Album review: Dub Apocalypse “Frozen Planet”

Dub Apocalypse A

Dub Apocalypse has, for the past few years, taken the northeast underground reggae scene by storm, playing numerous shows at small clubs and bars, opening for bigger acts, and basically laying low while hitting high. The band began as a rotating cast of characters, always with Tommy Benedetti (of John Brown’s Body fame) on the drumkit. Johnny Trama on guitar, and Timo Shanko on bass and sax. For Frozen Planet (self-released, 2018) the album features the more solidified touring group, including, Aaron Bellamy (bass) and Van Gordon Martin (guitar). While “dub” appears in their name, DA is really more of an instrumental reggae band- with a few dubby moments. Frozen Planet‘s biggest achievement is song structure, a mix of freeform-sounding jams and controlled movements.

Because of the large quantities of what I’ll call “big city sax”, much of these songs come off jazzy, both in flow and feel, especially “Goes Around Comes Around”, a pitching, swinging upbeat tune stuffed with sax twittering. Even here, though, the roots reggae sound rides cool and easy, and the best part of Dub Apocalypse is the respect to the groove, with enough musical twists and turns that these wordless tracks don’t get boring.

“Angel Blood” carries the heaviest dub vibe, twin bass and guitar lines part funk and part rock. The horns, also twin, weave in and out like cascading water. The song also collapses and rebuilds throughout in this kind of cosmic, meditative dub that’s my favorite because it continuously leans into itself, a groove so repetitive but not stifled that it could go on forever. “Sunstroke” is nearly as dubbed out, and “Answer Dancer” crosses a similar sound with more surfer vibes.

Two songs stand above the rest:“Burning the Colosseum” fires from the getgo; ferociously tearing through solos, the drums notably punctuated. at each one drop. The song’s makeup shows how talented and wise these musicians are, yet the sound remains holy roots oriented. Conversely, “Moving On” is ethereal, vibrant, and rises like a hot air balloon.

I might be biased, being longtime fans of Van Gordon Martin and Tommy Benedetti, but the musicianship here is undeniable. Fans of dub and instrumental reggae will love Frozen Planet. For those who don’t like sax, this may not be the album for you. Overall, though, this little gem should not be overlooked.

Advertisements

Album review: Ras Professor “Jah Mi Praise”

Jah Mi Praise

Let’s talk genuine reggae for a moment. Jah Mi Praise, an EP released by Ras Professor out of Florida, is a six-song Rasta meditation, and while the Professor is unknown in the larger reggae world, I want to highlight the fire he breathes. The production of JMP is above par, turning up the bass and bass drum while keeping the rhythms quieter. Beyond that, his voice, a crackling baritone, is reminiscent of some of the dancehall originators.

Now, admittedly, I’m not a huge dancehall fan. “Good Herbs” doesn’t hit me as strikingly as the Nyabinghi style “Job”, but stepping back from my own preferences for a second, Ras Prof does a solid job of restraining intensity often overblown in dancehall. Instead, he hangs back over soft organ and allows his voice to develop melody even in the hammering lyricism.

Press Along” is similar, although the melody is undeniably catchy, and “Slew A Million” also ratchets down. “Can’t take the heat/ get outta the kitchen,” he begins, calling out Babylon with spite and glory. “We are the prevention!” he beckons. Yet “Lightning” and “Job” are my favorite tracks, probably because they have grooves: the former a bass-heavy rock steady remix and the latter, as mentioned, Nyabinghi in roots.

Lyrical content here doesn’t vary from Rasta consciousness, (It’s Job from the Bible, and not job like summer camp, as I first suspected). Even though I listen to all kinds of reggae, I believe that sticking strictly to this form might alienate a potential wider audience, yet Ras Professor’s authenticity is clear from the first musical measure to the last, his talent easily apparent.

If you’re seeking some of the most underground contemporary dancehall/reggae out there, check out Jah Mi Prasie and get a lesson from the Professor.

Album review: Jordaan Mason “Earth To Ursa Major”

a3517029672_16

Jordaan Mason’s epic Eath To Ursa Major is intended as an exploration of topics such as, gender dysphoria, surviving sexual violence, and living with Bipolar Disorder symptoms, things rarely if ever overtly discussed through music. ETUM, self-produced and released by the Toronto-based musician, did not go through the pristine decorating of high end mastering, and sounds like it was recorded in a stairwell somewhere, which it actually was. This low fi sound is simultaneously endearing (especially because it’s rather well-done) and one of ETUM‘s two greatest weaknesses. Had these 17 tracks, rich with airy piano, strings, and Jordaan’s ghostly howl, had the chance to undergo more professional production I firmly believe the various elements would shine at appropriate times.

