Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'Accelerant': A review of "Mystical Journey" by Norris Man

2nd steps. As someone who loves to make comparisons, I find myself experiencing a full dearth of them in attempting to draw similarities between the recent case of veteran chanter, Norris Man, and pretty much anyone else in Reggae music. Surely we've seen artists at advanced stages of their careers come into a greater level of popularity, but this is almost always done on the strength of a big tune or tunes which have translated into hits and an increased level of attention being paid to their music, in general. Norris Man hasn't really done that and what has happened in his particular case hasn't been like that either. Most remarkable is that I don't think that his popularity, at least amongst fans, has increased greatly over the past couple of years, but apparently this man's music has suddenly captured the attention of producers who have, amazingly, ran to his work as fast as they possibly can. The results have now translated into a downright staggering FIVE studio albums in… about twenty months. That's fine for someone like Midnite (actually, in their case, it's probably a little slow), but for someone who prior to that only had EIGHT albums altogether in the previous nine years (and not a single one from since 2008), it is a very sudden and abrupt occurrence and a very significant one in his career. And, again, this is the case without a very large push in any other direction in his career. The man has just become one of the most prolific album artists in all of Reggae music and I have no idea as to why that is. Previously, Norris Man, although well respected for the most part, certainly hasn't been amongst the most popular veterans in modern Roots Reggae music. He will likely never reach stages occupied by the likes of his peers in Sizzla Kalonji, Capleton and Luciano - nor will he experience the same spotlight shone in the directions of Tarrus Riley, Etana and others from a generation or two after his (and I don't think he cares). But he has made his own way and, with it, has experienced the ups and downs of what has been a profound career and one likely to be much more appreciated at its conclusion. He's also been somewhat streaky in terms of quality, a trait which hasn't dissipated in his albums (some have been good, some have been something other than good), so you can't really point to one sudden aspect which has produced this rapid shift and it does appear that for Norris Man, his proverbial 'stars have aligned'. 

And they have lined up in a very unique form. If you told me that Norris Man had five albums in a couple of years for labels such as Kings of Kings, his own Home & Away and Star Trail and a few others, it would certainly seem more plausible for him maintaining such an active release schedule, but at the heart of what has been so strange about all of his recent album releases has been their sources. His showing from earlier this year, the very strong "Much More To Life" has been the most 'terrestrial' over the span as it was recorded for our old friend Sherkhan and his Tiger Records imprint, Prior to that, however, the three from 2012 had just an unusual history. Two of those, "Ghetto Life" and "Modern Roots" would come from two different Swedish labels and apparently Norris Man enjoyed what he found there as he follows a similar path to wrap up 2013. 
While "Ghetto Life" came via one Partillo Productions, "Modern Roots" was delivered via Nordic Steel a label who, at least not on paper, didn't seem capable of pulling the best out of someone like Norris Man. Despite the fact that he tends to stay out of the limelight, Norris Man can be quite polarizing for his style. I am someone who well recognizes the strength in a great deal of his work and know that he need not even be at his best, only in a good form to push quality music. Albums such as "Persistence", "Home & Away" and "Captura" are examples of this and that usually occurs with a very straightforward Roots presentation which was not to be found on "Modern Roots" (in spite of its title) because that is not what Nordic Steel typically does. Instead, it was the highly varied set you thought that it might be and, ultimately, a set which was slightly above average. However, with that being said, there was one MIGHTY exception to this. That album did contain a few good songs but, in retrospect, there was one great one which was probably one of the strongest of Norris Man's entire career and one of the best of last year from anyone as well, the MONSTROUS 'King of Your Soul'. That tune had legs and it remains a favourite of mine to this day and is still regularly found on my players as well. If that album did nothing else and is not to be remembered for any other reason, it definitely will stick out for that one special song. And it seems as if that was a fact not lost on anyone and especially not on the people at Nordic Steel who now reunite with Norris Man for their second album in as many years, the very promising "Mystical Journey". If I recall correctly (and I almost never do), the story behind the "Modern Roots" album was very much one rooted in happenstance as Norris Man had gone to Sweden to do work with a next artist but the chemistry was so high that it would lead to what ultimately became the full album. Now, we see that it had to be even greater than that as here we are again and judging by the vibes of "Mystical Journey" it seems as if everyone had notice exactly what happened on the first album. Let me tell you about it. 
"Modern Roots" [2012]
Also involved with this release are the increasingly active and valuable people at Fox Fuse. Previously (at least to my knowledge) Fox Fuse served as, basically, a publicist firm (and they've worked with so many different people in that role), but recently they've also turned into a label working on projects from the likes of Yasus Afari, world's angriest man Stein, the great Precision Productions, Farmer Nappy and now Norris Man and I love to give credit to people who promote Reggae music (and Soca) in a major way and you can well add them to the list of those who do it fantastically on a consistent basis. This is crucial because FF have given their promotional weight to a project which is not some random release from Norris Man. Unlike its predecessor, "Mystical Journey" is an album almost entirely within the realm of modern Roots Reggae music. In seventeen tracks lasting more than an hour Nordic Steel tones down their style considerably and focuses on the subgenre in full and they and Norris Man string together what has to be regarded as one of the better pieces of work from either. A sublime sample of what is to come throughout the album is served up on the album's gorgeous opener, 'In the Valley'. This track is one which deals with the harder times and struggles faced in life and I kind of look at it as somewhat of a personal piece from Norris Man. What happens here most notably is this kind of LOUD affect in the tune which definitely displays a whole heap of passion which is fully transferable to the listener in a major way. On that same high level is the album's second offering, the subtly infectious 'Give Praise'. The riddim behind this one is pounding and the chanter makes an excellent usage of it to the tune of a downright dominant lyrical presentation which sagaciously makes connections between the tangible and the spiritual which I always enjoy so much. The opening of this "Mystical Journey" we're on pinnacles, just as the rest of the voyage, with the album's single biggest moment, the MASSIVE 'Bully'

