Saturday, June 27, 2009

Incomparable: A Review of Heavenly Drum by Machel Montano

As the search for the next great Caribbean music superstar continues I think its very interesting to kind of take ‘inventory’ as to who we currently have playing the role. With so many labels and artists and producers popping up on a seemingly never-ending daily basis the personification of the ‘goal’ which they are seeking to reach is kind of barren these days but is full of VERY familiar faces. Probably the most well known Caribbean artist in the world is and has been for the past decade or so, Shaggy. He of course plays on a different level than most of his peers because the lion’s share of his audience is, of course, outside of the Caribbean (the same could be said about the next person I’m going to mention) and he LARGELY underrated and underappreciated here although, almost unnecessarily, Shaggy has wonderfully seen his local fame go up because of several causes he has been involved in pushing and making music, which goes without saying. There’s also Dancehall poster boy, Sean Paul, and with a new album loaded and ready to go in the very near future as of this writing, the Uptown superstar ‘threatens’ to overtake Shaggy as the international face of Reggae, if he hasn’t actually done so already (and he may have). Again, like I said, Sean Paul’s is a fame which, although probably more locally respected than Shaggy’s (seeing Sean Paul’s name pop up on a riddim from a local producer isn’t RARE at all, not even in this time, the same isn’t true for Shaggy), is largely based outside of the Caribbean and to that degree he has quietly become a WONDERFUL spokesperson and representative for the music if for no other reason that, perhaps by even his own admission, he isn’t the best of his craft and if not that then certainly by his humble behaviour in total. After Sean Paul and Shaggy you really start to get into a VERY interesting group of artists who have built their stardoms almost exclusively in the Caribbean and Caribbean musical hotspots throughout the world. Artists who fall into the line of this category are, of course, someone like Beenie Man who, SHOCKINGLY has managed to charm his way to superstardom despite maintaining bits and pieces of his small bad-boy persona by virtue of the fact that he is, by far, one of the most talented individuals to pick up the mic in Reggae EVER. A case could be made for Beenie Man’s counterpart, Bounty Killer, although that case has always been a hard one to make and is becoming even harder by the moment. I’m also going to throw the name MAVADO into the fray as someone whose appeal has (even more shockingly the Beenie’s maintenance of his) grown to a point where RIGHT NOW he can probably be considered in that group (although I don’t know if he can maintain it and I have my doubts). Other possible choices include Vybz Kartel, Baby Cham (whose next move, however far away it may be, will prove or disprove his levels) and Lady Saw. Although all of that is just in Jamaica and Reggae.

Sticking with strictly my English speaking artists (biggup Kassav, Tanya St. Val, Krys, Admiral T, Michele Henderson and Izaline Calister), in terms of the stereotypical ‘attitude’ that one might associate with being a superstar in music (read - ‘diva’ male or female) if the Caribbean’s greatest superstar doesn’t walk into the studio every time Beenie churns out another ass shaking hit, then that title is one which hovers over one Trinidadian Machel Montano each and every Carnival season and beyond. Season in and season out Machel’s songs are amongst the most discussed and, when he’s ON, the most well appreciated and popular as they have been for a very long time. A former child star, he also has the type of built in ‘familiarity’ which has allowed his fans to either watch him grow up be they younger or older, or for fans within that same age range (I believe Montano turns thirty-five this year), literally grow up alongside him and like the second wave of artists I mentioned, his popularity too is strongest in the Caribbean and the even smaller hotbeds of the Soca music he makes (and to the levels of spottiness of such places and the fact that Soca and Carnival remains much of a ‘seasonal’ type of music). Machel Montano is a bonafide star whether you know his name or not. And with such stardom, he almost inherently opens himself to MORE criticisms than most of his peers. Chances are that there are quite a few people who know the name Machel Montano for one reason or another and maybe able to associate it with SOMETHING or another, however, it remains in their minds and have NO IDEA who someone like Bunji Garlin or Iwer George is. Thus, there were that many more mouths, however educated or uneducated on the topic they may be, that Machel’s 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Carnival season was definitely sup-bar and quite a bit underwhelming to say the least. Similarly, early talk from the masses saying similar things about Garlin’s season virtually vanished once he released a couple of BIG tunes and while Machel did the same, that talk never disappeared for him. Now, having released his obligatory tune for Crop Over (Tell Me, which I’m still brewing over), Machel functionally puts a bow on his musical 2009 with his expected and delayed album Heavenly Drum. The album comes on the tail end of a downright CROWDED season for the superstar as besides the music, Machel, engaged in a whirlwind of other activities, including a children’s book (Boy Boy & The Magic Drum), a musical (same title) both of which he ‘reportedly’ aimed at pushing Trinidadian musical culture (success on that front) to the next generation AND, back to the music, he also simultaneously launched an album for his ‘crew’ Machel Montano Presents The HD Family. However, perhaps the most anticipated portion of the confusion and the madness (and the ‘convolusion’) at this point is the album, Heavenly Drum. The album is a showcase for what has been one of Machel’s and company’s more uneven in recent years and while that quality is definitely reflected here, Heavenly Drum DEFINITELY is more than a complete loss.

