New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: steel pulse

Roots Reggae Rebels Steel Pulse: Never More Relevant Than They Are Now

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate album to listen to in our virus-scare isolation than Steel Pulse‘s Mass Manipulation, streaming at Spotify. It’s the iconic roots reggae band’s best album in two decades. It’s dedicated to fifty-four individuals murdered by racists, many of those killers members of the police. The individuals remembered here begin with twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, all the way to fifty-eight-year-old Gregory Gunn in Charleston, South Carolina. Several of our fellow New Yorkers are on that list.

This is a magnum opus that’s long overdue. Frontman David Hinds’ voice is a little grittier than it was when the group exploded out of Birmingham in the late 70s, but his songwriting is absolutely undiminished, through a total of seventeen tracks. As to be expected, the production is techier than the clangy, distinctively trebly sound that defined them during their early years.

They open with Rize, a characteristically catchy revolutionary anthem. Stop You Coming and Come is a respectable attempt to blend the band’s classic 70s/early 80s sound with an elegant keyboard-centric production style: “We’re building us a brand new nation, only then the prejudice and bigotry will leave us alone,” Hinds predicts.

The band channel a rebelliously defiant vibe in Thank the Rebels. Likewise, Justice in Jena has a majestic arrangement matching Hinds’ scathing lyric about the infamous Jena, Louisiana racist attack Then he assaults the sex trade in Human Trafficking – has another artist ever been willing to confront those horrors? Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s extortion scheme hadn’t come to light yet when the album was released last year, although the scandals at the highest levels of the Republican Party here and the Tories in the UK were old news by then.

Cry Cry Blood is a decent facsimile of the fierce witness anthems Steel Pulse would become famous for forty years ago. Don’t Shoot, a wickedy catchy, chillingly cynical narrative, draws on the murder of Eric Garner – a large black Staten Island street vendor harrassed for years and eventually killed by police in front of a luxury condo whose owners didn’t want him there.

Jimmy “Senyah” Haynes plays biting, Middle Eastern-tinged acoustic guitar on the album’s longest track, No Satan Side, a corrosive look at economic and environmental exploitation in Africa. With N.A.T.T.Y., Hinds sends a shout-out to Rastas keeping it real. With its cold, techy string synth, the album’s title track is a cautionary tale about the ultimate consequences of mass brainwashing. World Gone Mad has a blend of 80s roots sonics and 60s rocksteady; Hinds’ son Baruch adds a sharp, insightful rap cameo.

Awash in shifting keyboard textures, Black and White Oppressors reminds that fascism is not an exclusively caucasian pathology. The Final Call, a fire-and-brimstone warning, has a bizarre contrast between harmonica and a vocoder choir of what sounds like alien beings. The cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love (retitled as Rasta Love) is the album’s bounciest track; Hinds finally winds it up with Nations of the World, the most Bob Marley-influenced song, with those aliens on backing vocals again.

Nellie McKay Loses Her Pants At About 2:00

OK, got your attention. Lots of people send their videos here; most of them suck. Here are a few that don’t.

Nellie McKay singing reggae? Proof that vegans can laugh at themselves too. And since she’s a vegan, she looks good without her pants, about two minutes in.

Basia Bulat’s Tall Tall Shadows, a catchy electric piano anthem that builds slowly to a growl, is the title track of her forthcoming album. She’s Canadian, which explains why she’s good. She’s at Bowery Ballroom on 11/23.

Veronica Falls‘ Broken Toy is a plaintive downstroke janglerock number from the female-fronted British band’s forthcoming Waiting for Something to Happen. Don’t let the press about them being a goth band fake you out – they’re way more interesting, and original.

You want gothic? Check out Peri Mauer‘s magnificent, cinematically epic Illuminations of the Night as played by the NY Repertory Orchestra at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin this past May 18. What did this blog choose to cover that night? Ludovico Einaudi at the Town Hall. This was obviously the more exciting place to be!

