Tuesday, December 4, 2012

'The Arrival': A review of "Mental War" by Uwe Banton

I'm ready now. On just about every other aspect of every other subject, I tend to be someone who is wrong farrrrrrrrr more often I am right, but I do still trust my judgment when it comes to music. Although I have had my share of incorrectness over the years (Turbulence was supposed to be king by now), generally speaking I think I do a pretty good job of forecasting quality - be it an album or an up and coming artist - and then, obviously, enjoying it greatly when I am correct (and writing large reviews about it in observance of the occasion). This year has very much offered a fine, and somewhat fitting, example as I will continue, every chance I get [!], to remind you that, for two years, I told you just how strong the next album, whatever it was going to be, from wonderful singer, Mark Wonder, was going to be. When it, "Working Wonders", arrived it was fantastic and I can also say the same thing about "Know Thyself", which turned out to be the 'next album' from Ras Batch. Today we don't have something as clear because the artist in question likely has hundreds of  thousands of fans/supporters more ardent than I have been, but despite the fact that I haven't necessarily been the world's greatest Uwe Banton enthusiast, I knew that whatever he was working on, whenever it reached, would be very sizable. I always like how an artist can kind of reach a point of success in his/her career and achieve a great deal and do so largely outside of my attention or the attention of many Reggae fans while still being so very popular amongst many others, but when you finally do tune in to their music, you immediately hear exactly what so many fans had heard and why they were so passionate about that artist. It's something, at least in my opinion, which has always spoken to the prevailing globalization of Reggae music as, somewhere out there, is an artist you have NEVER heard of who is making a brand of the music you'd LOVE, but they're going to be three or four albums and thousands of fans deep into their career by the time you catch on. And maybe for you the album we look at today will be that type of an eye-opening experience in terms of the German based Uwe Banton, and in a 'semi-formal' sense it if for me as well (this is the first of his albums that I've reviewed), but actually my eyes began to open in this case a few years back. 
Uwe Banton
What happened? Uwe Banton released an album by the name of "Rightful Place". That album didn't 'change my life' or 'take things to another level' or make me sweat (incidentally, should ever you find a song which actually makes you sweat, just from listening to it, please let us know about it!), but it was very strong. It was the moment when I had to take Uwe's as a name to remember and look forward to future releases from because what was on that album showed someone who had either developed to the absolute heights of his abilities or was very near doing so and was just an excellent musician. "Rightful Place" wasn't his first effort either as the chanter had also released an album in 2006 by the name of "JAH Roots", which I still don't think I've listened to completely, but contained a GORGEOUS tune on one of Pow Pow's old riddims, 'Hail The Man', alongside South African star and Achis Reggae favourite, Black Dillinger. 

