First beginnings. Debut albums can be very strange things, in general, and this is particularly true in Reggae music where even some of the genre's biggest of names can come from some of the humblest and obscurest of beginnings, musically. Of course this can make tracking things down very difficult, even now, but often doing so for some of your favourites is well worth the journey back and, even more often, where you think you're headed isn't really where you're going. When you take a broad look back at the debuts of some of the biggest stars of today, you'll find so many interesting points and releases and one in particular which always catches my attention is definitely that of Tarrus Riley. In his case it was almost as if he had two debut albums. There was the one from 2006, "Parables", which really began his rise to superstardom and contained tunes such as 'She's Royal', which are now regarded as classics, but really it was nearly a decade ago now, in 2004, when his actual first album, "Challenges", reached. Riley would ultimately go on to link with VP Records which would save the album from obscurity by re-releasing it a few years as they have in the past with people such as Richie Spice, but it's always fascinating to think what may have become of that album had they not. Similar starts are in the careers of names such as Jah Mason, whose debut "Keep Your Joy", has largely vanished; Pressure Busspipe with one of the best debut albums I've ever heard, "The Pressure Is On"; Natural Black with "World War" and really countless others. Natural Black is a very good connection to make here as someone who did not take the route which would lead to starts long forgotten and, instead, have taken roads DIRECTLY coming from them, however, is another very respected act from out of Guyana, First Born. While they never reached the level of prominence that Natural Black has/did, they definitely began as one of the biggest names representing Reggae music in their country and, closer to their early stages, the five member group definitely generated a great deal of interest to their music. The most fascinating detail is in their music because the version of the group which exists today, fourteen years since their very first project arrived and more than fifteen years into their career, is still building on the work from 1999 with the same group of people who first brought them to notoriety.
I've been listening to a whole heap of First Born's music lately which sent me back in the mindset of writing for them and I was damn happy to see a few new tunes from the group as well. These days First Born is two members shy of the quintet they used to be and they definitely had not been extremely active at all in recent years, but it appears that 2013 is a new beginning for them and hopefully some time in the future we can continue to see them rebuild. And should that happen (and it should), it will likely be largely under the watchful eyes of Vizion Sounds Records and the one Walter Fraser, who has been along their side for virtually the entire lifespan of First Born. They have released four (and a half) albums for the group my (surely incorrect) count, including pieces such as "Confident", "Wake Up Call" and "Irits", probably their most well known release to date. It's very unusual to have an act so closely associated with one producer for such a long and distinct period of time, which stretches all the way back to the near nascent stages of both.
Such was the case way back in 1999 when Vizion Sounds Records formally introduced the world to what would become one of Guyana's most powerful contributions to Reggae music ever, First Born, by releasing the group's debut album, "Exodus Chapter 13; Verse 2". The album was recorded, predominately, to my knowledge, in Jamaica and it features the musical imprints of people like Robbie Shakespeare, Andrew 'Bassie' Campbell, Flabba Holt, Dusty Miller, Nambo Robinson and even the great Dean Fraser. Also, as I alluded to (by referring to it as "and a half"), I believe the album was subsequently picked up and re-released by the once mighty JetStar Records in a newer version back in 2003. As for their style, First Born was always an act which did really positive and upful cultural/social music and they really had a very unique musical presentation. First of all, I believe they originated as a strictly vocal group. They were all singers, which is unusual and even more so for them to sing Roots Reggae. To my opinion such a situation helped a great deal with their ability to generate very compelling and exciting music. They didn't need much help in the way of riddim (even though they were generally treated very well on that end, even away from Vizion Sounds) to create things such as melody and force (more on that in a second). Furthermore, they demonstrated this very infectious 'rough around the edges' type of sound. Though clearly skilled and well capable of carrying out their obvious musical intentions, what First Born had was this very raw and unrefined type of talent which seemed more inborn, organic and then developed as opposed to having been learned at the foundational level. I think that gives their music even more originality and I caught myself thinking of who I might compare their full sound to… and I really couldn't come up with anyone who would provide such a strong point. They're one of a kind which makes it even more imperative that they continue to put out strong material for the present and future. As for their past, it was extremely solid, adorned with fine albums such as this. Let's take a closer look.
Though I've never broken this album down to the small details, as I am now, for one large and glaring reason, track #11, it has remained on my players, at least in one way, from the first time I ever heard it. However, even before we begin, I will tell you that this album, still, ranks as one of the group's finest efforts to date. First Born's debut album , "Exodus 13; Chapter 2" (which will now be referred to as "Exodus") does begin with a signature moment and big, big tune, 'Repatriation'. The track was an early hit for the group and you would think it was the case as it just happens to link them with the legendary Dennis Brown. The ideology behind the piece is as clear as its name, but what was very nice with this one, apart from that, were the vibes of the song. The composition comes through with this lush Afrikan chant and though you might not think that adding yet another singer to the mix might help the sound, the 'sixth' member of First Born falls right in line like star that he was on this fantastic opener (and it also pays homage to another pillar of the music in Bob Marley). Next we have another album highlight in the form of the downright joyous praising piece, 'Kadamawe'. These two songs, at the head of the album, are really linked together so nicely as they both have a similarly upful sound and, together, it almost seems like one giant song as opposed to two separate pieces. Then we have 'I Give Thanks For Life', which kind of tones things down just a bit, but is well on the level of it is predecessors' quality.