"Bully dem ah bully, ah bully di wrong man
And get a slingshot stone bust up dem head
Bully dem ah bully, ah bully di wrong man
You no si di Conquering Lion, bust off dem head
Bully dem ah bully, ah bully di wrong man
And get a slingshot stone bust up dem head
Bully dem ah bully, ah bully di wrong man
And now The Conquering Lion bust off dem head

Well-wishers of I - I bring dem to shame
And now tears dem start cry
Dem confused in di mind - 
Because dem fight against mi King now the time for dem to die
No need for no attitude -
Lose yuh lose when you diss King Selassie I
No need for no favour -

The tune carries one scintillating amount of BITE and edge which really intensifies the vibes and make for one unforgettable moment telling all those who stand against The Almighty exactly what awaits them. And speaking of scintillation (surprisingly that is an actual word) and bite, check the tune which follows the albums best, the also damn contagious 'Holding My Own'

For sure, I know, I'm holding my own so they won't get me down 
For sure, I know, how they won't get me down
No, they won't get me down"

This piece has a very free vibes to it and, as he showed us (and then told us) about on the "Much More To Life", Norris Man's music can be rather spontaneous and I wouldn't at all be shocked if this tune was at least born under such circumstances before blossoming into a delightful piece (with a riddim behind it which is absolutely GOLDEN) which surges and surges throughout. 

Along with containing a bit of a kick, "Mystical Journey" is an album which does display versatility as well. A very pronounced element of material on this album are its love songs of which (by my assuredly ridiculous and wrong count) there're four of them to be found here. On paper, the most significant of these is definitely the fine 'These Feelings' which has been tapped as the first single for the album. This tune has a nice old-school vibe wrapped around it which is sure to continue to attract early attention for the album. It's also fairly straight forward, particularly when  you get into some of the other tunes here. Later, we get a song by the name of 'Picture Myself' which is kind of odd. On the surface, it's a decent song, but it unwraps and unwraps the more you listen to it. The riddim here is a sterling composition, which is, I think, the source of the confusion. I don't know if it's possible to make a bad song on this riddim and whatever you place atop it is going to be enhanced by the track, alone. Still, I'm unable (or highly unwilling) to separate the track from the tune, so I'm going to say that I like this song. 'I Found Love', on the other hand, is far less perplexing. It is a decent song and slightly better than the final lover's piece here, 'Falling for You'. Both of these selections have good aspects (both riddims) (more on that in a minute) and are adequate songs. 

When it goes in different directions, the stops along this "Mystical Journey" prove to be far more than "adequate", however. A song such as 'Smell the Coffee', for instance, would be such a superior moment on this album. I initially wrote this one down as a love song, but it really isn't that (at all). Instead I'm now taking the song as kind of a "wake-up" for everyone who may not be living the best that they can. To make his point, Norris Man presents it as a story of wayward acting young woman, but it is really applicable to everyone, regardless of gender, who aren't necessarily doing things which are the best for them. I also took notice of this intoxicatingly largely laidback approach taking by the artist which really pushes this song even higher in my opinion with that beautiful and easy riddim supporting it. 'You Got to Know' would have been a very big disappointment had it not materialized into a big tune following a sensational opening. This exquisite offering is one which speaks to the importance of one having self-awareness before pursuing and comprehending other things in the world. Other  things such as what is to be fond on the excellent 'A Friend in H.I.M.'.

