Near the end of 2010 a band from Pretoria released an album called The Mystery of the Seven Stars. Most listeners were smitten, it was hard not to be. The band, Fulka, was doing this lovely “folktronica” thing, and doing it really well. Lots of banjos, violas, acoustic guitars, pianos, trombones, vocal harmonies and minimal electro beats, all skilfully arranged.
If you’ll excuse the double negative, there was pretty much nothing not to like. Fulka’s live show was just as impressive. Five and sometimes six multi-instrumentalists constituted many a sound engineer’s Most Tormenting Gig Ever, with a vast array of acoustic instruments geared with various homemade pickups, backed by laptops and an assortment of small organs (the musical kind), and then of course the soaring group vocals. But when a worthy sound engineer was present, and thankfully there were many such nights, Fulka’s live shows all over South Africa were magical and memorable. Leading this musical armada was a Polish-South African singer-songwriter named Ola Kobak. She wrote and arranged all the songs, co-produced the album’s recording (with husband Jacob Israel, who was also part of the band), played at least three different instruments at every show (as did most of the band members), and basically embodied the face and voice of Fulka.
Fast forward four years (yes, we are now near the end of 2014, get a grip). The Mystery of the Seven Stars, albeit a timeless album, is four years old. Many artists like to keep people in suspense about what they’re creating in studio. This four year stretch, in a sickeningly fast-paced industry, has added up to something more than suspense for Fulka fans though. In many ways, Fulka has died (except for the timelessness of the album, as noted earlier). The last significant post on the band’s facebook page, in April 2013, was an announcement that all Fulka’s music was available for free download on bandcamp. Fulka’s final gig (with aptly named Bittereinder – although technically a “bittereinder” is a die-hard) was in 2012, coincidentally also the last live show ever played at Pretoria’s legendary Tings ‘n Times venue. Everything seemed to be dead or dying or ending in some way.
Cue Metanoia, Ola Kobak’s new (and, I might have mentioned, long-awaited) solo album. “Metanoia” refers to a spiritual reawakening, or a fundamental change of character. The first lyric of the first track on the album, “Flow”, drops the listener straight into this crossover point: “I’ve had enough. I pull the plug. I want it to end.” This poignant opening line, sung gently over some soft Wurlitzer chords and a few syncopated synthesiser stabs, also immediately introduces the listener to a new soundscape. Gone are Fulka’s folky brass, bells and strings (except for some lovely pizzicato sounds on “Flaws”). To add to the dreamy Wurlys and synths, Ola and hubby Jacob crafted a range of electro-percussion noises from household objects like matchsticks, light bulbs, camera flashes and water drops. The music as a body of work is a controlled and mature bed of sound for Ola’s lyrics which, in the words of the official press release, are about “office life, heartbreak and yearning”. Little slice-of-life narratives and compelling lists dot the lyrics of “Hotel”, “He’s On The Run”, “Japanese Office” and “Skin”, reminiscent of Ola’s mysterious storytelling style first displayed on Fulka tracks like “The Bear Song” and “Not That We Have Already Attained”. The melodies of Metanoia are enchanting and incredibly earwormy, I can pretty much guarantee to the not-completely-tonedeaf-listener at least a hum-along by the third listen and a sing-along by the fifth. Perhaps my only real criticism of the album is that it is only eight tracks long (which amounts to half a year of waiting per song). And no, that doesn’t make it an eight-track release, smartass – it was released digitally on Bandcamp and Soundcloud today (the 8th of December 2014). Also, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Pixies, Talking Heads and Patti Smith have released great albums with only eight songs on them, so it’s OK. Metanoia proves that delayed gratification is always better, and will most probably prove, in years to come, to be another timeless piece of music itself.
You can listen to or download Ola Kobak’s album here on Soundcloud.
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