"I give thanks for life
For wonderful increasing life
I give thanks for life
For wonderful increasing life
I give thanks for life
For wonderful increasing life
I give thanks for the overstanding that life is continuous
That life is vitalizing
That life has no cessation
King Selassie I awaits forever, I have no fear
The prophecy will be fulfilled:
That Rasta will reign -
As I like to point out, this is another piece on which the presentation of the tune matches what is said. This isn't a song about a supreme confidence. There is work still to be done, so you get a small variation on the sounds in the tune which make for a very memorable moment. And I will also mention here, the medley-esque 'Freedom', which is not to be missed. Speaking of variations - this song definitely conjures up a few different memories and First Born, brilliantly, brings them together on this one track (with this hypnotic drum backing) which is easily one of the best on this (or any of their) album.
As I said, "Exodus" does contain an absolute giant of a song -- one of the best that I've ever heard -- on the eleventh song on the album, the MAMMOTH [!] 'Prince of Peace'. TEARS! Many a dark and self-destructive moments this song has helped me through and if I'm the only one for whom it did, so be it. The song is one feverishly celebrating His Imperial Majesty and, yes, I've heard hundreds of similarly constructed ones in the past, but also as I said, the melodies on this one in particular stand out so high in your mind that the song makes you cry, it makes you smile and takes you through a wide variety of emotions. It remains the finest piece of work that First Born has ever done in my opinion and if they never did another song at all, they'd still have a heavy place from me because this song was so beautiful. Not at all surprising is the fact that I've also paid a very large amount attention to the songs around 'Prince of Peace' through the years as well. Before it is another of the top rankers on "Exodus", 'Selassie I Lives' ["They say Selassie I is dead. They must be sick inna dem head"]. This tune has more of a chanting delivery to it and it is ROUGH. It links a raw verse with high-definition surroundings and backing singers on one SWEET praising piece. Meanwhile, on the other end is 'Don't Find Me Wrong' which finds another and seemingly very young member of First Born taking the lead. This one took awhile to grow on me and if you hear it, you'll know why (it literally sounds like a child singing), but if you tune into what is being said, the song kind of changes from this piece that is ostensibly interesting for a surface motive, to one which contains a great amount of substance as well.
Most thankfully, however, "Exodus" wasn't only an album with a strong start and a big for one huge song to lay in, it was rather solid throughout and still carries song which are well worth hearing fourteen years on. Of a particular interest is a selection by the name of 'How Are We Gonna Survive', which actually comes through on the album over two different tracks. It is very interesting because the second version is one which is more dynamic, musically (the riddim on that song is just a diamond of instrumentation), while the vocal display on the original is very likely the best that this album has to offer altogether. They are social commentaries from a spiritual source which add so much fuel to an already blazing project. Another source of fire comes from an earlier stretch of four songs which is book-ended by two of the biggest songs on the album. The first of them, 'Put A Shield Around I' is definitely one of those biggest moments.
"Put a shield around I
Protect I soul from the workers of iniquity
Keep I strong down here in babylon city"
It is followed by two songs which well had to 'earn' my affections, but have done just that, 'Back To The Land' and 'Innocent Child'. The latter of these two is the stronger of the pair. There is just something really magnetic about that song, but it is subtle so in its case and really in the case of both of these two, be careful not to pass a final judgment after just one listen or two. And then there is 'Deliver Me Jah'. If you wanted to call this one the second best song on the whole of "Exodus", you couldn't get much of an argument from me. It's excellent and what stands out are the vibes of the song. The musical presentation here, guided by an excellent, is one fantastic and when you break through to the lyrics, it only gets even stronger.
Rounding out the album is another nice quartet of songs which also offer up some big moments of their own. The clear leader of these (literally and figuratively) is 'Life Is Forever'.
"I wonder if the people know
That life is forever
And we are all one family
So we should come together
If you have faith inna The Almighty
Love the birds inna di are and all the fish inna di sea
Love your friend dem
Mi tell yuh love yuh enemy
Love the murderer, the thief, the police and the junky
No matter if you Black, White or Indian
No matter what your race or your complexion
We all come from The Motherland
Afrika where we come from"
Probably one of the best written songs I've ever heard from First Born, 'Life Is Forever' makes its point as a unity song saying that if we treat one another better and observe all the many things that we have in common, the world shall go on and in a wonderful way. Again, also take note of how nice the sound is on this on as well. Speaking of unity, also check 'Unite' which is a similarly cleverly composed piece which kind of build upon the them of 'Life Is Forever’. On this song First Born says that the lack of unity is directly to be blamed for many of the ills of society including "war and crime". 'Stop Da Badness', which I do really enjoy continues that line of thinking and although I wouldn't say it is strong of a tune as either 'Life Is Forever' or 'Unite' it does hold its place later on "Exodus". And lastly is another track which isn't a big favourite of mine here, 'Life In The Ghetto'. This one is extremely straight-forward and somewhat lumbering, but what it does have going for it is lyrics which is why you should hear it, ultimately.
Overall, as I said, "Exodus Chapter 13; Verse 2" is one of First Born's better albums. While I would rank "Irits" ahead of it, I think that its qualities at least places it in the discussion of being as good as their other records. And, getting back to the premise of the review. How amazing is it that ALL of those albums come from a single source and though you may think of the group, themselves, as somewhat remote and obscure, I don't in this case and given Vizion Sounds Records consistent level of activity, it's made albums like this one relatively easy to track down still. Because of 'Prince of Peace', I'll never stop listening to it, but even if you check it for a single song or a just a few, I think that, particularly as a debut album, "Exodus Chapter 1; Verse 2", much like First Born, still can find a healthy place in the collection of just about any passionate Reggae fan.
Vizion Sounds Records
CD + Digital