"Jah Roots" [2006] & "Rightful Place" [2009]
So, like I said, I was well tuned in to what he may be bringing next, and "next" just recently walked in the door as Uwe Banton now brings forth his third studio album, "Mental War". I wasn't frantically looking forward to this album and I hadn't 'circled' it in the way I did the afore-alluded to "Know Thyself" and  the aforementioned "Working Wonders", from even before they had names and actual music, but I was DAMN confident that this was going to be a very nice project and an early listen (more on that in just a minute) only increased that thought. I didn't know a great deal about Uwe Banton (but I did know that he keeps good company, because Bredz (biggup Bredz) sent me a picture showing Uwe alongside a most familiar stranger), but apparently the veteran has a history in Reggae music dating back to almost as long as I've been on the planet and his music also displays that. Uwe Banton is a Roots Reggae artist. There are no huge surprises in listening to his work, you know what you're getting and he is very good at what he does. Also I should mention that, in specific regards to this album, there were three or four people who sent us messages suggesting that I well have a further listen to "Mental War" (one of whom was Daniel, who may actually be the smartest person in the world and another was Markus from Da Ville, who is… just outstanding and always very helpful) after I had mentioned it previously - and you all were correct. The album comes via Rasta Yard Records, which was also on board the "Rightful Place" record, alongside the venerable Al.Ta.Fa.An, who has worked magic alongside so many fine Roots Reggae artists including (but definitely not limited to) the aforementioned Mark Wonder, Sizzla Kalonji and Gentleman and, really, at this point if you are a fan of modern Roots music, their work is likely very familiar to your ears, whether you realize it or not. With all of that behind it, if there remained any question to the actual quality of this album, it is exterminated upon 'sight' as the briefest of listen reveals Uwe Banton's latest piece of work to at least be on par with its predecessor and perhaps (it is) even a step forward. From a listener's point of view, also, this album, although it has spots, has one dominant trait which I found to be so nice and one which isn't always present, even on 'GREAT' albums: It's just nice to listen to! Ultimately, "Mental War", despite its title, proves to be one of the better listens in the genre in a year 2012 which has been magical. Want to know why? I'll tell you (even if you don't want to know!). 
'Work' featuring Mikey General [2012]
Uwe Banton's musical approach is a very straight forward one. Because of this, at least in my opinion, he exhibits a very nice trait and unfortunately quite rare one - every song he makes is about something. That may make no sense to you, but if you listen to enough of these things, you are sure to find hundreds of songs which're almost uncomfortably broad and, ultimately, pointless. But you won't find a single one of those amongst the thirteen from this album. That is evidence of a striving work ethic by the artist, which is something he speaks on directly on the first song on "Mental War", 'Work'. This song was the previous "early listen" I mentioned because I believe it is actually the first single here. And if Ms. Lugo wasn't enough (and she DEFINITELY was), Uwe Banton continues to show that he keeps good company as this song, the first of four combinations on the album, features another of my favourites, fine veteran singer, Mikey General. Again, this song is very uncomplicated and its message comes through crystal-clear as Uwe and the General push a fine display of giving a maximum effort in ones life and using everything that you have to achieve what you want out of it. I do really like this song and I LOVE the idea of Uwe, or whoever, coming to the decision that Uwe Banton and Mikey General on a tune together would be big, because they are. Excellent start. We shift from 'work' in the direct sense to another form of work on the second song on the album, the sterling 'Education'

"When I think about the youths today
I know the children need good education
To give them what they need in life
To cope with ever-changing situations
Teach the youths the truth, cause that's the only way to build a better nation
And let them make good use of what they learn for all the coming generations

The only way to guarantee for equal opportunity
Encourage creativity, fulfill responsibility
So let them know their history
Their roots and their identity
One God, One Aim, One Destiny -
The only way we can be free
Cause knowledge is power!
Every minute, every hour
Give them the right books to devour
So more blessings can shower

This tune is beautiful - if you listen to it in the dark, your ears will glow - and I think it has a bit of 'hit' potential because it combines a great cause and excellent lyrics with a vibe that is downright intoxicating on easily one of the best tunes on "Mental War". And rounding out the opening of the new album is another winner, the big praising tune, 'From Yuh A Walk With JAH'. TEARS! Love this song! It may be slightly stronger than either of the songs preceding it and it caught me the first time I heard it (and every time after that as well). It's a beautiful song, a very smart one and the chorus there may just be the finest on the album. 

Along with Mikey General, Uwe Banton taps a nice lot of artists to make appearances on "Mental War". 'Better To Know' is a nice song featuring the talented Cornadoor, also from out of Germany (had an album a couple of years back, "Without Restrictions", with an EXCELLENT song on it by  the name of 'Here I Am') and those two make a good pairing, leaving the significant punchline, "it's better to know than to believe". Jahcoustix joins in on the stirring spiritually-themed social commentary, 'No Control'. This song is another favourite of mine as it combines such a lively and moving feel with a crucial message, which can be said throughout the album on various songs. 

"Why can't they see that the children deserve better?
More faith and courage to become a trendsetter
What did they have in mind, when they gave the permission -
To build more bombs and guns and so much ammunition?
But right now is the time, to break with that tradition 
So listen to my lyrics and my composition
Cause every child needs good education
No more bombs to cause more devastation" 

The other combination on "Mental War", the album, is 'Mental War', the song and it features Uwe Banton alongside the legendary Luciano (yes, he has songs featuring both Mikey General & Luciano) (WHAT!). I was very curious to hear the direction of this track, especially considering how the rest of the album plays out and it is, essentially, a social commentary, but it is a STRATEGIC social commentary. The sound here is nice, but the arrangement of the song and what is being said just of these kind of dueling philosophies between good and bad and righteous and unrighteous, stimulates the brain in so many ways that I'm going to call this one my absolute single favourite song on the album named after it. There's just so much intelligence here that while it may not make your body move as much as some of the others, trust me - your brain is your skull dancing and smiling the entire time. BOOM! 

