Tuesday, February 25, 2014

'Beautiful Blends': A review of "Beauty For Ashes" by Midnite

Unify. Though, in the case of certain individuals, I can be completely happy and content with their output regardless of with whom they work, I still have my favourites. The link between artist and producer, at least for me, can be as interesting and as compelling as any set of circumstances behind a particular project. This is particularly true in the case of albums where it takes more than a 'good day' to turn in top notch work, unlike would be the instance for a single song or even a couple of songs. The chemistry which links the two together, even before the album's release date, is something I focus on. And going further, when you can spread this cohesion over several more than one project, that is something even more interesting. Just last year we had a fine example of this in Reggae music when Chezidek once again linked with JahSolidRock to produce the MAMMOTH "The Order of Melchezedik" album. This was the second link between the two, following 2010's "Judgement Time" and it really solidified the fact that both had found something musically special within one another and they could roll out a new album every six months or so and I don't know if they could make a bad one if they tried to. Now that was album #2 and while I am definitely waiting anxiously for the third record to be produced by that union, how long do you think it might be before Chezidek and JSR give us… album #7 or so? That is the word behind our latest stop in the ever fascinating catalog of Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite who, as we have examined constantly, has been on one of the best stretches of music in their entire career and now, 'they're' returning to the most familiar of sources and doing so in a major way. Very few people, if anyone at all, is making modern Roots Reggae music today better than the biggest label from out of the Virgin Islands, I Grade Records. And when you take what they've been able to do and attach it to the works of the Zion I Kings collective - again, it's difficult to even make a case for someone, as a producer and a label, who has had better quality music than IGR and the ZIK - and as I think about it, I'm not even going to attempt to do that: They are making the best music in the genre right now. So, with Benjamin and Midnite absolutely dazzling not even considering who is producing and with I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings doing the same for a variety of different vocalists - I don't know that there exists even a potential album which, on paper, gets me more excited than "new Midnite album from I Grade and the Zion I Kings" (although "new Pressure Busspipe album from I Grade and Zion I Kings" might be close) (new Pressure album from IGR and the ZIK coming soon) [WHAT?!] [BOOM!].  
Though such a record would be the first between Midnite and the ZIK, as I alluded to, it surely would not be the first time I Grade Records has produced a Midnite album. To date, by my count, IGR has actually worked on nine Midnite albums to date with the most recent being the brilliant "Kings Bell" from 2011. However, if you're counting MIDNITE albums produced by Laurent 'Tippy I' Alfred and company at I Grade Records, that number is seven as "Kings Bell" was distributed by IGR but produced by the venerable Andrew 'Bassie' Campbell and another album, "Geoman", was not actually a Midnite album, but was a Midnite Branch I project instead. Though all of that well speaks to a whole heap of standing chemistry what screams to the existence of that chemistry is just how good those albums were. The most recent set, "Rule The Time" from 2007, was one of my personal favourites as were several of the others and now they're adding to that list in early 2014 with a brand new Midnite - I Grade album, "Beauty For Ashes".
From the moment that this album popped up on our radars it has been dripping with class and with the feel of a very big project and it is well fitting in this instance. I'm calling "Beauty For Ashes" the FIFTIETH Midnite album ever (although I don't think anyone else is) (because the rest of you are too damn lazy to count them) and even if that isn't a big point being made here (and it isn't), a Midnite album for I Grade is far more than enough to perfectly line up this project. And, as they have shown, IGR does an excellent job with presenting and PROMOTING their music which really gives it an outstanding chance to succeed. In retrospect, "Kings Bell", may've just been Midnite's most high profile release to date and we've seen the difference in the various albums from that time. Though it was popular, "Children of Jah" (which was excellent) didn't receive anywhere near such a saturation and it was likely their most popular record since "Kings Bell". "Beauty For Ashes", on the other hand, already has that distinction of basically inheriting such a unique set of characteristics. There was, of course, a BEAUTIFUL EP released ahead of the album which maybe even went a little too far in showing who was joining Benjamin (more on that in a second) and has just been building a high level of anticipation for Midnite fans who virtually live with such an intense awaiting because… Midnite fans are just abnormally passionate people for their music and Midnite releases full albums every half hour or so. For me, I even more look forward to the Midnite album from I Grade. As we've said in the past, their music doesn't get a great deal of 'Reggae mainstream' attention typically, but this is the album that forces people to take notice. With such a heavy buzz going for it, it would be kind of odd to ignore or overlook in the way that albums such as "Free Indeed", "Be Strong" and definitely "Lion Out of Zion" were to some extent. And "buzz" like this has to translate into results. There is absolutely no room for disappointment on an album like this. "Beauty For Ashes", IMMEDIATELY, has to be one of the best Midnite albums that I've ever heard. It has too much going for it, for it not to be. 
"Same I Ah One" EP [2013]
So is it??? Absolutely. What has become one of the most exhilarating things for me in music is that journey to comprehension when it comes to Vaughn Benjamin and his music and no one provides such a powerful soundtrack to that journey like I Grade does. Their music is brimming with heavy, lush and freedom-inspiring compositions and I think that I'm at the point where I can likely recognize their work without being told that it is. There is just this specific vibe that comes from it and leaps out at me now which is beautiful (the press release for the pre-album EP unforgettably called it, "a trajectory of creatively ascendant lyrical and musical craftsmanship") (and yes… I'm kind of jealous that I didn't write that). To help with that, as they always do, joining the accompanying vocal talents, IGR has teamed up with some of the finest musicians the genre has to offer. "Beauty For Ashes" features the work of such names as Moon, Jah David, Squidley Cole and a Balboa Becker whose horn work is exceedingly impressive on the ZIK's projects. For his part, Benjamin wastes no time in impressing, himself, as the very first song on "Beauty For Ashes", 'A Reminder', is a big winner. This piece is a joy and if you want to call THE best song on this album, you should do that. Not to be missed, along with Benjamin's brilliance is the riddim which, wonderfully, someone allows to play well over a minute after the song's final vocals. I love touches like that and on a song which is GREAT even without it, it proves to be a stroke of genius. The second song here is the first of the afore-alluded to three combinations on "Beauty For Ashes", 'When Jah Arise', alongside Lutan Fyah. As they've demonstrated in the past, Lutan Fyah and Vaughn Benjamin also have a large amount of musical chemistry, but I don't know that it's ever sounded as good as it does on this tune, another highlight from the album.

