Released in 2012, and then again in a limited number of 7” singles at the end of 2013, this unique take on dub-meets-Dylan warrants an honourable mention before it disappears from view. It’s Dylan Thomas, not Bob, and comprises the rather surprising twin elements of Ali Baba as the backing track together with a voiceover of Richard Burton reading from ‘Under Milk Wood’. In reality Dylan Thomas never sounded as Welsh as imagination suggests, so it’s fitting that the late Richard Burton provides the gravitas and erudition of his commanding Welsh tones in a way that fits most people’s preconception of what this “play for voices” should sound like. As for adding this over the top of a classic King Tubby mix, well, I’m sure the iconoclast Thomas would have raised a glass and enjoyed it.
At the height of reggae/punk euphoria in late 1970s Britain, Virgin Records launched its groundbreaking reggae label Front Line which released 46 albums and 26 singles over a two-year period. The reputation of the label and the staggering quality of the music endures still, long after the dreary political and economic conditions of those times have been consigned to history.
There has been previous repackaging of Front Line material, notably in the 1990 compilation ‘Beyond the Front Line’. But in this new five-CD release we have the definitive Front Line collection, featuring 92 tracks. More than 31 are new to CD, and a third of these are issued here for the first time. The reggae styles include roots and DJ/12” versions with a strong dub emphasis throughout. As well as the music, the box-set package includes an explanatory booklet, photos, and posters.
Disc 1 features iconic performers including the Gladiators, I-Roy and the Mighty Diamonds. The ten tracks of the original vinyl release are supplemented by a number of further bonus tracks. It is difficult to pick out individual songs for special attention although listening to this again after the passage of time U-Roy’s ‘Natty Rebel’ remains a standout track, an uncompromising version of Marley’s ‘Soul Rebel’ using the Gladiators’ take on the song (from their Trenchtown Mix-Up album) as its source. This is outstanding even today. The Gladiators’ ‘Know Yourself Mankind ‘– also from Trenchtown Mix-up – is included here too. Amongst the bonus tracks, ‘Killer Dub’ by the Revolutionaries and the powerful commentary of ‘It Dread Inna Inglan’ from Poet (Linton Kwesi Johnson) and the Roots are worthy of particular mention.
Discs 2 and 3 add more from the same artists and also introduce further key names from this era. On Disc 2 this includes the sweet sound of ‘I Love You So’ from the Twinkle Brothers, and the remarkable ‘Make a Truce’ by Althea and Donna, reminding us that they did much more than record ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ by offering here a neglected bass-driven dub-based angry track which may come as a surprise to some. Disc 3 brings us the great Gregory Isaacs with ‘Lonely Girl’ and ‘Let’s Dance’. Also in the melodic harmony tradition can be found ‘Natty Never Get Weary’ from Culture, while I-Roy’s ‘Fire in a Wire’ blows us away with his toasting vocal mixed so far up-front the rhythm track virtually disappears.
The final two discs focus on extended 12”/discomix versions and here the collection really comes into its own. Disc 4 opens with U-Roy’s take on ‘Small Axe’, vocalising over the top of an unrestrained dub mix of the original track. The extended version of ‘Pocket Money’ by the Gladiators is to be found here too, one of the defining tracks of the era, the only quibble being the abrupt edit mid-way through from vocal to dub versions rather than the more elegant transition to the found on the original (Virgin Records) 12” single. U Brown’s great ‘Black Star Liner’ is also included, its bass line instantly familiar to any reggae audience. On the final disc can be found some 12” mixes that are pretty much part of reggae history, including Prince Far-I’s ‘Throw Away Your Gun’. The sweet sound and smooth rhythm track of ‘I Need a Roof’ from the Mighty Diamonds excels in this 12” cut as it moves through into its dub version.
On reflection it’s hard to credit the fact that so much classic reggae was issued during the relatively short life of Front Line. It was certainly of its time, but manages to remain remarkably fresh when heard again today. Production and sound quality is excellent throughout. Not all compilations of reggae from this period are worth such attention but this one is. Indispensible.
Front Line: Sounds of Reality Box Set (5 discs) released 11th August 2014
Following their 2012 debut with ‘Rocket!’ this new album from five-piece British reggae-dub-rock outfit Tree House Fire extends their range and reinforces their growing reputation. Having played alongside The Skints (see reggaemusic.org.uk 27 March 2013), Sonic Boom Six (who offer guest vocals on this new release), Jaya the Cat, New Town Kings, Random Hand and New York ska masters The Toasters, Tree House Fire have also made a number of high-profile festival appearances including RedFest and the UK’s largest reggae and ska festival, Boomtown Fair.
The fourteen tracks here exhibit several distinct influences. Together these add up to an album of strong reggae songs in differing styles. There’s an upbeat feel on tracks like ‘Hold on Tight’ and ‘Every Cloud’, joyfully reminiscent of 2 Tone, fast-paced and made to be played live. Things initially get a bit Latin on ‘Tiempo’, while ‘Battlefield’ is a good straightahead reggae tune. There is a powerful rock guitar riff underpinning ‘Beard Trimmer Dub’ with added dubby touches here and there as might be expected from the title. ‘Mr Aggressor’ features assertive hip-hop influenced vocals. ‘Dutty Girl’ is a strong track and maybe a suitable single choice: melodic and vocally strong, with a change of tempo and instrumental feel toward the end which adds to the effectiveness of the song.