The second major bump for Jordaan’s release is how painfully slow every song is. In terms of song structure, feel, and lyrical layering, the best comparison I have is Sufjan Stevens, (although Neutral Milk Hotel comes to mind too), yet both of these bands recognize that, as much as they enjoy achingly slow, crawling songs, the periodic uptempo track allows for sonic contours; much needed when the song content is generally depressing and self-defeating. In my head, I speed up such tracks as “Awl/Leather” and “Liturgy Part 3” into scanty jaunts a la Ben Folds Five, which would pull out so much from these songs, would add pop elements that would enliven the album.

The best song, which is one of the faster and more pulsing tracks anyway, is “Why Fit?” The lyrics are gorgeous: “If I can’t make myself a home/ I guess I don’t belong here… Will anyone ever know my name?” The humdrum of it all reminds me of Dr. Dog. One song that does function as a dragger is “Fire/Housework”, with it’s horror-shaped organ. “What he call sung/ I call unheard,” Jordaan grumbles in a ruminant and fearful manner that is gripping.

Perhaps ETUM is just a bit too avant garde for my tastes. The numerous artsy, brief instrumentals and the many melodies anchored with gravity deserve some fine tuning. In a way, this album could almost be Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood To The Head or The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, and I think all that would take is a savvy producer to bump Jordaan’s heart and soul and add some spotlights.

That being said, I know plenty of people who will sink readily into the bath of this album, as cold and dark as the water might be. This album is not about a hero, but an anti-hero, a fallen angel; a story where redemption might be there, down the line, but has no room within the confines of these tracks. If that’s tempting then I say check out Earth To Ursa Major.

Album review: Qais Essar “The Ghost You Love Most”

The-Ghost-You-Love-Most-Album-Cover

The last place you’d probably look for Afghan-inspired instrumental folk-rock would be Phoenix, Arizona. You may not even ever really go looking for such a strange genre, but Qais Essar- who, yes, lives in the Southwest- uses an ancient Afgahni instrument called a Rabab along with a 70’s style rock backline to make a half-hour’s worth of spirited, zanny music.

All too easily, he could have thrown a cheesy set of electronica loops behind his melodies and he’d have made something contemporary and easily digestible, but unsatisfied with the simple, Qais keeps things sounding organic and nuanced, in a very jazz fusion-y way, but much more focused.

“The Culmination of a Sorrowful Sound” starts everything off, a very theatrical, swerving river of a song, barely rising above a whisper. Much of the album cascades this way, down to the album’s closer, “Untitled”, which is a peaceful, sleepy, jazzy composition.

There’s not much detail to go into about the song particulars. The album carries a feel all the way through. It’s yogic, in a way; very conscious of its own breath, and relaxed while being strong. “Journey to Qaf” exemplifies this, moving eerily slowly upwards until it bursts into a fluid jam.

The Rabab is a very Asian-sounding stringed instrument, often piercing and quite vibrated. If you’re not interested in that sound at all, you’re not gong to be invested in the foundation of The Ghost You Love Most. People who enjoy the soundscape the Middle East mastered long before any prog rock band did will enjoy the smarts behind these compositions.

Album review: Mellow Mood “Large”

MellowMood_Large_Cover_preview

Twins Jacopo and Lorenzo Garzia make up the heartbeat of Mellow Mood, and backed by one of the tightest backlines of the century, Large (Cumbancha, 2018) is on track to being one of the best sounding reggae albums I’ve heard in recent years. Lyrically, the duo balances on the thin wire that is traditional reggae themes and contemporary ingenuity, although, as much as a stickler I am for words, leeway is given because the delivery is on point. Bless the production, but also, the instrumentation is built solid and bright. Jacopo and Lorenzo have unique sounding voices too. And this is warrior music, fired at us.

Sound of War” is perhaps the best example. The vibe frolics, then they cast out, “People you take it too easy/ Like unnu play with a ball/ Talk you a talk so easy/ While them want start a war,” and the chorus is a glitzy, “Rampimpim/ rampampam/ This yah the sound of a war/ Rampempem rampampam/ So we wake up in a war.” The sound is classic future roots, maybe something Black Uhuru would have created.