And Steel Pulse has released Put Your Hoodies On [4 Trayvon], in memory of Trayvon Martin. It came out before the George Zimmerman trial was over (everybody presuming a guilty verdict, of course) and is available as a free download here.

A 420 Playlist

How did you spend your 4/20? Some of you probably can’t remember.That’s ok. How about this for a trip: walking through Harlem for 70+ blocks due to lack of trains. But it it’s cool, and kind of surreal to see places in daylight that you usually only see at night. The United Palace Theatre. for example – how refreshing to see that landmark hasn’t been demolished for yet another plastic-and-glass “luxury” condo.

Meanwhile, the folks over at VP Records – who’ve been putting out the Strictly the Best compilations since time forgot – sent over an aromatic promo called “Various Artists Celebrate 420.” Which is funny for all the obvious reasons, various being a relative word. The first artist they’re pitching is New Zealand Maori roots reggae band Katchafire, who have a new album due out – the track they sent over is Collie Herb Man, and although it’s a total rip of the Steel Pulse classic Sound System, it’s also got refreshingly organic production values – a digital production, obviously, but with real guitar, real bass and spare percussion which could be samples, or not. It draws you in – when this stuff hits you, you feel no pain.

The second one is No Cocaine, a collaboration between Slightly Stoopid (don’t laugh), Capleton and Inner Circle doing the riddims – once again, oldschool organic style. When Capleton  steps all over the smooth harmonies and rasps “It’s the healing of the nation,”  you just have to laugh.

A massive Yellowman career retrospective, Young Gifted & Yellow has been out for awhile (the file the label offered is too big to download, which explains why it hasn’t been covered here) – the track on the promo turned out to be the early 80s sleng teng hit Burn the Kutchie.

The 90s were represented by Sanchez and his track Chronic, a dancehall-flavored nod to west coast rap. To wrap it up, here’s the late great Sugar Minott doing Herb Man Hustling. All these links are youtube clips: as always, get your fingers ready to mute the ads in case one pops up (they didn’t the first time around, but with youtube, who knows).

Deep Roots from the Nazarenes

Is it overkill to have reggae on the front page here for three days in a row? It’s reggae season, after all – back when reggae bands started finding an audience outside Jamaica, they’d typically go on tour in July and August when the tourist season is at a low and it’s really hot down there. So in honor of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and all the great ones who came before, today’s band is the Nazarenes, led by two Ethiopian-born brothers, Medhane and Noah Tewolde. They’ve got Rasta cred that’s hard to beat – their father worked for H.I.M. Haile I Selassie I, Jah Rastafari! Their new album Meditation is just out on I Grade Records. What they do is minor-key reggae: towering, and anthemic, and just as intense as it is catchy. These guys are dead serious about their message, familiar as it may be: respect for mother earth, bun down Babylon, love Jah, there’s strength in numbers, etc. “Watch how I survive today,” they sing on the album’s balmiest track, Love Jah: they go for the big picture evey time. A lot of this you can stream on their youtube channel – the production and arrangements are strictly oldschool roots with swirly organ, jangly guitars, pulsing bass, laid-back beats and clever dub touches. It’s a lot like what Israel Vibration were doing around the turn of the century but a lot more epic and ornate.

The title cut, which opens the record, sets the tone. “I’m flying higher, higher, I’m in paradise.” Hmmm….The second one, simply titled Food, has some deliciously creepy backing vocal harmonies that contrast with the song’s bouncy, upbeat tune. They rhyme “globalization” with “United Nations,” and take care to remind that’s where the similarity between the two ends. It’s Too Late, featuring Lutan Fyah, paints a cynical picture of what happens when so-called leaders get careless and self-indulgent: “It’s been so many years since you’ve been in power, but you couldn’t fulfill the basic needs on time – the youth are frustrated, they are out of control…equality and justice are the urge of the mob, not George Bush bling bling showing off to the rest of the world.” By contrast, a big, bright horn riff opens Mother, an optimistic tribute to Mother Africa – and are those ringing, pinging tones a steel pan, or a synthesizer?