"Mental War" continues to impress without Uwe Banton's companions on board and shines brightly in spots as well. Such a moment would certainly be the album's obligatory ganja song, 'The Roots Of It [Cannabis Song]', which has this charming 'sing-a-long' quality to it which might make you (like it did to me) laugh at some points and is just a nice song to make you feel good. The same thing can, and is going to be, said in reference to 'Love Sweet Love', which actually chases the title track here and turns things up very quickly. This one is just kind of an ode to LOVE in all of its various forms and how the world would be so much better if it received a love boost - like this song. 'Love Sweet Love' also has a remix which closes "Mental War" which is syrupy sweet just as good as the original. 'Thought I'd Let You Know' is the actual (in more traditional terms) 'love song' on the album and on it we find Uwe missing his special someone as he travels the globe performing his music. When I first heard this tune, my attention immediately went in the direction of that riddim which is a diamond. It's fantastic [!] and the song wrapped around it takes a minute, but it grows on you as well. Check a special pair of antiviolence tracks in 'Can't Forget' and 'Put It Down'. The former is somewhat complex as it relays an encounter Uwe had with a woman "standing on the roadside, begging for a dollar", whose family and life had been destroyed, yet so many people walked by her. I could go in so many different courses with this one about how this woman is a metaphor for so many different people and situations, but I'll leave that to you. What I will say, however, is that it's another of the highest ranking tracks here and I also see a nice route from it straight to the album's title. For its part, 'Put It Down' is a sweet acoustic piece which may actually require a lighter in-hand to listen to. It is that kind of slow building and subtlety JARRING type of piece and, when it hits its stride, it also becomes one of the album's most entertaining pieces alongside the message (I told you I could say that often here). 

"All of di gunman, mi beg unuh
Fi put it down!
All of di gunman, mi beg unuh
Fi put it down!

It don't serve no good purpose -
Taking your brother man's life
Making families live nervous
And no institution has the solution

And lastly check the sublime 'Ithiopian Ites', which is a piece I took as one just trying to inspire people to clean up themselves in every way. The obvious detriment in failing to do so is to be deprived the presence of His Majesty and while I wouldn't, at all, call this a HARSH or condemning type of piece, Uwe Banton makes it abundantly clear that you do not want that and neither does he on another fine selection from the album. 
Overall, I told you a long time ago (it actually wasn't very long ago, this was a very easy review to write) that this was going to be such a solid album and I think it may be even better than I thought before digging into for the sake of this review. If you listen to Uwe Banton's style, alone, I don't think that you'd come to this conclusion, at least not initially, but I found "Mental War" to be such a REFRESHING album. And it isn't like listening to an album from someone like a Toussaint or a Sara Lugo where so many different things are organically compiled to come up with a sound which is, almost inherently, invigourating and breathtaking when at its best (those two can't help it, almost, when they sing, that is just what occurs) - like I said, Uwe Banton is a ROOTS REGGAE ARTIST and this is a Roots Reggae album from beginning to end. But it becomes refreshing to, firstly, listen to someone so clearly knowing what they are doing, having a musical purpose and a command of how to meet that purpose and secondly, someone who doesn't go about doing those things by linking together… downright tattered Reggae clichés, which aren't to be found on this album at all. "Mental War" is an exceptional album from an artist in Uwe Banton who, for me, had displayed everything I needed to hear to know he was capable of such a thing and while I certainly have arrived late to his 'party' - watch how hard it is to get me to leave. Delightful and I knew it would be. 

Rated: 4.45/5
Rasta Yard Records/Al.Ta.Fa.An
CD + Digital 

Review #403

1 comment:

  1. This guy is a really capable artist, very good

    check out my demo mix: