Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Vault Reviews: "Standing Ground" by Midnite

Building. To date, by design, it has very much been my attention to focus back on albums from Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite which either weren't necessarily the most popular of their catalog or, as was the case of "Ark A Law", were just not well known, in general. While I certainly do not feel that the 'Reggae media' has been very kind to the group, you're still very likely to find much written and much discussed about particular albums that they've done, while others, despite being relatively well known in some cases (such as "Bless Go Roun") just never really seemed to draw that type of semi-formal interest from anyone outside of the most hardcore of Midnite heads (and people like me who… will listen to everything). Today, however, we blend things a bit and take a look at an album which, although rather surprisingly, didn't elicit a great deal of media coverage, was and remains extremely popular to Midnite fans of all stages and has, musically, aged very well, "Standing Ground". Back in 2006, Vaughn Benjamin began a working relationship with one John Juaquin Wilson of a label by the name of Fifth Son Records. The first fruit of that union would be the "Suns Of Atom" album from that year. I'll have to get to that set one day as well because it perfectly fits into what we've been doing as of late. It was a popular album amongst Midnite fans, but didn't have much of a further reach. It was also a damn good album and well worth checking out if you haven't. Where "Suns Of Atom" would definitely do a great deal in showing that Midnite/FSR could make nice music together, "Standing Ground", which would reach just a couple of years on, would show that they could be special together. The most noteworthy aspect of this release was that it was the BIGGEST album that Midnite had ever done. I do not mean that it was the best, you can draw your own conclusions on that, but this was literally the biggest album with the name "MIDNITE" on it that has ever existed. Checking in at twenty-four tracks, spread across two discs, "Standing Ground" was more than an hour and half worth of Midnite music on one project and if you know Midnite fans (and, again, you do), the reaction was exactly what you would've expected and, half a decade later, as far as albums from that same timeframe and MOST of the ones which have since followed, it easily ranks as a kind of pillar and one of the most well regarded of their projects of all time.
"Standing Ground Dub" [2011]
For me, besides just being a big album, "Standing Ground" 'stands' best as a testament to PASSION. You'll never hear me question the passion of Vaughn Benjamin who, seemingly, donates every single piece of free time he has to writing these wonderful songs, but this album was just as much about the enthusiasm of Wilson and company. Along with being a joint release with Fifth Son and Lion Tribe (which, I think, is Wilson's band and "Suns Of Atom" came from the same origins), "Standing Ground" was also just the beginning in some aspects. In 2011 FSR would release a dubbed out version of the album which would also be fairly popular. And they continued just last year with oft-discussed "In Awe" album ("oft-discussed" by us and only us) and, apparently already loaded is that album's followup, "Be Strong", which we'll likely get in May (biggup Bredz) (biggup Ras Elijah Tafari) (consistently genius artwork). So, this album, although not the start of it all, very much showed that Fifth Son Records had big plans - plans which have played out incredibly well and you could very well look back at this album as the beginning of a next level of detail (although respect does go to "Suns Of Atom" and, as I said, I'll probably tell you about it someday).  
"Be Strong" [Coming Soon]
"Standing Ground" has been an album which has just interested me in so many ways. Of course there is its size, but the most fascinating aspect of it is merely a 'side-effect' of how wonderfully large it is. Generally speaking, Vaughn Benjamin's music can require quite a bit of work on the part of the listener. He is one of an unfortunately tiny group of artists who almost always, in my opinion, challenge their audience to bring something to the proverbial table in terms of what they are aware of and if you aren't educated on certain other things, he will fill you in, but you're definitely going to have an INVOLVED time in listening to his music. For someone like me, that's GREAT and "Standing Ground" has been a very nice challenge and a fun journey to comprehension over the past five years. I've also gone up and down and back and forth in my appreciation of its quality, but I am damn happy to say that these days I probably hold it in as high esteem as I ever have and for good reason. "Standing Ground" is an album which, despite its length (which can be a bit much in some cases, but isn't here) not only manages to hold interest throughout, but is also a compelling set from beginning to long-ranging end. Let's discuss!

Disc 1

As a whole, I would say that the first twelve selections of Midnite's "Standing Ground" represent the better half. The second half is definitely not far behind and does have its moments (on in particular), but the first is just slightly better in my opinion. The biggest example of this, DEFINITELY, is its opener and the record's title song which is absolutely magical!

"True courage in di standing ground
Is how you live it in di standing ground 
Fox wid canary feather pon dem mouth
Something fi consider and sit out
Should have not go in dah
What could I have seen in dah?
Many ones have been dah
Run, go assume and get dem feelings bun to cinda

When a decision need true, true -
True courage in di planting round
True courage in di standard of di Crown
Fi push your principle to reach stand down
And push your principle out of bounds
And push your reason out of bounds
Keep cool, keep cool yah
Meditate and counsel in di 'how to calm down'
From it reach drastic and dun moving around
What can diplomatic when things fall out?

The tune thrives on every surface. The message is amazing and presented in such a beautiful fashion, but that riddim is also so HEAVY and GORGEOUS [!] that you have to pay attention to it and I like how it progresses to the point of even disappearing at one point for a prolonged period of time and then reemerges to wrap up what is my second favourite song on the album named after it. BOOM! 'Splendence' is a… splendidly clever social commentary until it nears its latter portions where Benjamin begins to kind of abandon the idea of making the song in the standard way and, as he does, just begins to TALK on the track and, of course, what he is saying is wholly crucial and not to be overlooked. 'Adon-I' is one which has well giving me a great test over the years (and it also reminds me of my favourite song on this album) because although it is the single shortest song on the first disc (and the second shortest in full) and it is HURRIED in delivery as well, Benjamin makes a lot of points in its brevity. Where I am today with it is in seeing it as a praising tune which seems the obvious choice, but you listen to this song and its many directions and it is not as clear, at least not to me (and, for the millionth time - I'm no genius), as it might otherwise seem to be. It is a signature from this album as well and one of its biggest and most thrilling moments. Speaking of thrilling, although on a much slower scale, check the next song on "Standing Ground", 'Inspiration', another clear highlight for me. Here is another song where the prevailing statement, is not as obvious as it seems to be. Here, despite the tune's title - is a social commentary. What he says is that there is a significant lack of PERCEIVED inspiration in the world, especially for the youth, but His Majesty has placed inspiration everywhere ["How could the inspiration not be live? THE VIBES TRAVEL INTO ANY HOUSE WHICH ACCEPT THE VIBES"]. Because of its sound, 'King of Kings' does well call for some intense level of attention-paying and it is well worth it, ultimately and wrapping up the first half of disc one (yes, that's how we're doing this one today) is a similarly interesting, and entirely productive, effort - 'Mass Appeal'.

"I would not like to appeal to the masses of mass ignorance
Unless it's to learn, like I humble myself before Jah to learn
I would not like to appeal to the sentence of mass ignorance, yeah -
That keep happening to reoccurrence in our life situation
I would not like to appeal to the hearts that are the robbers of emotion
The vacuum cleaners of spiritual dissonance
I would not like to appeal - 

I would like to appeal, to the children who are in coherence
Or who wish to be - in one accord with His Imperial
With His Imperial

I would not like to appeal, to the elitist pragmatist -
Who are sitting in control of the vandals- believe it or not, 
I would not like to appeal, to those who are sending dem pon di gun rampant
Yeah, with the full authority of the state and everyone in full concurrence
I would not like to appeal, to displacement of spiritual principle 
Whereas di people caan find demself and dem immobile 
Even though they're moving all around in di earth, as commuters


To my opinion, this song is a big slap back at critics who refer to Benjamin's music as 'cryptic' and 'puzzling' and not being appreciable by a great deal of fans (and I have been one of those in the past and may be again in the future, so I take part of that slap also). Here, he seems to, in a predictably brilliant style, outline who, exactly, he makes music for and who he does not. The single most powerful portion here is when he says, "I would not like to appeal to the masses of mass ignorance, unless it's to learn, like I humble myself before Jah to learn", which may reach very far, but at its center is a correct statement in my opinion: Humbling yourself is a significant step to take in being able to fully enjoy this man's music.

While less impressive than the first, the second half of the first disc also offers up some really memorable moments. One of which is 'Whirl-A-Fya' (biggup Ahfyah), a tune on which Vaughn Benjamin and Fifth Son Records turn things over to three others, Bluff, Heads and, of course, Jah Rubal (who was also on "Suns Of Atom"), who join Benjamin on the stirring track. There's also 'Herd' which is probably my least favourite composition here, but is a sign of this album's quality, because it is still very good. And there is 'Make Up Dub' which, puzzlingly (OOPS!), is a dub of a song on the second disc! All three of those tracks are strong, but pale in comparison the SCATHING trio which conclude the first disc of "Standing Ground". The best of those three, to my opinion, is the second - the MASSIVE 'Playbak'. Although not on THAT level, the song, because of its almost curious straightforwardness is somewhat reminiscent of the infamous 'The Gad', with its streaming lyrics and somewhere just outside of the song's second half, Benjamin hit's a level of full-on linguistic perfection on the relatively short track. 'Chant Out' is also extremely impressive as is the disc's closer, 'In Front'. Both are selections here which exemplify what I mean when I say the journey to comprehension of "Standing Ground" has been such an enjoyable one - as they both necessitate multiple and multiple spins to really grasp and will continue to as well.