They bring to mind both classic, early Steel Pulse with the jazzy guitar and Israel Vibration with the vocals to On My Way, a defiant on-my-way-to-Zion anthem, then chronicle Bible verses in The Lord Said, featuring St. Croix reggae stars Midnite: that one’s like an oldschool American soul song as Marley or the Mighty Diamonds would have done it. Mamy Blues begins with a couple of suspenseful, lingering piano chords and follows with a jazzy solo – it’s a prime example of how artsy a band can get, spiraling hammer-on soul guitar mingling with melodica, and still be true to their roots. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Lucky Dube songbook. Alive, a stoner existentialist lament and then Everlasting, with its catchy minor/major changes are the next two tracks, followed by Politrickcians, pulsing along with a murky but catchy bassline and sarcastic, conspiratorial synth: “Powertripping control freaks, they give me the creeps.” Amen to that!

There are three more tracks here. Get Together is kind of skeletal, with more of a dancehall vibe, a call for world unity. Destiny chronicles our “mysterious journey, fighting day to day,” with echoey, majestic electric piano and artsy rock guitar. Another track in the style of early 70s Marley is Lonesome Lady, an unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of a hooker. Play this for anybody who thinks that all reggae sounds the same – it’s a welcome change from all the lovey-dovey pop and tedious smalltime criminal tales on reggae radio.

A Reggae Time Trip from the Archives

Washington, DC roots reggae band the Archives are a trip back in time to the days when reggae wasn’t about computerized beats and effects that sound like a video game soundtrack. Their new album has bubbly organ, catchy, simple bass hooks, tasteful guitar that rings out in the mix, an edgy brass section, hypnotically clattering percussion and a mellow, summery groove – but at the same time, it’s very serious. Some of the songs sound like they could have been written in 1975; maybe that’s why the band call themselves the Archives. You could also call this the new Ras Puma album because he does the vocals on most of the tracks, direct and confrontational without being preachy.

He takes the lead on the opening track, Who’s Correct, with a real oldschool, throwback sound that reminds of the Abyssinians, the horns throwing off some catchy Ethiopian riffs. He’s joined by crooner Lenny Kurlou on the jazzy, vintage Steel Pulse-ish Ghetto Gone Uptown, then explains his Rasta mentality – “it’s not a religion, it’s a way of life” and disses the fake ones, “wolf in sheep’s clothing” on the anthem Nuff a Dem Claim. The longest song here is More to Life, with torrents of lyrics examining the evils of the Babylon money system and a casually gorgeous, psychedelic wah guitar solo.

With its irresistible shuffle beat and cinematic horn swells, Message for the Messenger goes after artists who steal from history and don’t give credit where credit is due. Ras Puma also sings on the clever ganja anthem Sensibility and the anthemic closing cut, Blasting Through the City, which with its early 70s Wailers feel is this band’s Burning and Looting.

Desi Hyson sings Crime, a passionate dissection of the hypocrisy of the war on ganja with more than a little Peter Tosh influence: “Police at my door, knocking hard, flashing badges, waving guns, and they tell me it’s a crime to let the herb give birth to a simple seed.” Kurlou sings a cover of the Clash’s One More Time – which is kind of a cross between the original and the dub version – while Ichelle Cole takes over the mic on the poppiest track here, Boof Baff, driven by a cheery piano riff, namechecking all kinds of greats from the past including Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, U-Roy and especially Big Youth, whose early stuff this one resembles. Sleepy Wonder fronts the band on Music Is My Prayer with a rootsier Luciano vibe; there’s also a single instrumental here and it’s killer, starting out like Augustus Pablo and then growing livelier, with joyously dancing flute, like one of the instros on Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey. If classic roots reggae is your thing, this is for you.