context of a 10-piece band is rather promising. Hard Proof also proudly tout their one major influence; a man whose music was as revolutionary as his politics and worldview, pioneer of Afrobeat music Fela Kuti and his band Africa ’70. Still, this new album, Stinger, isn’t solely an Afrobeat or Afropop record, rather the band have drawn on the experience they have picked up whilst working with their other projects, pulling stylistic influences from jazz, funk and other genres. The result is an unequivocally unique sound that is nonetheless reminiscent of many different genres. Hard Proof seem to be somewhat of a melting pot for a myriad of styles, creating a sound that is very much so their own in the process whilst still remaining loud and proud about its influences. As a result, the listener finds that they can pick out various ideas that are reminiscent of one artist or another, but Hard Proof’s sound can never quite be pinned down. It must also be said that the meeting of so many different influences doesn’t result in a clumsy conglomerate of ideas that are loosely thrown together, rather the different styles are intertwined with great skill as to make Hard Proof’s sound come off as very natural, and the result on this record is very successful.
The opening self-titled track is an impressive start to the record. The horns take the lead for the most part with the guitar and bass playing a complementary counter-melody, and the 7/4 time signature is made to sound smooth and natural, not stopping the tune from being a real toe-tapper. Past the intro and into the more stripped back groove section, a fluttering saxophone takes centre-stage with some wailing free jazz melodies that sound fantastic. Despite the band’s self-proclaimed Afrobeat influence, this first track feels like more of a contemporary jam band jazz standard, reminiscent of the likes of popular modern jazz bands like Snarky Puppy. Nonetheless, whilst this composition does not give the most fitting introduction to Hard Proof’s unique sound, it is a great tune that grabs the listener’s attention right from the onset, as was presumably intended given the significantly shorter runtime than most of the nine tracks on this album.
The next track, Men of Trouble, has a noticeably more funk-based structure than its predecessor, featuring a steady bass groove in keeping with the bass drum pattern and a wah guitar worked into the mix. The addition of a flute carrying the main melody is less typical of funk, but manages to not sound out of place, rather adding an interesting flavour to the piece before horns are added to expand the sound. The rest of the piece features some more compelling melodies from the duelling flute and horn sections, with some nice texture in the backing instrumentation, such as a short section for which most of the instrumentation cuts out to allow the flute and trumpet to play only with the accompaniment of a solid rock drumbeat before a fill brings the track into a fantastic flute solo. Whilst Men of Trouble is another great track, I do feel that other cuts would have fared better earlier on in the tracklisting as to properly convey to the listener what exactly Hard Proof are about and win them over with their intriguing mixed bag of influences. For instance, Boss is a real highlight in the tracklisting, as it sees the meeting of Hard Proof’s inspirations so well. This composition’s foundation is on a distinctly Afrobeat rhythm, and the basic chord sequence is provided by a funky guitar and keyboard combo. This leaves more than enough space for the jam band jazz horns to swoop in and provide the lead melody of the track, establishing the meeting of many musical worlds for which Hard Proof have come to be known. The second section of the track moves into a more jazz fusion-based arrangement, with the rhythm section leaving behind the Afrobeat-inspired rhythms and adopting a more syncopated rhythmic style that sits closer to standard jazz tropes. The main section of the piece is brought back in by some indulgent but satisfying stabbed, call-and-answer accents that feel like the cherry on top of this fantastic composition.
As one would expect from a 10-piece jazz and funk supergroup like Hard Proof, the musicianship on this record is technical, creative and all-around phenomenal. Every single instrument utilised on this record has ample time to shine, even if that time is used rather subtly as part of the group sound. Stinger is certainly a record that warrants several listens to properly unravel its finer details, given that they are often veiled by its myriad of influences and extravagant arrangements and performances from the group. Moreover, it has proven itself to be a record that reveals something new to the listener upon each journey back into its depths, making it feel as fresh and enthralling as it was on the first listen for several subsequent spins of this record.
Overall, Stinger has made its case to me for being more than just a fun jazzy and funky record with some interesting influences, rather there is featured some highly impressive compositions and well-assembled arrangements that would impress even music fans who are not familiar with the styles of music at play here. Nonetheless, it is never a challenging listen, and even the soloing sections that feel rather reminiscent of free jazz are largely accessible given the ever-steady grooves that are keeping the pieces grounded. This is certainly a highlight of the year thus far for me and I can see this record growing on me even more as the year goes on. Not only is this record a must-hear for fans of jazz, funk and Afrobeat, but the conventional twist Hard Proof put on many of these tracks makes me want to extend my recommendation of this album to fans of all genres, as there is something in here for almost everyone.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10