Wednesday, January 18, 2012

'And Still Keeping Good Relations': A Review of "In Awe" by Midnite

Did you think things would be any different? Amongst the so many things which are so wholly fascinating about the entity which is Midnite, surely today and many years from now what is/will be focused on is 'their' curiously supreme level of prolificacy. As the great Mutabaruka remarked in an interview with the group's frontman, Vaughn Benjamin, it almost seems like they release an album every week, but you know, if they stopped it'd be even more of an issue. So active is Midnite that their presence, quietly, has very much become a staple on the scene and if twelve months were to come and go with no new release from them - we'd probably have a problem. Thankfully no such a one year period seems to be on the horizon, at least not any time soon, and the band's most fervent fans are thankful for it (as are pedestrian listeners, such as myself). Reggae music arguably, as a whole, may also be much better for such a considerable level of output being maintained by such a popular group. There're definitely fans of Midnite who are not fans of Reggae music or very big fans of the music and tapping into these people with a new release . . . Every forty-five minutes or so is only going to bring more and more attention to the music and more and more commercial successes as well, which is always a great thing. Now, all of this is pretty basic and you'll hear most of it almost any time a new Midnite album hits shelves (but I do enjoy talking about it so much), but these days the circumstances surrounding one of their albums has changed to a large degree and it has done so because of what turned out to be a pretty important year in 2011 for Benjamin and company. When you have well over forty albums it's pretty difficult to 'change up the game' or 'take things to another level' (I hate both of those) (clichés, in general, are just disgusting, but especially in music), but that is exactly what Midnite did just a few months ago - wayyyyyyy back in November when they reached with what was easily one of their most high profile sets to date and one of the best albums of the year, "King’s Bell".

That album, which came through I Grade Records and by virtue of all the talk surrounding it and that it actually gave birth to the very first official video of the career of Midnite, may have been their best PROMOTED album to date from anyone and it was GOOD. It would ultimately prove to contain THE best song I, personally, heard in 2011 and it was very pleasing and accessible as well. When you do that and you put it out to the people, what you do, obviously is to give good music, but you also open things up to more fans who weren't previously on board (as you can tell by virtue of how many people reviewed that album and how many reviewed the one immediately prior to it, "The Way") to become long lasting listeners. And for that new group who has just arrived, here’s their very first opportunity to see if they REALLY want to stick around.

Midnite & Fifth Son Records

"In Awe". Outside of the people at Rastar Records, the label which has garnered most of Vaughn Benjamin's musical attentions and efforts in recent times has been the US based Fifth Son Records. Most notably, the label released the very well received double album, "Standing Ground", back in 2008 and they would also be responsible for that album's dubbed out counterpart early last year. Also to the credit of Fifth Son Records are the "Suns of Atom" album, which was their first release with Midnite (and maybe their first release with anyone for that matter), as well as the very curious "Momentum" - an album which, as its title would suggest, has gained considerable energy from its release date. Having done so much music with Benjamin, it's hard to say that there is any set sound and the projects tend to have their own individual type of vibes, but what that does say is that, OBVIOUSLY, there is so much chemistry here that what you're likely to hear is an album which, at the very least, is of significant quality. And in this case, where suddenly many more people are very likely paying attention that from before, perhaps that's the best thing. Surely I wouldn't have complained at all if Vaughn Benjamin and Andrew Campbell were to have rushed together a sequel to "King's Bell", but in the absence of that, you'd definitely want something more 'dependable' to hold the attention of newer fans (older fans, especially in the case of Midnite, are of no concern whatsoever. As I've said in the past and as has been demonstrated on this very blog, they have some of the most passionate fans out of ANYONE I've ever seen). "In Awe" is definitely dependable and just a little more. There was something about this one from the very first time that I actually got to hear some of the music that really impressed me and this is coming from someone who, while I certainly will listen to just about anything that Midnite puts out, I'm not that fan who loves all of it and immediately hails it as brilliant (thankfully I don't do that with anyone anymore). So you do have to go to some distance at least to impress me and this album kind of surprised me, I have to admit. The word simply does not apply to Vaughn Benjamin's work in the sense of being compared to someone else, but I did look upon "In Awe" as a pretty ’standard’ release in his own terms, and it ultimately may be, but it isn't average and it is also not just another piece for the 'pile' - it is very good. What it most certainly isn't, however, is as accessible as its predecessor. Besides the things going around being "King's Bell", it was also very open musically, so if you caught on there as a bit of an introductory course, here's yet another opportunity for a lesson in advanced studies of Midnite's music for us all. Let us open our textbooks and begin.

