Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'Battle Tested': A review of The Jah Warriah Riddim

Version 2. In terms which are purely observational, there may be no single more interesting aspect of being a fan of music than watching the career trajectory of an artist. It can be something which, literally, lasts a lifetime (their lifespan or yours) (or both), and even beyond as you're able to virtually pass down the structure of being a fan of a specific individual to younger people who can eventually do the same. In more finite terms, it is just so interesting to see artists who you've enjoyed when they first arrived on the scene blossom and become stars and, on the other hand, see those who you didn't rate highly not only do the same but also win you over as well in the process. It is can be fascinating and compelling to absolutely no end. Far less talked about, conversely, is observing the lifespan of music label. Theoretically, as an institution, such an experience can last longer than in watching an individual and it can (and always does) encompass more than one as well. In Reggae things are just weird. You can have a certain riddim, trace it back to an originating label and a producer, and have it recalled and recalled into perpetuity -- refusing to go away -- by a never ending line of re-makers for an equally countless amount of vocalists and that is more life and more 'career' to that first label and to that first producer. And while we'll have to wait to see exactly which tracks and producers from the current era begin to get that treatment (is 2014 too early for a Diwali remake???), there're many labels around today who are experiencing growth which is becoming undeniably captivating to watch. Of course today we focus on one of them (or two of them) as we take a look at the first project of the new year coming directly from an imprint which had as good of a year, musically, in 2013 as anyone else throughout the entire genre, Zion High Productions. The US based label has been in existence for quite awhile now (I'm going to say that they have at least a decade behind them now) and have already assembled a more than respectable catalogue going way back to a personal classic for me, Yami Bolo's "Rebelution" (which may just be one of the most underrated and overlooked albums of all time). So I've always attempted to keep an eye on their work, however, as has also been the case for two other labels, what ZHP has managed to do over the past two or three years or so has become even more noteworthy and fascinating. 
What changed? Certainly it has been the formation and then the kind of instant development of the Zion I Kings collective (it was as if they walked through the door already a finished product and everyone else noticed, immediately, how good they were). As a unit, over the past two years they've jointly been responsible for making as good as music as anyone in the genre and watching and waiting to see to whom they'll turn their attention next has also been a lot of fun. And what has been really nice about that as well has been how, each label has been able to flourish as single components as well. While the "Kings", Lustre Kings Productions, haven't been terribly active (although they do have a big new single, 'For The Children', in stores now and hopefully it signifies the beginning of a prolific year for the LKP), the "I", I Grade Records has been flaming (new Midnite album, "Beauty For Ashes", in stores now) and as I said, "Zion", Zion High Productions hit towering highs in 2013. The label pushed no less than three big albums from esteemed artists with the 'tallest' definitely being Lloyd Brown's "Rootical". There was also the legendary Cornel Campbell with "New Scrolls" and the delightful "Original Yard Food" from General Jah Mikey. All of those albums were very well received and remained so into the new year.
Zion High Productions in 2013
So what do you do after a year like that. You make another Yami Bolo album? No. Not yet. What you do, instead, is to feed the masses of the second installment of one the best ideas that the ZIK have manufactured, its Riddim Series. The first edition, the Songbird Riddim, came via I Grade Records and it was spectacular - earning both our favourite riddim altogether from 2013 and producing our favourite compilation as well. And if I recall correctly (and I never do), I believe the concept of the Riddim Series was that the three labels would alternate in productions and ZHP is up next and they're bringing the Jah Warriah Riddim. I have to say that after all of the albums from 2013, I was REALLY looking forward to seeing who was next and although I now think we know the answer to that question (stay tuned, you will not be disappointed), I was just as happy to see that this series has apparently remained a priority for the ZIK and I'm well looking forward to future installments. And, if you go back, they have also been conscious of doing big compilations, in general, and the Jah Warriah Riddim not only directly follows the aforementioned Songbird Riddim, but it also follows releases such as "Jah Golden Throne" and the pillaring "Joyful Noise" from a few years back. As for the Jah Warriah in particular, last year ZHP gave us a taste of the track on the "Rootical" album via one of its biggest moments and while it didn't necessarily leap out at the listener, looking back it was very good and made for a perfect accompanying piece for that tune, which does appear on this album. Also, just because a riddim is a nice one, it certainly doesn't mean that it will make for a good composition to carry an entire album through multiple vocalists, but that isn't a problem here as the Jah Warriah Riddim goes on to show itself to be a more than solid next step in a series which is quickly showing itself to be very special. Let's talk about it.
"When I hear the songbirds I think of you" [2013]
On projects like these, just as crucial as the actual music is exactly who it is given to. The Songbird, and pretty much every ZIK compilation to date, not only came equipped with big names, but diverse ones as well. It is one thing to stock a track full of household names, which can be nice (and usually is), but I do want to be surprised as well and this set offers two or three of those as well which fit right into the vibes of the release. Not surprising at all, on the other hand, is Lutan Fyah who begins the Jah Warriah Riddim from Zion High Productions with his typical brilliance on the downright royal 'Beat Dem'. I believe we're supposed to see a ZIK album from Lutan Fyah before the end of 2014 and if this is a sign of what is to come is should be a great one (and even if it isn't, you know that album is going to be excellent).

