Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Vault Reviews: "Assini" by Midnite

Shook. There is definitely something to be said for not only finding exactly what it is that you do well, but also placing a value in whatever that is and developing and exhibiting it as much as you possibly can. I think that when it comes to something as varied as music there is always an impulse to 'try something different' and this can happen with virtually anyone at any stage of their career. But, when someone latches on to something which can carry them to some level of success -- over and over again -- with only making minor and indirect changes occasionally, this is one of the greatest displays of skill and talent that you'll hear in music. Another remarkable part of that, when it is consistent, is how certain artists or producers will get other people to kind of adjust to them. A fine example of this in my opinion would definitely be someone like Perfect Giddimani. Perfect's inimitable style is so unpredictable that, essentially, everyone with whom he works (and all of his fans) kind of has to adjust to him. You simply do not know what he will do with a track and not only is it interesting to find out in what direction he does go but, as a whole, seeing how he applies volatility is damn remarkable and you end up with a whole heap of songs, good songs, that no one else in Reggae is capable of making in a poor way, not even approaching successfully. Perfect is also interesting because he has a kind of an inherent "try something different" approach sans instruction, but we can also look at someone like, of course, Vaughn Benjamin & Midnite. Though not as immediately colourful as someone like Perfect if you were to take a more gradual (nearly fifty albums worth of music), look at what they've done, it's also been an exciting experience. Midnite can be ultra-polarizing and though you may not see it often because their fans are… so damn passionate, there're many people who do not remotely get to the point of disliking their music and just do not see their full appeal at the level at which they're celebrated (I used to be one of these people). And though I now would disagree, it is a fair opinion. The extremely straightforward ways of Midnite does not appeal to everyone, yet despite this they have shown an unwillingness to change and have assembled one of the finest careers in all of modern Reggae music. And, as we've seen throughout our look back through their catalog, their way works very well.

And it works even weller (unfortunately not an actual word) in certain hands. As I have stated in the past, it has been I Grade Records who, consistently, seem to bring some of the best music out of Midnite and, conversely, some of the label's biggest releases (and they work, especially these days, with a wide variety of artists) have been supplied by Benjamin and Midnite throughout the years. They are highlights in one another's catalogues and both have been of the type of sound which has remained fairly similar throughout the years. For I Grade's part, they make this very opaque and old school-ish brand of Roots Reggae music and whether they're playing backdrops for Vaughn Benjamin or Dezarie or even Toussaint, that's what you're going to get and that has not been a problem for Midnite at all over the years. To date, the union has produced eight projects (with another, reportedly, on its way) and today we take a look at one which, though hasn't necessarily gone on to become one of their most popular pieces, a closer look reveals it was a very strong release. 
"Assini" ('the white album') (biggup Bredz) was the second Midnite/I Grade Records link following "Nemozian Rasta" and was probably the third album, ever, done by the label and the fifth or sixth by Midnite as well. It was in the nascent stages of both. Released way back in 2002 the album would go a way in helping to shape and then identify some type of lasting sound between artist and label and, again, though it was not the most popular of the union, the 'delay' here was beautiful. The album was a microcosm of this entire project of going back and now listening to old[er] Midnite albums with new ears, hopefully more capable of appreciating what they've done up to this point. I do not think it even possible to appreciate an album like this on the first listen though. "Assini" could be hard. It was difficult and required some definite work in order to see it reach an enjoyable state, but I and, of course, your stereotypical Midnite fan has no problem with that. It should very well be said, however, that the fact that it was tedious at times made it not much of a deviation from what Midnite or I Grade Records had been up to at that point. If you take the most superficial and casual listen through this album, and you've heard a bit of Midnite's music, you wouldn't at all think it out of place because it wasn't. It was just the sound of that one album and just the sound of that one album at the time (at least for me). HOWEVER, if you have listened to any bit of Midnite's work and found it to be enjoyable, that shouldn't be something with which you are unfamiliar and for which you are unprepared. "Assini" just required a bit more digging, but as I've recently found out, it was WELL worth it and the album, though it seems to have kind of blended into the lot of Midnite's work, is a STERLING representation of just how effective this music can be and has really been all along without changing course much at all. Let me tell you about it. 