Machel Montano has had many albums to date as a solo artist and part of his former group and band Xtatik but DEFINITELY it is the last two or three, specifically both Flame On (2008) and Book Of Angels (2007), to which Heavenly Drum will be compared as it finds Montano still well within the ‘HD’ realm (more on that in a bit). And if you haven’t heard Machel Montano’s music as of yet (shame on you) you can expect more of the same INTENSE CRAZINESS which marked both of those brilliant efforts. Beginning Machel Montano’s brand new album for 2009 is Mesmerize, one of his most polarizing tunes of the year. The song definitely isn’t within the scope of ‘regular’ for Soca music (or Reggae) but it has a nice and cool vibes to it like an R&B or poppish sounding tune. I’ve heard so many people say they HATE it or LOVE it, I don’t have such extreme emotions for the tune, good or bad. Decent opening. The next tune could also be said to be something other than Soca (but this one, I LIKE) as Machel calls in the first of several collaborators, Bermy’s finest, Collie Buddz for the NICE Fly Away. In my opinion, its pretty much a Soca tune, albeit definitely on the slower side even for a groovy tune but it was just LOVELY. Definitely one of my favourites from Machel this year and considering all the criticisms he received, I feel that Fly Away was beyond reproach to a degree as, although it by no means was the greatest, it just has such a nice nice vibes, even now. Wonderful combination and one of the album’s best. Completing the opening of the Heavenly Drum is another combination and perhaps one even more high profile as Machel teams up with Jamaican Dancehall future star Busy Signal (I mean like within a year or so, like very soon for Busy) for a remix of his tune Push Bumpers. I don’t really like it and I don’t think I’ve ever been very high on it’s original version (which is also on the album) but I just like the combination. If you take that on paper allure out of the tune, then its okay. All in all a DECENT beginning.