"'These are the last days', a dat mi hear dem ah talk about -
On di TV screen, every news all bout
Who ah plan fi destroy
Who ah plan fi wipe out
Some already micro chipped with barcode
Selassie I ah rule inna Zion, Rastaman step forth
Be conscious of the time you're living in this ain't no joke
This a nuh soap opera, wi no come yah so fi sport 
Repatriation for most

Beat dem Selassie I, beat dem
Beat dem Black Marcus, beat dem
Dem come a Bobo Hill and wi no keep dem
Emmanuel no waan fi si dem di next weekend
Beat dem Selassie I, beat dem
Beat dem Black Marcus, beat dem
Nyabinghi lick di kette drum and slew di heathen
12 Tribes of Israel - those are my kindred

Banton seh a morning now, so wi chanting for later
I no trust di system, mi know seh dem a faker
Total destruction is the worst case scenario
Try no get caught inna dem barrio
Almighty Selassie I more powerful than dem
Digital or analog, a HIM set di trend
Conquered Mussolini pon di TV screen

The Fyah delivers a subtly unique piece which is something of a praising tune, but also a comment on society. He'll never get a full credit for it either, but despite being a full level or two below his absolute best, 'Beat Dem', is lyrically top notch and completely effortless. 'Cycles Of Life' was a song here I was really looking forward to hearing. The riddim's only combination links Jahdan Blakkamoore and VI ace, Pressure Busspipe (someone else who we'll hear from alongside the ZIK this year) on a tune about living an upstanding life as the best you can. Both, expectedly, turn in big efforts, but it is a verse in the latter stages of the tune from Pressure which is the most stirring moment on one of the best songs you'll find here. And I should also mention a few different 'textures' on the riddim here. To my ears it has a few sequences which are unique to it and that can also be said for a few other tunes here as well. Also present is the previously alluded to nasty-swatter 'Not From Me' from Mr. Lloyd Brown. Class and pure intelligence converge on the selection where Brown is forthright and straight-forth enough to tell all that whatever piece of negativity you seek, you can find it and find it in abundance throughout the world, but you'll find not a drop of it coming from him.

As I mentioned, there were a few names here which I was surprised to see on this project, but none of them are out of the type of artist you would imagine voicing a riddim like the Jah Warriah. Definitely the most unexpected, however, also turns in one of the single best songs on the riddim as veteran Jah Mali does a major damage with common sense on the LOVELY 'How U Ago'. This one is a direct call to action as Jah Mali takes aim at the listless people of the world who watch life pass them by while complaining about what they don't have or what they cannot get. It also kind of applies in a more specific and less broad type of a way. Even the hardest worker can go through those type of moments and if you need a kick and a boost to turn yourself in a proper direction, maybe 'How U Ago' is a song that you need to hear… and you should listen to it even if you don't need that kick because it's a big tune. Ancient King's was also a name I didn't expect to see on the Jah Warriah, but the fiery St. Croix chanter does his best on his 'Rightly The Trumpet', to ensure that he may be associated with future ZIK projects. Ancient King is someone who doesn't record as much as I wish he did and a song like this is a large reason why. Had it appeared on his 2013, "Ethiopie", 'Rightly The Trumpet' would have been the best tune and it is amongst the very best here as well (I love the kind of chaotic ending to this song with  the vocal effect which takes advantage of the Ancient King's burning unpredictability). And then there's 'Many More' which features Statian fireball, Ziggi Recado.

