Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Misty In Roots - Roots Controller

Misty In Roots - Roots Controller
Real World CD

"Roots Controller" is not exactly an original Misty in Roots album, and not exactly a retrospective compilation, but a sort of mixture of the two - containing 6 tracks newly recorded for its release in 2002, and 7 tracks from previously released albums (3 from 1983's "Earth", 2 from 1985's "Musi O Tunya", and 2 live tracks from the classic 1979 performance at the Counter Eurovision. It's also just about the only album by this classic UK roots band which is readily available, certainly on CD, as unlike their contemporaries Aswad and Steel Pulse, Misty have not yet had a comprehensive reissue program...

The 2002 tracks open the compilation, but there is very little about them to suggest that they were recorded any later than round about 1980, and without checking the dates it would be difficult to tell which were the "new" and "old" tracks. "True Rasta" opens in classic roots style with a spirited horn riff and lyric quoting from the Book of Revelation, as well as borrowing some lines (tho not the riddim) from 70s Black Ark classic "Vampire" by Devon Irons - a tune that fits well alongside any of Misty's early material.

"Cover Up", with its reference to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, is the only track betraying its relatively recent vintage - however, sonically it's pure late 70s business, with a horn refrain slightly reminiscent of the Specials' "Ghost Town" (itself derivative of Prince Buster's "Seven Wonders Of The World") giving it a slight 2 Tone feel. "How Long Jah" is a dark, powerful roots harmony tune, again with superlative horns, reminiscent of Israel Vibration's classic work with Tommy Cowan, and dissolving into a satisfyingly echo-heavy dub, with lyrics addressing the age-old Rasta themes of slavery and its legacy of poverty.

"Almighty (The Way)" is a slight down-turn in quality, with an overly bouncy and "happy"-sounding major key riddim somewhat at odds with its pious lyrics; however, it stops just short of cheesiness, and still carries conviction. "Dance Hall Babylon" is also a little disconcerting lyrically, with its blanket condemnation of newer dancehall music ("heathens, they don't praise Jah in the dance, all they want is sex and vanity") feeling rather reactionary and anachronistic, but still serving to nail their colours clearly to the table as uncompromising defenders of pure roots music, and the mellow, spacious steppers riddim is nice enough.

"On The Road" is another mellow, downtempo track with a celebratory feel, despite its lyrics telling of homelessness and hard times; it's a heartfelt tale of the UK immigrant experience that's reminiscent of the early UK roots collected on the Pressure Sounds compilation "Don't Call Us Immigrants". In all, I doubt any other reggae band was producing anything remotely near to as authentic late 70s to early 80s style roots in 2002 as Misty In Roots were, drawing a powerful contrast with contemporaries who tried to go dancehall or pop in the 80s and 90s, with usually cringeworthy results.

From the 1983 album "Earth" there is "Follow Fashion", another laid-back yet lyrically serious tune condemning escapism and the superficiality of commercial and pop culture, "New Day", with its blissful yet edgy feel, vocally reminiscent of Burning Spear in its almost trance-like devotional tone, accompanied by a subtle, slinky trumpet and echoing guitar, and "Dreadful Dread", with sprightly trumpets and a soaring, floating lead vocal lightening its pleading sufferation lyric; it is obvious that Misty's sound was already something of an anachronism in 1983, ignoring the more minimal, bass-heavy early dancehall sound that was dominating Jamaica at the time for a lush, layered international roots sound drawing on the likes of Culture and the aforementioned Spear and Israel Vibration.

"Musi O Tunya", the follow-up 2 years later, provides 2 contrasting tracks, "Ireation" with its powerful, uptempo skank using a relatively minimal soundscape of bass, echo and percussion - perhaps a slight adaptation to the times, but still clearly UK and uncompromisingly roots, while the title track, named after the original name of the waterfall renamed "Victoria"(?) by the British empire, has a nostalgic, elegiac feel, paying tribute to African heritage, the mood only slightly interrupted by some possibly ill-advised synth keyboards.

However, the real highlights of this set come at its end: the 2 live tracks from 1979's "Live At The Counter Eurovision" (itself a legendary concert and a coming together of several strains of anti-imperialist musical radicalism), which are among the heaviest live reggae tracks on record anywhere (up there with Bob Marley's "Live At The Lyceum"). "Man Kind" opens hard, with a horn riff charged like living electricity, followed by an irresistible skank and a fiery, impassioned vocal delivering a lyric of apocalyptic warning with an ambience of unparalleled power and dread; even during the long instrumental section the vibe remains utterly compelling.

"Ghetto Of The City" is, if possible, even heavier, punctuated by gasps and yelps of pure passion, and a depth of emotion in the delivery of its testimony to poverty and oppression that is almost overwhelming, accompanied by the same inspired organist. This music feels like it has the force to utterly destroy the "ignorant minds, corrupted and confused" that it chants down. Both tracks are almost impossible not to dance to.