Disc 2

As a full album, the first disc of this album would have done very well, in my opinion. There wouldn't have been very much to complain about, but when you take that and then combine it with the finest material from the second batch (biggup Ras Batch) of songs, then you have something truly special at that point. One of the standouts in the next group also gets us started, the very organic 'Spruce'. I've taken a lot from this song through the years and today where I am with it is at the point of seeing it as a form of a WELCOME! What Vaughn Benjamin is saying is to WELCOME His Majesty into your life. "Adore" HIM and see the splendours that HE then can bring to you. Part of the track is hearing water running and, obviously, it was intended to make it sound more natural, which is a very fitting 'bed' in which to lay such a song. 'Medi' is an extension to the tune preceding it here to my mind. It features the chanter, in a VERY relaxed manner just going through what stays heavy in his mind. You could take this one further (and you know I do) and use as, perhaps, the script of how he manages to write songs like he does and if that is the case, then more of us need to follow his example. And then there is the DAZZLING 'Hunger & Thirst'.

"The sound train that cut off the Oxytocin to their brain
The ostrich inna the symptoms - sand head inna di plain
It was the deep ocean laser satellite beam the same
For some kind of constant bragging, contact they need to -
Draw near to the feet of the mystery, destitute, delicious and defeat
These are usually in contact with two side - here and there
Here and over there!" 

This is another very HEAVY piece which demands that you pay a keen attention to detail to take from it what was intended. I also really enjoy the full sound of this tune as well and I wasn't the only one as the riddim is left to play well after the vocals have finished. The praising 'Feel Like Praise' and the afore-dubbed 'Make Up' appear here as well and are fine efforts (the latter is a great, great song), but I have to focus on a song on the first half of the second disc of "Standing Ground" which is my single favourite song on the entire album (and probably only mine, but who cares), the downright haunting 'Ever Was So'. TEARS! This song on spin #50 or so just started to open up and develop to my ears and what I heard underneath was about as mighty of a tune giving praise that I've heard in recent times. Benjamin speaks to the consistency and the longevity of His Imperial Majesty and it is a humbling experience of a song. And, if I didn't stress it enough, you should check 'Make Up' - it's excellent. 

The final quarter of "Standing Ground" features a few twists and turns in its six tracks, which do a great deal of things. First is 'No Evil' which completely features a female artist by the name of Omo Lioness. I THINK I've heard one other tune of hers and I do not really know what happened to her from this tune (at least I don't think I do). It isn't my favourite song here and it is very straight forward, but she did have some skill which was worth seeing through. Jah Rubal obviously couldn't get enough (and I don't think he ever will, although I do think it has been awhile since last we've heard from Rubal) and he returns to this 'ground', with his own tune, 'Survival', which is slightly better, as a whole, than 'Whirl-A-Fya'. Rubal is someone who is somewhere between Ancient King and Vaughn Benjamin in terms of his style and he is very interesting to watch in his almost frenzied approach - here was no exception (great riddim on 'Survival'). Disc two also returns the favour to the first and gives us the 'Adonis Dub' - the dub of a song on the first group, 'Adon-I'. This is excellent and, as the previously alluded to "Standing Ground Dub" album didn't include a mix for every tune on the album (and it didn't include either of the two actually on this album) I do think that a sequel would be a fine touch some day, even if it were to be strictly digital, because this is fine work. There is an 'acappella' version of the title track which completes the album. There is music present on the track, however (it's more of a streamlined version than an actual acappella), and it is GOLDEN! 

The somewhat jovial evolving history lesson that is 'Rebuild' also comes through here as a winner and the same is well to be said for another of my personal favourites from this album, the unforgettable 'King Ting'

"The earth is the Lord, it's the King ting
The melody of sound, it is the a sing ting
Dem ah destroy all di feelings over bling ting
Dem ah mash up all di friendship inna inkling 
Have a basket hang up too high over a bling ting
When it's di King ting, so when ting sing -
Man seh honour Rastafari when ting sing
Man seh Haile-ness unto Selassie when ting sing
Enter the courts with praise 
The gates with thanksgiving
When ting sing - tune rinsing"

Overall (what an easy review to write!), "Standing Ground", obviously, was an project which had an inherent trait which made it most interesting. There're dub albums and a live set and others which have similar distinctions, but it was also EXCEPTIONAL. Typically with double albums what I'll say is that if you were to narrow it down to x-amount of songs, you'd have a better release and while you could make a similar case here, I don't think that I really would. I think that in its completed form, "Standing Ground" was as good as it possibly could have been. And, like I did in the case of "Ark A Law", it doesn't get the normal conditional recommendation for me. I didn't go into it to a great detail, but the music, throughout, is very accessible for a Midnite album and although it is huge, I'd suggest it for fans of all levels of experience with the music. For the more seasoned of listeners, however, "Standing Ground" is an investment of an album which should, literally, give you years of enjoyment. I'm still working on it and will be for the foreseeable future and I am not complaining at all as it is easily one of the finest albums in one of the most storied of catalogs in Reggae music history. Fantastic!

Rated: 4.90/5
Fifth Son Records
2CD + Digital 

Review #422

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