The title track moves that way too, bouncing into old school reggae, pulsing with delays, breakdowns, a slender one drop in the drums, and vocal harmonies. The chorus is catchy, while the verses are meditative and pointed: “In the west we nuh feed no soul/ In the west we just deck the shell/ Big brands dictating our wants/ Easy we fall under their spell.”

Some songs are on the awesome end of more pop-centric dancehall/reggae roots. “Heart To No One” is a great example of this, a flexed muscle in the same sleeve as the likes of Stephen Marley, New Kingston, or Collie Buddz.

Other songs pull on these same reigns but end up being pulled down a different track. “It Can’t Work” is a powerfully political song: “Expose the medias/ Lies about Syria/ Same about Libia.” “Daddy” is a dank version of this too. Ostensibly a cliché reggae track (the fierce one drop and oompa-loompa bassline sets this up), the song is actually a really beautiful letter to the twins’ father: “Me give thanks to you becaw you chose a great mother/ Kept the family together… Nothing coulda better how you raised me and mi bredda.”

In fact, all these songs are quite simply, really, really good in terms of relevance, production, content, and delivery. The only fault of Large may be that the song structures are very similar to one another. Every chorus involves a one to three-word hook, like they’re shooting for anthems without realizing not every song needs to be sung along to.

Still, I didn’t see this album coming. It’s a fast-paced, hearty blast of contemporary reggae, and it’s fun as well as political. I highly recommend fans of modern reggae check Large out.

The Malice of Objects

“After the war a twenty-eight-year-old girl came
to see me, wanting to be cured within ten hours.
She said that she had a black serpent in her belly.
She thought that it should be awakened.” –Carl Jung

This was the first time I heard of such a snake.
Ten hours would only infuse her with sympathy
for the energy pressurizing her gut. For her sake,
I implored more sessions. I asked for seventy.

Asleep in the mangrove above her womb,
the serpent snuggly nested in the darkness of her fears.
Here, I told her, the beginning is the end. A tomb
equal to a birth. Haven’t you, for many years,

sought to sit upright as you double over?
Her eyes looked slightly dead. Her face weak.
In her hands I placed oil and earth from the Great Mother,
leaving with her a soft prayer to speak

each night before getting into bed.
Then I went home and burned a candle. I burned sage
as I understood the meaning of the root. My head
acting as the handle of the staff. And between, rage,

fear, anger, anxiety, and others, joining fists.
One journey describing another, I thought, breathing,
wondering how a woman like her exists
with such a snake below her breasts, seething.

Album review: Roots of Creation “Grateful Dub”

ROC_GDUB_COVER_RGB_preview

Several years ago I found myself at a hole-in-the-wall reggae record store in Albany, NY. I got my hands on a copy of Fire On The Mountain, a Grateful Dead tribute album bursting with reggae talent from the 70’s and 80’s. What interested me was how beautifully Dead translated to reggae instrumentation, and secondly, how so many Dead lyrics contain themes, phrases, and emotions that are common to reggae. New Hampshire’s Roots of Creation has always been passionate about the Dead, conversely integrating Dead song structure, lyricism, and the like into RoC’s blend of reggae, rock, and jam. So when they made Grateful Dub (self-released, 2018), the project just made sense- not because the Grateful Dead needs to be covered anymore than it already is, but because Roots of Creation deserve to have a fun, playful record. Besides, it seems RoC is more about sharing in these songs with their fans than playing them for their fans. The results are devilishly entertaining, and RoC has pulled off a restrained (they tend to like to get loud and fast, which I love) set of 13 cover songs.

Expectantly, they start off with “Fire On The Mountain” (a turn of phrase that can so easily conjure certain Rasta practices). The groove is driving, punctuated by a horn section, and then thankfully the band builds into a Dead/Roots mash-up style jam and guitar solo.

For “Deal” they launch into ska. For “He’s Gone” they revel in the an 80’s style with melodica. “Sugaree” is an uptempo, dubbed out version with floored sax. But three songs really steal the show:

“Casey Jones” soars on funky clavinet and a rolling bassline. The band stays close to the vibe of the original, a dance-able rollick, and lyrically an on-point song anyway, their version guest stars Dan Kelly from Fortunate Youth. Brett and Dan’s voices gel very well together, and the two add a soulfulness and grit to the lyrics that’s not in the original but totally befitting.