Album Preview

As I said, each of the albums birthed in the musical union of Midnite & Fifth Son Records have their own individual course and vibes and I can't really lump them all together and say that they sound like ______ (and you can do that in certain ways. For instance, I can confidently say that Midnite albums produced by I Grade Records tend to be more reachable to fans). But in the case of the ten tracks which comprise this album, they cover a surprisingly large amount of ground with the vibes and are almost sure to light up the players of the more heavy Midnite fans. For example, check 'Wearing Her Crown' which gets things started for the "In Awe" album. The sound on this tune is absolutely STUNNING. It's this incredibly cool mixture of Roots Reggae and a sprawling, smoking Jazzy vibe which backs Benjamin who is in the process of showing a deserved supreme amount of respect to the Afrikan Woman.

“That little Black woman holding this whole thing down
Disgruntled she cheerfully scold them to cheer from frown
She rather you say ‘Yes Mama’ in front of everyone all around
So Mama keep on wearing her crown
Keep on wearing her crown”

Of the thousands of things fascinating about this song, the one which sticks out to me, from a lyrical aspect, is how Benjamin gives the 'crown'. Here, it is a direct result of actions and how SHE carries herself which makes HER royal. It's an absolutely beautiful piece and I'd also like to mention that there is a very subtle sense of melody here as well. You just have to listen. The same would go for the very next tune which is a bit more traditionally Reggae-heavy, '360'. From this one I take a sense of unity, but as usual with Benjamin, you'll have to do your work to get it too. Largely through music he seems to suggest this notion of the world being smaller because of things to bring everyone together. He goes in so many different directions to make the point ["Everyone in reality inna similarity. Look how everywhere you reach, a look-alike you see to somebody"] [BOOM!], but going with him is damn enjoyable! Wrapping up the first bit of songs on "In Awe" is another stellar piece, the pretty straight forward 'Music To Honour I King'. This is one of a handful of times (ever) when you don't really have to hang on every word the chanter says and that’s largely due to the tune being lyrically so direct. It works so well here, but maybe even not as well as the riddim behind it which is huge. So obvious was this fact, apparently, that Fifth Son (which I believe is headed by the one John Juaquin Wilson) just allows it to go for more than a minute well after the final words are spoken and . . . Maybe someday they'll decide to do a Dub version for this one as well.

Clearly the label and Vaughn Benjamin were well full of good ideas in regards to this one. Besides making a good album altogether and making excellent choices such as the one I just mentioned, they also decided to name the album after what subsequently proves to be its biggest moment. The title track on this one is pretty massive and it provides the project with THE signature moment.
“I hold His Majesty in awe”

Benjamin goes into the many creations and journeys of the Afrikan world and in the process he also serves up a small history lesson as well. Things like this, even for as peculiar (and I mean that in a good way) as they may be in the hands of Midnite, are exactly for me because they're able to both challenge the listener and really strike the senses as well. BEAUTIFUL song! And while the album, in my opinion, does pinnacle with the tune named after it, there is very little quality 'drop-off' from it to the other big tunes here. Besides the arsenal which begins "In Awe", you'll also find a nice tune which is somewhat related, lyrically, to the title track and a few others in 'The World Is Beautiful' (in the liners, it's referred to as 'Earth Is Beautiful'). This tune is one which tries to simplify things and Benjamin seems to say that following the set and natural course of things is the best method in most situations, which is a thought often muddled by people's constant desire to attempt to change things for better or for worse. Check the absolutely CRAWLING 'Seek These'. This song is so slow that it may, in fact, be going backwards, but if it is, it's doing so while looking good! For as unhurried as it may be, however, somewhere along here I found myself completely enthralled with tune from what was being said through what becomes an impressive composition on the riddim.