"Hail King Selassie I, The Prince of Peace
Inna tough conditions, I keep my mind at ease
No more wrong or right - all rebellion cease
No ‘eye for an eye', no more blind belief
There is a reward for the meek who steadfast inna love, let righteousness increase
Just like those, said Jah the river flow free

"Almighty Jah - Who is partial to none -
Raineth upon all
Receiveth rain water for the body, install
Stand tall and don't fall 
Recall the reason that the sun serves us all

BOOM! TEARS! DAMN! This song I point to as an example for everyone who thinks Midnite's music is mundane or hard to follow. 'When Jah Arise' is full of information as the two put up a message to appreciate The Almighty EVERYWHERE you see His work, no matter how big or small. It's also an entertaining song and one which definitely makes the listener feel good and there's always room for that. A tune that I was really looking forward to as, perhaps, a bit of an expansion on the idea of unity which is also in abundance on the album's first single is 'Same Boat We'. I had to work with this one a bit (and I'm not complaining) because of its somewhat unusual sound, but the message here is a fairly simple one for a Midnite sound. The tune is about going through life with at least a care for your fellow human being because we all deal with things good and bad and we all have a place in the progression of time. The song also builds in intensity, lyrically, throughout - culminating in its latter stages, where Benjamin absolutely THROWS himself at this track (which I'd love to hear as an instrumental because its very different).

'Same I Ah One' featuring Pressure Busspipe

Of course the other two guests on "Beauty For Ashes" are very familiar to both listeners of Midnite and I Grade Records. Given his popularity it does seem rather odd that St. Thomas supernova, Pressure Busspipe, has yet to release an album with IGR -- an oddity which is set to be erased later this year -- and his contribution to the first single from this album, 'Same I Ah One', makes it even more difficult to wait for. This tune is a special one and though it took me probably longer than it should have to get to there, this song has my full admiration. It is one of the best Midnite songs that I've ever heard and I guess it speaks even greater to the strength of this album that there's a song here which I rate even higher. For its part, however, 'Same I Ah One' is an aggressive unification anthem which draws no lines anywhere and makes room for everyone in the human experience. Again, its also very entertaining. Benjamin's first verse on the tune ["Before nuclear pretense was nuclear aspiration!"] is one of my favourites from him and Pressure, as he always does, brings forth a top notch effort making for a massive moment. 'Weather The Storm' links Midnite with the genius of Ras Batch. Simply attaching Batch's name to a project takes it to an even higher level of potential and expectations for me. The man just doesn't deal with mediocrity and he doesn't begin on this very clever praising tune.

"I can feel HIM in the wind
Feel HIM in the rain shower
Mighty and power
Wicked get devour
Any minute now, any hour
They fight against His Majesty when dem a coward
International morality - they should be working toward
You can only resist the truth for so long

"I've seen the great cities outlying them, in the sky light, in the sky light
And humanity with the same needs inside
There's the moral authority - imperative speech on no side
So the VI seen their I through the King's eyesight
In the living reality world - wire fence and crime
Seek it to the peace - Haile Selassie I The First OUTLINE
The demand is frantic so don't take your time

Weather the storm…"

The title track for the album is another standout to my opinion. It comes equipped with one of the finest riddims on the entire album and Benjamin uses the moment to deliver a dazzling lyrical performance, but almost surely destined to go overlooked is the tune which follows 'Beauty For Ashes', 'Betterment Mouth', which is MASSIVE!