“Black Muddy River” is also great, showcasing the band’s slower, more meditative side, and, once again, the lyrics are almost meant for reggae music (and notably, one of the Dead’s most poetic undertakings). And to really accentuate the glory, this track features Melvin Seals.

Finally, they do an instrumental version of “Shakedown Street”. I’ve always loved RoC’s jam songs, those that are reggae infused but rocking and dubbed out, and just a tad psychedelic. They handle that mood here, relying on the horns to play the vocal melodies of the original, and they bounce from 70’s-sounding funk to 90’s-sounding jam to contemporary Cali-style rock steady.

Other guest stars include, Stephen Marley, G. Love, Marlon Asher, Jesse Wagner, and Hayley Jane. Other highlights include the cover art (detailed, thought-provoking, and sexy), and a track that’s singer Brett Wilson’s daughter asking for a moment of silence for Jerry Garcia.

Granted, I have a friend who may love music even more than I do, and his profound respect for the Grateful Dead caused him once to exclaim that covering the songs in another genre is nearly blasphemous. But I think differently: Dead songs are canonized. Some of their songs are folk preservation, and naturally, musicians will, in time, take their spin on the traditionals (think of how many jazz singers have recorded “Sunny Side of The Street”). A band as exploratory as Roots can pull off wonderful takes on these songs we know and love.

Production-wise, Errol Brown and Chris Gehringer deserve mad props for making the best-sounding Root of Creation album to date. The feel is warm, steady, and rich. And Brett Wilson’s voice is on. My hope is that the band can take this album’s feel, the quality of sound, and the attention to detail into their next set of originals, because they nailed it on Grateful Dub.

Album review: Sammy Johnson “Sleepwalker”

Sleepwalker

It’s absurd how inviting Sammy Johnson’s voice is. While I never got R&B (despite having deep respect for it), Sammy’s EP Sleepwalker fell into my speakers by way of his reggae mojo, but that’s not really the complete make-up of this album. The sound is much more about the soul and swing, no matter the genre. And the timelessness plops Sammy somewhere between Ray Charles and D’Angelo, especially because the majority of these songs are love songs.

This is my issue with Sleepwalker. Despite the sexiness and robustness of the instrumentation (tasteful and bright), the songs are nothing original. Certainly, there are moments. “Simmer Down” is such a rowdy blend of genres that it’s a miracle it works, and not only does it work, it’s voraciously catchy. But the content is savorless. “Come with me/ Let me take you for a ride/ You’re so sweet/ Show me all your sides,” it begins. Oh man, we can do better!

But Sammy’s Polynesian roots mix so heartily with the sound and vibe. If this song doesn’t end up on your Babymaking playlist, you’re missing out. Yet sometimes the sexy music is just the undercurrent for deeper meditations. “If You Only Knew” is lyrically on point. “Welcome to the life of the rich and famous/ A smile and wave/ keeps the bullshit away,” he croons. “You never know where you might go/ You never know what you might do.” This blazes over heady bass and backing vocals. Dallas Kacey- who I never heard of before and now love- offers a rap verse: “I’m only going to get it wrong once,” he beckons; “I try to play it cool.” Well, you’re winning that game, dude.

“These Eyes” brings back the one drop drums in pure fashion, even if the guitars welcome in tinges of Jazz and early rock n’ roll. Sadly, whenever Sammy attempts the all-too-difficult love song, he runs into the same errors most people do. But the vocal performance and production of the song is so old school that it just breathes, and all is forgiven. “I won’t let you go,” he sings; “Everyone knows you got a hold on me.” “Never Too Sweet” is shiny reggae pop that has some of the same flaws, like when Sammy yearns through, “Are we going to take this to the next level?” Yet, once again, the vibe is hot and the song overall veers just far enough away from cliché for it to earn its credit.

The title track is one of the best. “I spend my days in the studio,” he starts; “writing songs for people I don’t know.” This is perhaps his most vulnerable song. Long songs get too vague, but here Sammy’s pain and fatigue wrings out over the smooth reggae vibe. It’s a tasteful, humble song, and the EP’s best.

Listening to a truly strong, emotive voice is an experience, and Sammy Johnson has such an amazing way of singing that Sleepwalker survives off of this alone. And the band, even when presented with some fairly corny core principles, manages to stay organic and playful. Yes, this is a fun collection of what I’ll call “RR&B”, or rather, reggae riddims and blues.

