Avatar: Resting in Alaya

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)

Lee Perry: Back on the Controls; Lee Perry and Iguana: Vibes

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

Hollie Cook: Twice

Hollie-Cook-Twice1This release from Hollie Cook follows up her debut album (2011) and its excellent dub version (2012) (see reggaemusic.org.uk 29th April 2012) in fine style. ‘Twice’ displays a highly confident approach to reggae and its many influences, incorporating elements of style from the past several decades. Many of the songs here are offered at relatively modest tempo and with some deliberation. Along with the contributions of several guests including Dennis Bovell, Horseman and of course Mike Pelanconi (Prince Fatty) it all falls into place. The opener ‘Ari Up’ tenderly recalls the late punk/dub/reggae frontwoman of the Slits, a band of which Hollie Cook herself was a latter-day member: it starts in a madrigal sort of style and continues with some unpredictable key changes within a crystal-clear production. The quality of the opener sets the tone for the rest of the album. There are the squeaks and beeps of synths from the 70s and 80s throughout. There are also some unexpected string arrangements, for instance on ‘99’ and ‘Looking for Real Love’, that serve to recall cop programmes where Cagney and Lacey would power along a New York backstreet before driving through a pile of boxes that had unaccountably been left in the middle of the road. But this all works. The different styles and arrangements come together, underpinned by a strong but relatively subtle reggae rhythm that is all the more effective for being understated.

The underlying rhythm tracks are strong, as in ‘Tiger Balm’, a melodic reggae song worthy of dub attention. ‘Postman’ (the second single release from the album) is another strong melodic track, opening with steel percussion that asserts itself further as the song proceeds. The album closes with ‘Win or Lose’, its synth sounds much in evidence and sweet multi-tracked vocals propelling it through to a pleasing close.

Hollie Cook ‘Twice’, release May 2014