Though "Assini" is an album which takes more work to really get into, it is full of moments which are able to generate considerable interest in the immediate sense. What happens, however, is that when you take it in full, it doesn't flow through instantly in the same way as other Midnite/I Grade Records collaborations (particularly "Rule The Time" and "Kings Bell"). I would actually liken it, in retrospect, to the "Jah Grid" release, also from I Grade, a few years on. Both took a little time, but were well worth it ultimately. First to show the true value of the "Assini" album was the 'Old Robe'. The album's opener is probably one of the most striking tunes on the whole of the album as well as (unsurprisingly) one of its more memorable. What I took from this tune was that it is about a broad level of progression. There is a far more specific (and downright brutal song later on in the album), but 'Old Robe' is also of that type and a joyous way to open things as well. Next was 'Worker Be', a song I remember actually disliking at some point and now I could not be further from that as it sits easily as one of the finest tunes I hear these days on "Assini". Despite it's kind of 'airy' beginnings, the song develops into something which just feeds the mind and makes the listener feel really good. Of course you balance that with a great message (it is a Vaughn Benjamin song) and you get a definitive highlight on this album and on any other one where it might appear. 'Balance' is a piece with a very familiar riddim behind it (the same composition deals with the title track from Dezarie's "Fya" album) and it makes a sweet usage of it also.

"Bad vibes flee before the face of balance
Against being lost must be profound
Scars weh no visit can be ever known

Thrown over yeah, thrown over - overthrown 
So let it done be foretold -
Genocidal efforts are coming in from the cold
And more of that a weh the ghetto people can afford"

The song speaks of things which have thrown ["overthrown"] the world out of stability throughout the time and it places into a package which could only come from the mind of Vaughn Benjamin. You almost certainly will not find it on the first spin through this song, but there is something damn sonically pleasing about this song, which comes off as labourious and lumbering, initially. Just give it some time and you'll hear it - and I love the way they allow the riddim to play on further after the song's final vocals. 

Along with a couple of the songs from the first portion of "Assini", the album contains several others which I'm almost embarrassed that I did not appreciate greatly initially. Something was missing, but whatever it is - I found it. I also found a pair of my absolute favourite songs from Midnite on this album as well. One of them is the track I alluded to in comparison to the opener, the extremely clever 'Good Remnants'. Okay! I had fun with this song. I think it is Benjamin speaking on things, such as traditions and especially people, who are 'left over' from the ways of old. He's saying that is something to aspire to become -- you want to be a good remnant ["get up before you destroy your knees"] -- and despite things which exist to throw you off that course, it is most important to remand on track. Even after many spins, I still wouldn't call 'Good Remnant' a song which is so musically impressive (though the riddim on it is very nice), but the knowledge, subtly, is so exceptionally strong that it is almost impossible to ignore. The other song here which impresses on a similar level and is my choice as the album's biggest moment is the SHATTERING 'Ises'.

"Ises in the morning - Jah Live
Ises in the morning - Jah Live
Jah Jah protect who He give
I-vine of a Afrikan King

Central, rich, climatic
Uganda, dem be so considering
John Henry inna dem railroading
Beast spot among you, living
But not Jah inna no storytelling
Jah Jah in the morning 
Jah Jah in the morning 

Ises in the morning - Jah Live
Ises in the morning - Jah Live
Jah Jah protect who He give
I-vine of a Afrikan King
Jah Jah still protect who He give
Jah Jah still protect who He give

I see that tree, tree be felling
Pressure of surviving
I-vine of a majesty King
I-vine of a MAJESTY KING!"

TEARS! I don't know how I missed it… I don't know what happened. But I heard this song and I heard a piece which would probably rank somewhere in the top ten or so best Midnite songs that I've ever heard. It is an amazing and moving praising tune in an unmistakable Vaughn Benjamin style.