Album review: Super Hi-Fi “Blue and White”

Super Hi-FI_Blue and White_album cover

Ezra Gale (bass) leads the all-star collective that is Super Hi-Fi through a full-length LP that mixes spot-on, hearty contemporary reggae with too much Brooklyn noisiness. Sometimes this album soars impeccably, while at certain moments it crumbles under the desire to be artistically new age. For one, several of the songs have vocals, and while the band is exceptional, even at low points, the lyrics can’t be carried by the melodies or voice. In an age where the caliber or reggae vocalists if extremely high- Blue and White quickly becomes a mixed bag.

“Keepin’ It Dirty”, “Gone”, “Blue And White”, and “Little Black Book” are exemplars of this juxtaposition. The vocal melodies and performances can’t hold up to the instrumentation. Do you remember The Gray Album? It was a mash-up of The Beatles and Jay Z and spawned a series of people mixing two incongruent artists. Blue and White feels like this, had one band been a high school punk band mixing on a tape deck in their garage and the other had been America’s greatest ska/rock steady band. May they were aware of this, hence the title being two colors (?).

Sometimes this combination works. “Space Needle” integrates metal into dub, ala Dub Trio. This is heavy, sensual, and fun. “Hole In My Life” is the album’s most bizarre song, but it works because its experimentation is explicit. It begins with utter noise and releases into a slender reggae groove. Jon Lipscomb can do a lot with his guitar, but here he best shows how withholding sometimes creates the widest success.

Alex Asher and Rick Parker share trombone duty. The double-down on horns offers an original sound. Madhu Siddappa (notably from Dub Is A Weapon) drums loosely, making for playful reggae with a bootleg Jazz ambiance. So, not surprisingly, Super Hi-Fi is at their best during dubs and jamming. This is the best way they let the city into the roots.

Granted, this is only my opinion. Many people, who I respect as musicians and critics, love experimental music. I, however, am admittedly a purest. Songs like “Gale Caution” is splendid ska. The murky trombone melody and the ripping organ and bass make for playfulness, and the noisiness is restrained to a few short measures before the groove kicks back in. This is what I wanted more of. This is Super Hi-Fi at their best and Blue and White breathes into this space too infrequently.

Album review: Signs To The City “Not Made of Miracles”

Album Cover

When Jarrett Lobley’s voice comes in at the beginning of Not Made of Miracles, it’s clear what’s going on here: dark melodies mixed with hopeful lyrics, something potent and austere. The piano-heavy, slow tempo of “Dark Waters” reminds me vividly of Trent Dabbs (an obscure reference, but if you know him then you’ll know what I mean). “There’s something valued in the road less taken,” he begins. “All my efforts will deliver,” and Signs To The City harnesses the sweetness of sour. The songs, although elegant, aren’t too memorable or catchy, which is probably the only thing keeping Signs To The City out of the limelight. Still, you don’t always need catchy. Jarrett, Joel Klassen (guitar), Tim Iskierski (drums), and Earl Pereira (Bass) pepper in tasteful synth layers. The kook is restrained.

“Rockets” showcases the quintessential 2018 pop rock: synth drums propelling a loud chorus and hook and then dropping quickly to instrumental sparsity over the verses. These songs don’t have the oomph that, say, “Unstable” has. This is dignified pop, like mid-career Goo Goo Dolls or latter day U2. “So many have left/ You stayed strong,” Jarrett sings over the hopeful chorus.

The best track, however, is “The Line”, which harnesses vocal harmonies- something Signs To The City often does well- and a hook that, well, hooks. Like some of the best indie rockers out there, the prettiness lies among the rise and fall of intensity and balances grace among the darkness. One fault of this mature, educated band is relying on colloquialisms. Here, they go with, “There ain’t no way out of here,” and if the line didn’t descend otherwise perfectly, I couldn’t let the word choice go.

These songs are overall good in construction, and the production matches the band nicely. Maybe the vein is The Killers or Kings of Leon, but NMOM is a more restrained, patient album than anything those big shots have ever done. More of a fan of 90’s rock than 80’s pop, I’ll admit that I wish Signs To The City would drop the Talking Heads influence and breathe into the next decade. Too much synth doesn’t allow me to take this record as seriously as I’d like to.