Overall, while it has a couple of weaker tracks, this is a compilation of very strong roots music that shows a remarkable consistency considering the tunes on it span a period of over 20 years. It is, however, frustrating in its tantalising offering of a few selections from albums which are almost impossible to get hold of, and it would have been nice for Misty's original albums, in particular "Live At The Counter Eurovision", to have got a full release rather than being plundered to seemingly provide filler tracks for a new album, when Misty were very clearly on form enough to easily provide a full album's worth of roots equalling their older output. Still, while the more laid-back studio tracks take a few listens before they start to come out of the shadow of the ultra-heavy live killers, this is a set that is unlikely to disappoint those who know what they like, if what they like is Roots.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jah Stitch: Original Ragga Muffin (1975-77)

Jah Stitch: Original Ragga Muffin (1975-77)
Blood & Fire, BAFCD010

"Original Ragga Muffin" is a collection of the tunes cut by foundation DJ Jah Stitch in the classic rockers/steppers period of the mid to late 70s, primarily for the near-ubiquitous kingpin producer Bunny Lee (many of whose riddims here were recut incredibly prolifically in the contemporary dancehalls), but also featuring 2 tunes cut for the equally legendary Vivian Jackson aka Yabby You.

The opening track, "Give Jah The Glory", is a recut of the riddim to Burning Spear's "Invasion" (aka "Wa Da Da"), on which another singer (possibly Ronnie Davis) makes a creditable attempt at covering the usually hard if not impossible to cover well Spear. Stitch chants devotion to Jah as well as judgement on Babylon over a typically Spear-style rolling horn riff and a very satisfying deep, dubby mix.

"African People (3 in 1)" is over Johnny Clarke's recut of the perennial classic "Declaration of Rights", in which Stitch takes as his starting point the words "Africa", "Zion" and "Ethiopia", deconstructing each letter by letter into a startling improvised sermon of symbology, one of the most inventive DJ tunes to come out of the roots period.

"Ragga Muffin Style" is Stitch's take on Horace Andy's anthemic "Money Money (The Root Of All Evil)", its sharp horn riff and rumbling rockers bassline mixed into raw dub deconstruction while the DJ's vocal is delivered in an almost hypnotically charged dread bass tone, affirming his authentic dread credentials as a "raggamuffin" (one of the first uses of the term "ragga") from the ghetto.

Horace's magnificent "Zion Gate" and Stitch's accompanying toast "Every Wicked Have To Crawl" are presented next as a nearly 7 minute long 12" discomix, with both singer and DJ masterfully riding one of Lee's deepest, heaviest roots riddims, with dread horns rolling like a river. Stitch riffs on Andy's Revelation-inspired message of warning against iniquity, proclaiming that "Righteousness shall stand for all who know that Satan kingdom got to fall" and chanting devotion to the "red, gold and green" over eerily floating snippets of a typically spellbinding "sleepy" vocal.

Next are 2 back-to-back toasts over Johnny Clarke's bass-heavy Bunny Lee-produced version of Bob Marley's much-versioned "Crazy Baldheads" - "Watch Your Step Youthman" following the lyrical theme of the original by calling down fiery judgement on gunmen and warmongers, while "Crazy Joe" re-uses the riddim for a playful attack on rival producer Joe Gibbs, branded here as a "follow fashion monkey" while Stitch and Lee are "the original foundation in dis ya record creation".

"No Dread Can't Dead" is a joyful, defiant proclamation of survival recorded following Stitch's recovery from a near-fatal shooting in 1976, with floating backing vocals and echoing percussion making this one of Bunny Lee's more complex and satisfying mixes. "Sinners Repent Your Soul" appears at first to be a return to stern Old Testament themes, over a rather more minimal mix of the Johnny Clarke song of the same name, but Stitch soon segues from the religious to the radical: "I and I don't want to be left behind in this poverty and frustration... must be a revolution". Repentance and revolution are elided together in a classic example of roots reggae's fusion of secular and spiritual radicalism.

"Judgement" is a version to Yabby You's mighty, apocalyptic "Judgement On The Land" (which can be found on the utterly essential BAF compilation "Jesus Dread"), with its thunderous bass perfectly complemented by righteous horns and ethereal flute, over which Stitch demands in uncompromising terms freedom "from all captivity", while "Militant Man" keeps up the heavy cultural vibes defending the true, righteous and militant Rasta against hypocrites and impostors over an appropriately martial steppers riddim, with nice echo on the piano and snare drums.

"Real Born African" takes another well known Johnny Clarke tune, "Roots Natty Congo", and elaborates on its theme of African diaspora identity, adding to it a conviction in divine guidance for the "chosen people", regardless of circumstances, with some Big Youth-style hollering and swirling synth effects, while "Cool Down Youthman" is yet another biblically styled warning to the youth to stay away from violence, with a Tubby's mix particularly heavy on the echo and reverb.

"African Queen" is the other Vivian Jackson produced track, focusing (atypically for the man known for being the epitome of dread eschatology) on the mellower side of the roots vibe, with a warm, celebratory affirmation of black feminine beauty, in which Stitch quotes Curtis Mayfield and The Last Poets over lazy, muted horns and keyboards.

The set closes with "King Of The Arena", a celebratory (in a different way) cut to the well-versioned classic riddim (one of the first to make Bunny Lee famous in the 70s dancehall landscape), mixing Rastafari themes with joyful sound system boasting, neatly showcasing in one tune the two sides of Stitch's toasting personality.

Very nicely packaged, with typical Blood & Fire photo-collage artwork, and interviews with Stitch himself giving his own story of the making of the tunes, this is a compilation that is sure to find favour with any fans of DJing in the classic 70s roots style. It also nicely complements B&F's first compilation, "If Deejay Was Your Trade", which features several more of Stitch's (alongside other DJs') tunes cut for Lee. Together, these 2 compilations make the ideal introduction to the great mid-70s Jamaican DJ explosion.