The song 'Ises' actually begins the middle portion of "Assini" which also offers up some similarly 'evolving' pieces. One of those songs which really stood out for me was the very clever 'Womb'. I saw the title of this song and immediately assumed that it was a tribute to the wonderful women of the world and though I was correct, it takes a captivating route to arrive at that point (or to return to it). At times it comes off as being very broad, but I don't think it is a 'wide view' of a song. Instead, I think what Benjamin is displaying is this kind of 'moving' idea of the womb and saying that it does not just have to be this physical place where you only exist at one point. It can be the "womb" for good ideas and for respect and many other things as well, but they well do originate at that one point. A fantastic song! Check the scintillating 'Blaze Up' which may just feature the single best riddim on the whole of the album, as well as 'Highly', which may not be very far behind. The latter is another song which I formerly thought a very difficult listen, but time has changed that. 'Highly', as you're thinking right now, is another strong praising piece from this album and one which well sticks out from the pack. Also check both 'Humble Wah?' and 'Reminder'. While I wouldn't call either highlights for me here, I'm still working on both of them (I actually rate 'Humble Wah' higher now, but I expect 'Reminder' to continue to grow because there is something special about that song and I AM GOING TO FIND OUT WHAT IT IS). 

Similarly, 'Good Remnant' leads a stretch of songs which go to round out and conclude "Assini" which also contain a nice share of big tunes as well. The best of them, to my opinion, is probably the first, 'Dry Bones Live'

"Give dem nuff rope and plenty distance
Leave out of all 'perhaps' and 'for instance'
Give dem nuff rope and plenty distance
Leave out of all 'perhaps' and 'for instance'"

The second half of this song is POWERFUL! It increases in intensity throughout and makes for one mighty musical display. And while Vaughn Benjamin will never be confused with the most melodically gifted of chanters, what he does here with melodies is as impressive as I've heard from him in that area. 'Safe' is a song I worked with, happily, for quite awhile before 'finding' it. This one is interesting because it does have qualities which lend themselves to be taken in immediately, but you have to dive a bit deeper for comprehension in its case. 'Piranha [Come To Feed]' is actually a similar situation (and, if you are a fan of Midnite's, it isn't a case that you perpetually run into where the riddim on a song can kind of take you away because you're used to listening to Vaughn Benjamin's music, specifically, for what he says and then how he says it). Despite the title of this song, it is a BEAUTIFUL one and one which speaks on the negative influences of society running away far beyond where they are 'kept'. there is so much going on here in terms of the sound of the song that it comes and goes fairly quickly, but it is a piece which requires significant attention and you won't mind giving it to it. 'Sing Ye' is one of the best songs on "Assini" and it is sort of buried here, obviously, because I did not at all remember a song sounding like this on this album. 

"Old time of age and forever
Front and back page of newspaper
Something wicked and something spectacular
Black youthman dem love and still have hate -
For what?"

There is a WONDERFUL… grumbling feature dancing about this composition on this tune that really takes over the listener, but if you tune in to the words, it grows even stronger. Again, I didn't remember a song like this here, but now it sits amongst the album's best. And finally check 'Mouths of Ancients', which reminds me of 'Reminder' - I know there is something about that song which I am going to love if I keep working on it (and you know that I will); and the album's closer 'No Fear No Sorrow' with its very unique riddim, which does not have any room for growth at all in my ears. It is nearly as big as its gets on "Assini". It is very straight-forward and you won't have to work on it all. Just enjoy! 
Overall, while I will not try (at least not directly) to place "Assini" into a context of where I would rank it alongside its siblings of Midnite/I Grade albums, what I will say is that it is FULLY of that class. Several of those albums have done and continue to do very well in being regarded and known and though you'd have to place this album on the lower scale of that pack (and you could probably make a case that it would rank eighth out of eight) do not let that take you away from it or keep you from going back to it. Like I said, this album was one which required a bit more from the listener and making that distinction on a Midnite album is saying something (because all of their albums do that), but as it is turning out to be the case almost always, it was worth it. "Assini" was yet another powerful step from I Grade Records and Midnite and one which, looking back, once again put on fine display a formula and a FORM which hasn't changed much over the years - because, sounding like this, it hasn't had a reason to. 

Rated: 4.15/5
I Grade Records 
CD + Digital

Review #472

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