"Nuff a dem heart is so cold
Fighting war fi control
Deception a dem weapon, a nuh truth dem ah hold
Dem a pirates, dem no like to nationalize
Dem waan fi privatize and mek dem income rise
And if the cost is light, still dem nuh think twice
Mi stand fi truths and rights cause dis a crucial times
Seek knowledge, don't get left behind

Many more hills to climb
Many more barriers, wi gonna burn dem now
Seek truth and you will find
Babylon ah fight to control mankind"

The song is a very good one with a nice and free-flowing vibes to it which you should definitely hear, and apparently it is Ziggi who will be delivering his own album for ZHP and the ZIK later in 2014. His work, at its best, is masterful and as soon as I heard that (biggup Bredz), it full became one of my personally most anticipated releases for 2014. 

And speaking of albums, along with Lloyd Brown, there're three other artists here who have had full albums for the Zion I Kings to date. Midnite, Glen Washington and Ras Batch also touch the Jah Warriah Riddim with predictably big results. Of course it was Washington who actually did an album for ZHP in the form of his sterling "Masterpiece" and he makes an appearance on the Jah Warriah with the praising piece, 'Touch Not The Lord's Anointed'. Washington is someone who has enjoyed a big success at such an advanced stage of his career and it is through excellent output such as this. Unless I'm overlooking something, Batch had my favourite ZIK album to date with his MAMMOTH "Know Thyself" from 2012 for I Grade Records and he continues a run of excellence which dates back to… like the beginning of his career, with 'Lie From Truth' where he examines some genuine societal and historical facts. As I've said previously, anytime you involve Batch's name in something, my expectations go really high because I know what he can do and this was not a letdown. And as for Midnite, whose own ZIK album, also for IGR, "Beauty For Ashes" is brand new and also in stores today - check a tune which doesn't appear there, 'This World Happened' (so it's a bonus!). While not at all what I expected, the song is a solid one and one which is likely to, even further, push a few people in the route of picking up "Beauty For Ashes", which is an amazing album. Though he doesn't have a ZIK album to his credit (and hasn't had any album since 1924) check underrated Guyanese chanter, Arkaingelle, who was also present on both "Jah Golden Throne" and "Joyful Noise", and picks up the  very relatable 'Igh Shield'. This song I probably took in a different way than most people will and maybe even in a different way than it was intended. For me it comes through as the act of finding where you belong in the world and the joy when you finally do find it. This song has a lot of 'space' around it. It is somewhat quiet and because of that, it comes off as very personal (as we listen to where the Arkaingelle found his own place) and somewhat intense as well. It is gorgeous and while bigger names run throughout this project (Arkaingelle is probably the least known artist on the Jah Warriah Riddim), not many of them turn in better songs than 'Igh Shield'. NiyoRah also comes through with a big offering in the decent social commentary 'Media Portray'. The song picks up in intensity (and quality) throughout and hopefully it is one of the first shots from what turns out to be a big year for NiyoRah. And finally - I would have complained had the Jah Warriah Riddim not carried at least one female voice, particularly given the successes of both songs from Jah9 and Reemah on the Songbird Riddim, and if they asked me who I would have most liked to see, I would have surely said the single most gifted female in Reggae music today, the incomparable Queen Omega who, unsurprisingly, delivers my favourite song on the riddim, 'I Am Blessed'.

"I am blessed, oh yes
I am blessed
Nevertheless Father guards my interests
Serve HIM with righteousness

What's the scene for tomorrow?
No one knows
Yes, today is gone
The future, He holds
Today is the day, glorify the One who sits on the throne
I'm flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones
I am made in His image, He'll never leave me alone
New Jerusalem is my home
So whenever things get sticky in Rome - I know

I am blessed, oh yes
I am blessed
Throughout the trials, tribulations, temptations and tests
I prophesize and protest"

Reggae music, as an entirety, is a better place when Queen Omega is making music like this. The vocals on this song are the best on the riddim as she turns the passion to its highest point and, once again, brings forth a GIANT tune. 
Overall, my only problem with this release is that it doesn't have an instrumental. The Songbird went even further in giving a full song to the genius Tuff Lion, but I always appreciate even a more conventional type of clean version of the track (though if ZHP wanted to enlist Tuff Lion, I would not have complained). In absence of that, however, the Jah Warriah Riddim is everything it should have been in being the second of what I hope turns out to be a very respected and FULL running series. Listening to it for the sake of this review definitely gave me a greater impression and appreciation for the track and, in retrospect, though I love several from the "Rootical" album, I don't know that any of them would have translated as well into a full album as it did. And not only does it compliment a series but it also continues a winning stretch for Zion High Productions. Apparently and hopefully, the next stop is Ziggi Recado, but with what they've been doing in recent times, you have to begin to think that it whatever they come up with is going to be something special. Very good. 

Rated: 4/5
Zion High Productions

Review #493

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