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.

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