Of course, myself, I’m much more of a CRAZY jump up type of a person. And when Machel Montano goes in that direction, even if he doesn’t go FULL ON, the results are usually MADNESS! He does go FULL ON with the tune which, in my opinion, was his greatest solo effort and the best on Heavenly Drum, his Road March contender Wild Antz. Yes the video sucked and so many people even bashed the song itself that you almost got embarrassed saying you liked it but I DON’T GIVE A FUCK! Wild Antz was MAD! And if I were the only one who felt so (and I’m not) I wouldn’t care! It didn’t deserve to win Road March and it didn’t but it rather easily ranks in the top five songs Trinidad produced for 2009. MASSIVE! Not as HYPE but arguably just as strong on a different level was the underrated and overlooked Won’t Stop. This one is just POLISHED! It doesn’t make you jump as high or wave as fast as Wild Antz but the groove on this one is downright addictive and, in my opinion, might’ve had an even greater shot at the road than the Antz did, in retrospect. Then we come to Ravin’. This one is a tune where I have to admit that my LONG feelings about it were incorrect because I never REALLY gave it a shot, but Ravin is SERIOUS! Of course it takes a backseat in my opinion because every time I hear that BEAUTIFUL riddim get going my brain almost immediately starts singing Patrice Roberts’ MASSIVE Sway In D Mas which topped Machel’s effort but Ravin is very nice as well and the vibe is crazy same way. Stunnin’ doesn’t quite reach those levels and definitely wasn’t one of my favourites from Machel this year but I have grown to have a greater appreciation for it through the months so definitely don’t give up on it through juts a few spins. The other tunes here are marked by, in my opinion for the most part, big tunes on paper which either don’t ‘pan’ out so well or just really SOLID material but not SPECTACULAR results with one exception. That exception is the title track which is downright INSPIRING. I’m a grown ass man, soon to be twenty-eight years old and Magic Drum makes me, old and jaded as I am, feel like a little kid. I’m not typically SO in love with the pan sound (I’m Jamaican, DUH!) but Magic Drum is some type of tune which sets Machel MUSICALLY apart from so many of his peers. The tune is wonderful and aided by the venerable Phase II group (led by Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe who is given direct credit) multiple time champions of the Panorama competition (which is like Pan Monarch). And the tune is even given a nice ’road mix’ of sorts which features Machel alongside longtime veteran (and good friend) Chinese Laundry and it more or less serves as the storyline for the Boy Boy & The Magic Drum concept. In two editions - HUGE tune, old school style. One of the more ‘curious’ pieces here is the COMPLETELY out of ‘character’ and SLOW and SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS (which he has done before, the entire 2009 ‘concept’ was socially conscious) and PERSONAL. The tune was livicated to an engineer of Machel’s and HD’s Wayne Ephraim who died this year as well as to so many others (Rest In Zion Shel Shok). Its not the best tune but you measure songs like this on more than sound, don’t we and it also features ‘rapper‘ Make-It-Hapn (he sounds like a rapper to me) also from out of Trinidad. And Pray along with the original version of Magic Drum lead us into the conclusion of Heavenly Drum which is two mixes. The first is your standard, average and everyday road mix for Wild Antz. You’ll have a hard time finding a version of the original that I won’t appreciate and the road mix, for what it is, isn’t that. Lastly is a very INTERESTING and CREATIVE piece, the Jumbie Antz, which is a fusion of the Wild Antz with Montano’s 2007 Road March winner Jumbie. SCATHING! And a better note to send out the Heavenly Drum.

Here’s the thing. From a musical standpoint there are a few things missing from Heavenly Drum. The first would be the SWEET combination Tonight which features the DIVINE Alaine alongside Machel. Also absent is the combination Let Me See featuring US superstar hip-hopper Busta Rhymes. And probably a few others (including yet another Push Bumpers remix with the aforementioned Sean Paul AND Floor On Fire with hip-hoppers Lil John and Pitbull)) including at least ONE combination with Patrice Roberts, certainly a requirement for any Montano album these days. I’d also like to mention the lack of ‘HD’ emblazoned on the cover right? Unlike both the Flame On and Book Of Angel albums which specifically say HD there. HOWEVER, if you haven’t noticed the album is called Heavenly Drum and not only that but literally replacing HD is Machel’s NEW alter ego at the top of the cover, HESUS DIVINE. Take from it, what you will.

Overall, with everything that went on with Machel and The HD Family in 2009 its definitely a big thing that they delivered not only one but two different albums with no tunes crossing over (which probably explains the lack of a Patrice song on the album). As I said, Machel Montano or whatever he’s calling himself these days is a STAR, no doubt about it so his releases are certain to get a BIG international attention each and every time through. Here’s the thing, when people who wouldn’t otherwise pick up an album like this grap this one, while they won’t find Machel at his musical finest, what they will find is an artist seemingly forever redefining himself for one reason another. This form of Machel? Hesus Divine isn’t as good as the Machel of Flame On or Book of Angels but still may be FAR stronger than all of us gave him credit for being and as usual: I can’t wait for next year.

Rated 3.5/5 stars
Ruff Rex/J&W Productions

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