Ark Synesis: Getting instrumental for the Durex Battle

Bypassing the need for vocals in music, rising stars Ark Synesis have always focused on creating emotional resonance – and now they’re representing Cape Town in a national ‘Battle Of The Bands’.

Ark Synesis courtesy Laura McCullagh

Ark Synesis courtesy Laura McCullagh (

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 21 – 22 May 2011.

Cape Town newcomer band Ark Synesis recently won the Cape Town leg of the national Durex “Battle Of The Bands”, and will take their brand of sonically-drenched, vocal-less instrumental rock to represent Cape Town at the national final in Johannesburg in June. The band comprises guitarist Robert Odendaal and Steve Rae, drummer and sound engineer Yan Sanchez and bassist Calvin de Swardt and, although just a few months out on the gigging scene, they’re drawing growing praise from both fans and fellow musicians. It seems the quartet has touched a nerve with their dedication to quality live performance, the alternative they offer to the local indie-rock scene – and the emotional journey their music offers a listener

Instrumental music tends to defy easy categorisation, and nowhere more so than when it is being created by the standard rock ‘n roll line-up of two electric guitars with electric bass and a drummer behind the kit. Ark Synesis have been described as everything from “epic instrumental tech metal” to “progressive maths rock”. Key points here are that this is definitely music born on the electric guitar and effects-augmented world of progressive rock and metal. Also, that they are a purely instrumental band sans any vocals and lyrics. What’s refreshing about Ark Synesis, though, is that their focus on, and love for, the music means they’re not particularly precious about even that.

“I guess every band says this, but the music is the most important thing,” says Robert Odendaal by telephone from a lion park outside Johannesburg. His day job saw him up at dawn to fly there from Cape Town as part of a film crew. “The music should be able to stand by itself, just like when a person creates a piece of text – whether it’s a novel or this article that you’re reading – it gets let out into the world and has to fend for itself. We have a concept behind each of our songs, but it’s nice for people to read in their own interpretations. A lot of times, people get caught up with who’s behind the music – nobody will with us, yet, because we’re not famous – but we really just don’t think that matters. We would like people to judge us by the music we produce and how we make them feel.”

Inevitable questions arise about the band’s name – and not just from sub-editors and wordsmiths who delight in the words’ reference to an arcane grammatical term – but the band side-steps these, just as they dodge queries about their influences and musical idols. “If people want to google the words, especially the old Greek meaning, then they can,” says Odendaal, “But we’re not going to say what we think it means. They can decide that for themselves. We also don’t really want to talk about the bands that we love and influence us – because then everyone just says you sound like them. We’re trying not to emulate anything from overseas – especially when you walk around Cape Town and there’s this huge indie scene with bands copying a sound from overseas. We’re not knocking indie music, because we love some of it, but – in many ways – people like Beethoven and Chopin have been the biggest influence for us, with the idea that music can create a journey.”

“For us, we want the listeners to be at a point and then be taken to different places throughout the set,” he continues. “The music has ambient parts with heavier sections and so the word ‘progressive’ gets thrown around. That could mean two things: it could be trying to progress from the music you admire and the things that influence you, or a more mundane level, where your music is always moving forward and trying to progress. We don’t want people to get bored when they listen to us. We say the band facilitates the conversion of kinetic energy into sound waves, and we really want to be seen playing to people who wouldn’t see us normally. Like a gig at the Waterfront Amphitheatre on a Sunday! We’d like to blow people’s minds or, at least, to influence their mind in different ways. Music can connect you with the emotions of a guy who wrote it and he’s a thousand miles across the sea, or he’s been dead for 200 years. We really just want to move people – it can be a metaphysical or emotional movement. Or just getting them to dance around a bit. After our gigs, I sometimes can’t move my neck for two days because I’ve been banging it so much.”

The efforts of Ark Synesis have earned the band a slot at the Durex “Battle Of The Bands” finals where they represent Cape Town as one of the top eleven emerging bands chosen from a rigourous series of gigs around the country. They relish the opportunity, and are conscious of the challenge ahead. “Obviously, we’re a band from Cape Town and the finals are in Joburg, so we’re trying to get as many people there together to have a bit of a fanbase. It’s going to be awesome to travel all the way up there – do the whole road-trip thing – and then meet other cool bands and play with them. The organisers told us that this is one of the only years where there are instrumental bands in the final. There’s us, and Coals of Juniper from Durban. I’ve listened to their one track on then internet, and they’re cool. Plus, in the Cape Town finals, there was the Alive Drum ‘n Bass Trio that are also kind-of instrumental. It’s a bit weird that it’s a ‘battle’ and only one band can win, but it would be really great if this sort of music became a bit more supported.”

Ark Synesis play the intro slot on an eclectic bill alongside Sannie Fox’s Machineri and Three More White Guys (Friday 27 May, Mercury, 43 De Villiers Rd, District 6,  021-4652106; doors 8.30pm; R20 before 9.30pm, R40 thereafter).The Durex “Battle Of The Bands” final sees Ark Synesis pitted against eleven regional winners on Saturday 4 June at Cool Runnings in Fourways, Johannesburg (doors 1pm, bands start 3pm; R60 normal or R50 with a band’s flyer, or R35 if booked online at More on

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 21 – 22 May 2011. Find out more on