This not-quite-soundtrack to a 1970s African film doesn't quite measure up to the UK jazz/electronic band's standard.
"Cinematic" is a word that would not be out of place when describing Red Snapper's music. Over a nearly two-decade-long career, the British outfit have honed an amalgam of jazz, soul, and electronic music that has often sounded like a soundtrack to a film that hasn't been made yet. Or, given the groovy, past-meets-future vibe of Red Snapper's music, a film that was made decades ago.
It wasn't a total surprise, then, when in 2013 Red Snapper introduced a new pseudo-score for Touki Bouki, the cult 1973 African motorcycle drama that was recently restored as part of Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project. The band embarked on a tour that saw them performing the music in real time with the film, in the manner in which various performers have played along with silent films such as Battleship Potemkin. Hyena presents extended takes on and developments of the musical ideas Red Snapper used with Touki Bouki.
Given the unique circumstances of its creation, one has a difficult time grappling with what exactly Hyena is. Is it an alternate version of a would-be soundtrack to an actual movie? Is it meant to stand as a Red Snapper album alongside the five the band have already released, the latest of which was Key in 2011? In the end, do such questions really matter?
Taken on its own terms, Hyena is pretty in line with Red Snapper's previous output. The focal point, as always, is the rhythmic interplay and mood modulation between double bassist Ali Friend and drummer Richard Thair. When these guys get into a groove and get swinging, they are smokin'. The problem is that doesn't happen very much on Hyena. The set has a few moments, but it's generally too restrained, too moody, daresay too mature. The guys can still play, but much of the playfulness is gone.
There has always been an element of Afrofunk to Red Snapper's work. Not surprisingly, it's more prominent on Hyena. "Card Trick" gets things going with a funky rhythm and groovy analog synth and Clavinet from multi-instrumentalist Tom Challenger. Likewise, "Dock Running" adds some brisk sax work from Challenger and wah-wah work from guitarist David Ayers. The aptly-titled "Wonky Bikes" is more tribal. Its tumbling, syncopated percussion and random, electric Miles Davis-type keyboard blips are interesting, but the track fails to build on them and ultimately leads nowhere special.
Red Snapper have employed guest vocalists in the past, but on Hyena Friend takes the lead on several tracks. His nondescript croon suits moody, off-kilter material such as "Walking Man" and "Mambetty", but it's more a wrinkle than a revelation in Red Snapper's sound. And it certainly can't save the too-smooth-by-half acid jazz of "Village Tap", which sounds like it floated in from another album where Red Snapper were actually trying to score a hit.
Hyena does partially make up for its lack of fun with a couple of dubby, Spaghetti Western-like tracks. On "Herder Can Dance", Ayers' delicate guitar arpeggios and Thair's clipped drums are like Radiohead doing reggae, while "Lassoo" has Challenger's keyboards shorting out like a bum lightsaber. It's telling, though, that the most arresting track on Hyena is the funky, breakbeat-driven "Trafic". With Friend on growling electric bass and Challenger laying down a downright friendly sax riff, this is fun. And more of it would be a nice complement to the relatively dull, moody numbers that round fill out the tracklist and remind you why so much soundtrack music fails to make an impact when removed from its celluloid context.
Ironically, Hyena isn't as cinematic as some of Red Snapper's best efforts. Feel free, then, to file it away as a well-intentioned but ultimately lackluster diversion, whether the band would have it that way or not.