Black Symbol

5052571058916_1_75This eponymous album from the relatively little-known British reggae band may at last succeed in connecting this vital music to a wider audience. Although Black Symbol’s self-released output in the early 1980s was supported by numerous local performances, and was enthusiastically received by their following in the West Midlands, it never reached much beyond this. The band actively promoted the upcoming bands of the area, in particular financing and releasing “Handsworth Explosion”, two volumes that helped to establish and publicise local acts, but public recognition of their own profile remained low. Here, courtesy of Reggae Archive Records, is a new release of material gleaned from single releases, unreleased tracks and dub versions of existing songs.

The tracks were all recorded at Outlaw Studios in Birmingham, reflecting the British reggae sound of the period and also the origins of key band members in Jamaica. The sound is powerful indeed, characterised by a deep slow bass that underpins these songs of religious and political redemption. The CD-format release opens with ‘Everything Has Its Time’, strong roots reggae at its finest, followed by its version, with a bass that’ll give your speakers something to think about. The mood continues with ‘None a Jah Jah Children’, again followed-through by its mightily serious version. The lengthy ‘How Long’ has echoes, both musically and lyrically, of the classic sounds of the roots tradition before resolving into an extended dub-leaning instrumental conclusion. The spiritual message of ‘In the Name of Jah’ is followed through by a separate and sparse dub while the pace quickens (just a little) for ‘Trouble Trouble’ and ‘Spiritual Reggae’. The words of ‘Solidarity’ seem strangely appropriate today: it could almost have been written for a general election campaign with references to austerity and prosperity. It would be an intriguing thought indeed to imagine a political party adopting this one as a campaign theme song.

There is some strong roots music in this release, and its contrast to the prevailing reggae mainstream of the time is interesting. It’s a million miles removed from the then-emergent dancehall sound and, although the songs get a little more upbeat as the album progresses, there is no lively-up yourself mood herein. The songs have warmth but are, at heart, serious. Thus it strangely reflects both its own time and our current times.

Black Symbol: Reggae Archive Records; released on CD (16 tracks), double-vinyl (12 tracks) and DDL, March 2015.

Capital Letters: Wolverhampton

CapitalLettersWolverhamptonIt’s been a mighty long time since Capital Letters released their ode to ‘Smoking My Ganja’ in the reggae/punk heyday of late-70s Britain, but the Wolverhampton wanderers now return with a brand new album named after their home town. Comprising fourteen tracks it is almost certainly the only album ever to feature a song called ‘Wolverhampton’ and another called ‘Jamaica’. The album opens with ‘Jah Music’, setting the initial mood as one of gentle roots reggae along with relatively understated vocals, drawing to a mildly dub-influenced conclusion. The next track, ‘Wolf’, has a similar feel.

Thereafter, ‘Opportunity’ has a slightly harder edge, both lyrically and in its familiar rhythm. The more assertive lyrics continue with the powerful anti-war theme of ‘Dat Nah Stop’, its hard message set within a deceptively light and melodic rhythm and instrumentation. This contrast between placid musical style and serious lyrics is a feature of several of the tracks here and it is a particular strength. The spiritual roots sound of ‘Thanks and Praise’ is clear enough in its meaning, while ‘Tell Me What’s Wrong’ returns to the message of peace, delivered, like ‘Movie Star’, in a vocal style reminiscent of lovers’ rock or even that of a soul ballad.

Capital Letters have been through several personnel changes over the years. The band reformed in 2013 and this is their first album of new music for 30 years. Engineered by Noel Browne at his own studio, this is an intriguing mix indeed; unashamedly retro in some ways, but sounding vital and new all the same.

Capital Letters ‘Wolverhampton’ released on Sugar Shack Records, CD and DDL, March 23rd 2015; additional limited-edition vinyl release of selected tracks and their dub versions.