'Psych Ops' is a tune which took a pretty long time to grow on me (not irregular for a Midnite song), but it shouldn't have because it is a wonderful piece and maybe even as high as the second best song to be fond on this album.

“Rastafari The Lord of Hosts, His Pronouncement
When that Dread thunder resounded
Everything for shelter was sprinting
But that man don’t know him haffi humble to The Head
And this is the source of his silence
Dun accept The Trinity and The Godhead
Pound dun some duel and ah grow him dread
Observe the principle first, man said
Inna di city where buss nuff coppa shot pon lead -
None better than none, but must stay ahead”

This is a song focusing on things such as the media and the influence it is (and attempts to have). But no matter how strong it may grow, Benjamin reminds us, it is HIM who is the prevailing authority and influence on the world. The album's closer 'Fallen Soldiers' is its changeup. It comes through with this large sound which turns out to synch up with the more urgent message and delivery of the song (which isn't something that goes without saying because, in the case of Vaughn Benjamin, here is a man who ROUTINELY ignores riddims playing behind him and does what he’s come to do). It definitely does give a different colour and texture to the music and although it doesn't rank as a favourite of mine on "In Awe", I imagine it will so for many others. Finally, check both 'Worth Working For' and 'All The People'. The former, in my opinion, is destined to probably be overlooked on the album which will be a real shame if it happens because it provides a very 'delicate' shift from several of the other tunes present here which, for me, immediately makes it an attention grabber. The song is one for inspiration and upliftment and it literally sounds like it's glowing. The vibes here are so nice and, much like the opener they create a very thin sense of melody. For it’s part 'All People' (yet another big riddim on that one and probably one of the biggest on the entire album) is a nearly dominant lyrical display from Benjamin and pretty difficult to sit still while listening to.

“Memba Jah have the lightening and the wind in safe keeping”

“The lion spirit chariot a wah man go through in
The spirit of life iternally renewing
The earth terrain is fresh and possibility
The Ras got some chocolate mint tea brewin”

Overall, again, I'd like to stress the fact that I'm not that fan whose main requirement for enjoying an album from Midnite is that it . . . Have the word 'Midnite' printed on it somewhere (I'm not particularly bright either, but that's another story), so I'd like to think that my enjoyment of this album might carry just a bit more weight than it might if I were such a fan. This is REALLY good stuff and while it may not get the opportunity to settle as such, because Midnite are probably going to be releasing a new album in the next twenty or minutes or so, definitely, if you're a fan like myself, don't overlook this one. And getting back to the point of this review, while "In Awe" isn’t the same type of an album as "King’s Bell", all of those fans who will jump on the next new Midnite album, even if they're completely new, I don't know that I can say that they'll be TOTALLY lost on this one and in their obese catalog, there're moments which're entirely more confounding. So, here we find Vaughn Benjamin, not observing the moment of the big work he just did and continuing along his musical journey in an immediate way - and continuously leaving many many people 'in awe' - Including me. Very well done!

Rated: 4.25/5
Fifth Son Records
CD + Digital
Midnite Band

{Note: I believe the CD for "In Awe" releases on January 24}
{Note 2: One of the best covers for a Midnite album in my opinion}

Review #344

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review. I really recommend this Midnite release. As much as I am totally ignorant of the real Ethiopia, it feels like this album takes us there spiritually. Sort of a cleansing vacation for the soul.