"Rasta speak out of a betterment mouth
Many fearful out of innocent doubt
Conscience about when resources run out
Whole sight about
Tell I about
Prepare His need
A just a redress indeed
Not a perpetual concede deficit
All now with the government official man ah plead
Selassie speak His peace"

This downright royal tune is one of the most dramatic on the album. It is a joy to hear how it constantly builds in intensity throughout and what I ultimately took from it was the thought of following examples and what greater example do we have than to follow the ways and the standards set by His Imperial Majesty. And speaking of setting and following standards, also check the serenity of 'Holy Mountain'. This piece lumbers its way through with this pace that is so slow, but so damn intoxicating. This is the other side of that quintessential I Grade sound which blends so beautifully and attracts in a very mature and subtle way. If you stop yourself at any point during 'Holy Mountain' and take in just the track, you'll love what you hear (and again, I wouldn't mind an instrumental of this one either). 'Generation Again' has a bit more of an immediate kick to it and it also comes through in a sterling fashion. This song, lyrically, is very clever. What Vaughn Benjamin seems to do is go through time and make connections that people from different eras have experienced and how, despite the major changes of the world at the respective times, things have remained the same in many ways. I also think this tune speaks to a greater significance in the meaning of the album (and more on that later). Still, with all of those big tunes present and with so many other things on "Beauty For Ashes" which're likely to grab and possess the majority of a listener's attention, there is one song here which really shocked me and rose to the top of the album. The TOWERING 'All i's On You'.

"Couldn't foresee the day -
When it's all I's on yu
The iPhone too
And the iPad too
On the iTunes 'New'
Inter-telecommunications saying only righteousness will do
Subconscious  knew
With apologetic confused

Twenty-million hits with diverse fused news: A ruse to diffuse a social current -
That is in marching shoes, protestation choose the large-scale move -
To let you see the power of the world wide groove indescribable to say 
Only your eyes will see how the nation feels
What do they seek?
What kinda situation underneath?
The things they regard as 'better get delete'
While they're telling the police 'come clean up the streets'"

Benjamin spellbinds and dazzles and amazes and astonishes and overwhelms on the tune whose title really had me curious about its direction. It is a commentary on the changing of the times. You've heard him do many songs like this one, but I'm almost completely sure that not one has EVER sounded this good. And "Beauty For Ashes" reaches its conclusion the strength of three very solid tunes. The first of them, 'Tried and Tested', is very strong as is 'Hold On'. The latter is carried by a GORGEOUS composition and is almost a love song from Vaughn Benjamin. You simply do not have those type of moments too often as it is just far, far too simple for him, but 'Hold On', with its slight R&B/Jazzy textures definitely leans in that direction. And the closer on the album, 'A Healing' is even better than both of its predecessors and is one of the best songs on this album altogether. 

"New experiments in psycho neuro-sociology -
Exploring addiction to see why it be
Gave them a choice between the substance and money
On a minimal scale it was 50/50
Increase the money, they leave the substance be
Medical journal, Pedigree, have it printed in dem stationery
So money-worry play a part in a dependency 
However ironic that would seem to be
However ironic that would seem to be

Kind words and good emanation frequency
Proven most beneficial inna medically
It can bring down the tones so not to riot, stampede
It can reach through your soul and feel to your need
Bring an instant healing! 

Marijuana inna the ward with the permission of the state and the guard bring a healing!
Bring a healing!
Bring a healing!
A therapeutic walk through the soul is a talk of healing 
Just the spark of meaning
A pretty bird soul mansion of closed off wings
Might free one wing and then two wing
Is just that to fly is to different from walk or swim
Just free your soul before The King

This is another tune which really speaks to the underlying message of the album that I alluded to. So many tunes on "Beauty For Ashes" are about going through times in life, good and bad, and being able to not only appreciate when You do it, but being able to do so when someone else does it as well. I think Vaughn Benjamin really made a intensive effort to write songs which would do this and it eventually builds a POWERFUL theme which appears in abundance throughout this album.
Overall, a very large claim could be made that this is THE best album that Midnite and I Grade Records have ever worked on together. Previously, I would have given that distinction to "Rule The Time" and while that album has a glaring advantage over this one (I've been listening to it for seven years), I think that the very fact that the question can be legitimately asked is a large testament to just how good "Beauty For Ashes" is. First of all (3200 words in and I'm saying stuff like "first of all") [WHAT!], you have to acknowledge the sonic appeal of this album. If you have NEVER heard a single Midnite album before and you've heard kind of conflicting things about how accessible or inaccessible it can be, THIS is the album for you. So many songs here, even ones which aren't amongst the album's finest, are just so easy to listen to and enjoy. Going forward, I don't even know that you could make, at least right now, a more open and digestible album than "Beauty For Ashes" with Vaughn Benjamin as its star. And then there's Benjamin, himself. In a fine form throughout, the genius chanter turns in one of his most powerful lyrical efforts to date in "Beauty For Ashes". It wasn't necessary to make the point, but "Beauty For Ashes" is yet another clear piece of evidence in support of one of the most reliable unions in all of Reggae music. One of the best Midnite albums ever.

Rated: 4.80/5
I Grade Records
CD + Digital

Review #495


  1. I love reading your reviews! This one def hit the mark with every note! Bless to you! BEAUTY FOR ASHES is by far a CLASSIC MASTERPIECE and saying that still doesn't give it its true deserved praise!

  2. boom! Tears! Damn! Same bot we!