"Oh what a friend I have in King Selassie
Oh what a friend in HIM
Oh what a friend I have in King Selassie
Cause there's no greater God than HIM

I never worked for no system -
Come with my own
It's my way of life -
And taught me so
Showed me how to humble, no thing before the time
So I preserve myself
Keep my soul
Still in a journey trod
Ain't giving up

Somewhat reminiscent of an old Queen Omega song whose title I am far too lazy to look up, the chorus on this one is something special and the song built around maintains the high levels to the  tune of becoming one of the biggest standouts on "Mystical Journey". 'Ordain With Strength' not only is set to get you moving a bit, but it also pushes it self in a very captivating course. The "strength" in this case for Norris Man is his voice, literally and figuratively. He essentially is giving thanks for being 'ordained' with the ability to speak up for himself in the form of music and deliver it to the masses. He goes on to draw so many things back to that strength, directly and indirectly, which gives even more credence to a piece like this, which may be destined to be overlooked, but you don't have to make that mistake. 'Take Control' has a special and HEAVY characteristic to it which aids Norris Man in urging everyone to take control of our own life and what it is that we are to do with it. The subtly aggressive 'Babylon Affi Fade' is another big winner here, albeit a dreary one which just happens to contain one of the biggest verses I've heard thus far in 2013 on its second stanza. 

"I know on that day, on that day, on that day, on that day, on that day -
When my Father will take over this place 
Mother Nature ah show dem, yet still no one care
But I pray, but I pray, but I pray, but I pray, but I pray
I know that my Father will come
And the Lord of all shall destroy the evil man ways
For it was, for it was, for it was, for it was, for it was
He that made us and not we ourselves, I tell yuh -
Not we ourselves
Now look at the things they have done and what they create
Destroying human race -
Hurting ourselves

Why must the rulers confuse the people and no one denounce dem?
And all they do is fooling the people and the masses suffer around dem
Not even for one time
No one will stand up and say -
Babylon must fade
Babylon haffi fade

The consciousness is not around no more
Everyone is doing a crazy life
Living in a crazy light
Stand up and speak it from your heart now -
We need a little justice
can't afford to waste the next generation
We gotta keep dem alive!"

Grrrr! Initially 'For the Prize' didn't do much for me, but it ultimately won me over not to the point of being a GREAT song, but it does have a nice vibes to it and, again, that riddim is wonderful. And there are also two more songs here which I'm not in love with, 'Treasure Your Soul' and the album's closer, 'God Above'. The latter her is predictable, it is the obligatory acoustically backed song on the album and it certainly is not a bad piece, but it's just as surely not as good as some of the album's biggest records. And for its part, 'Treasure Your Soul' (I saw the word "soul" and started smiling. That's probably what is going to happen for me with Norris Man's music for the foreseeable future), is okay with a great strong riddim, but the Sizzla-esque falsetto does here… what it usually does for Sizzla and make one weird song, though it does have its moments (which makes you wish that he had just the entire song like that!). 

As I alluded to (over and over again), I do want to make a mention of what turns out to be the album's greatest prevailing trait - its music. I don't like every song on this album, but I can confidently say that I definitely do like every riddim on it. And a big credit for that, obviously, goes to Nordic Steel. I know them as being a label who doesn't exactly specialize in making Roots Reggae music, but clearly when they do it, they do it impressively and I wouldn't at all be upset if they ran out most of these again for another artist (maybe like Lutan Fyah, who they've recorded in the past) on a future project because some of this stuff is way too good to live and die only for this album. 
Overall, my only major critique of this album is that it is too long. Seventeen tracks, almost always, is too long for an album and "Mystical Journey" is no different in that. A better number would have formed a stronger album in the range of maybe thirteen or so but, even on that, you're happy to have heard some of the musical backings because they are so good. I also would have liked to see a combination or two --biggup Million Stylez who does backing vocals on 'These Feelings', a full contribution from the versatile artist would have been a very nice addition to this album -- which would have added a bit more colour to the album. That being said, however, "Mystical Journey" is considerably better than "Modern Roots" was, is on the level of "Much More To Life" and I'm thinking they can do even better. There is room for improvement and if Nordic Steel doesn't mind making them (and they don't), I'd love to hear them link with Norris Man on album #3 at some point as well. So, while his sudden 'mystical' rise to album prominence remains a mystery, if they continue to sound like "Mystical Journey" I don't care. Norris Man can make ten albums a year, every year, if he wants to. A very nice next step. 

Rated: 4.30/5
Fox Fuse/Nordic Steel Entertainment

Review #483

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