There’s an impression that, as the album progresses, a more serious lyrical intent can be found on songs such as ‘Pause and Rewind’ and ‘Gone are the Days’, perhaps indicating one of the possible directions in which Tree House Fire will go next. But, for now, the band present a rich and confident collection of songs that can be enjoyed in their own terms for what they are – good contemporary reggae, aware of its inspiration and its musical strengths.
Tree House Fire: ‘Actions and Reactions’ released 4th August 2014 on Jamtown Recordings
This third album release from 10-piece Irish reggae/jazz band Avatar – written and arranged by guitarist/bassist James Kennedy (aka Jah Bass) and mixed/engineered by Tony O’Flaherty at Sonas Recording Studio in Killarney – is brass and woodwind dominated: tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, flute and flugelhorn. Most of the eight tracks are instrumental, ranging from the melodic ‘Memories of the Avenue’ – with upfront ska/reggae guitar rhythm, instrumental breaks including vintage organ sounds, and a pleasing dub-leaning interlude – to the title track itself which begins like the dramatic prelude to some Western or biblical film, illuminated by jazz/blues guitar and a gentle rhythm that keeps the whole thing moving. All the other instrumental tracks are worthy of attention, particularly ‘From Warieka Hill’ which is dedicated to the great Rico Rodriguez (and name-checks one of his own early albums), offering here virtuoso trombone from Trevor Mires and a hint of dub in the background mix.
The three songs with guest vocalists are intriguing and strong. ‘Time Takes Care of All’ with vocals from Carlton Hines (Tetrack) and Norris Reid has very little brass and, more than any other track, sounds like a reggae band in classic mode, with its neat circular reggae rhythm holding it together. The closing track ‘Jah Guide’ has similarly spiritual lyrics, with vocals courtesy of Miri – a powerful blues/jazz-influenced song and different layers of sound within. Perhaps the strongest of the three vocal tracks is ‘Grace Has Brought Me Home’ with vocals from Ricky Grant (veteran of the Gaylads): a soulful melancholy reggae/blues song and a standout track. The overall feel, the brass arrangement and the vocal delivery of this song are almost reminiscent of Otis Redding (circa Otis Blue) – not a comparison to be made lightly.
‘Soothing’ is certainly the right adjective to describe the feel of this release from Avatar. It’s relaxed in the manner of closing your eyes on a pleasant summer day but avoids MOR blandness. On the contrary the melodies and arrangements are more complex than they seem, and bring in numerous influences from reggae and elsewhere. The most striking thing is that a reggae big-band with numerous instrumentalists generate a sound that is understated and subtle, holding back from an assault on the senses with a disarming and thoughtful style. This makes it quite unlike any other currently performing band.
To listen to the album’s title track, click here.
Avatar: Resting in Alaya: July 2014 (Amaru Music)
Following the musical trajectory of Lee Scratch Perry is in one sense easy, taking us on a journey from groundbreaking early work in the Black Ark studio, the virtual invention of dub as it came to be understood, and of course making the decisive contribution to the emergence of Bob Marley and the growth of reggae as an international (and commercial) phenomenon. On the other hand it is not at all easy to follow the unexpected twists and turns of a musical output which has sometimes been difficult to fathom. ‘Revelation’ for instance (2010) definitely had its moments (such as ‘Holy Angels’) but it remains, well, pretty odd. These two new releases in 2014 – ‘Back on the Controls’ and ‘Vibes’ – reflect this continuing difference between predictability and innovation in Lee Perry’s music. Both are well worth hearing but are quite dissimilar. ‘Back on the Controls’ seeks to recreate the sound of Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio, the place where some of his key contributions to reggae were formed. The Black Ark studio burnt down in the 1980s, but with the help of Kickstarter funding and an array of vintage analogue tape delay machines, mixers and phasing equipment, it is effectively given a new incarnation as the Rolling Lion studio in London. Along with UK producer Daniel Boyle, vocals and production contributions of Lee Perry find a new but strangely familiar place here. In a double-CD format, each track is immediately followed by its dub in the old style and it’s a convincing evocation of the classic Perry sound. The rhythm tracks are relatively similar throughout but from time to time Lee Perry’s pleasing idiosyncrasies find a way through to liven things up, particularly on the strong dubplate versions that close the second CD.
It is quaintly reassuring to find that ‘Vibes’ is still a word in common usage. With the collaboration of his ‘associate and protégé’ Iguana, this release finds Lee Perry at the less retro/more electronic end of things, drawing from different sub-genres of reggae and beyond to generate something new and, moreover, interesting. It’s effective as a short collection of new and in some ways intriguing tracks, featuring Lee Perry on loosely-defined vocals as well as production. Not too simple to sum up overall, the EP includes ‘Get Down’, with a soul/funk/rock sort of guitar setting the overall pace, an electro backing and Lee Perry declaiming over the top. ‘Rocks Rock Reggae’ has a firmer reggae rhythm, a ‘new-dub’ sound and a sweeping cinematic quality in the background. With ‘Midnight Train’ it’s back to a soul influence, while ‘Run Rebels Run’ has a full and complex mix, synth sounds bubbling away, a busy production and an anthemic feel overall – a strong track. ‘Flash’ concludes with a regular reggae rhythm along with some more contemporary dubstep beeps here and there. Taken as a whole this is a forward-looking set of tracks that don’t rely on the received sound of dub and reggae as-was – and worthy of attention for that reason if no other.
Lee Perry: Back on the Controls (double CD) released May 2014
Lee Perry and Iguana: Vibes (EP) released September 2014