Saturday, August 16, 2014

'Elixir?': A review of "Stand The Test" by Midnite

Because you don't know what you've got until it's gone. As I've said in the past, though they certainly do seem quite ridiculous these days (in retrospect) and a comeback is virtually a sure negative, I do kind of long for the days when certain artists would release upwards of three or four albums in any given year. And, as it has been for so many different types of albums, 2014 has been a sweet representation of exactly what I've missed most. The prime case here being, of course, Sizzla Kalonji who though he may or may not give us a fourth before the end of the year, delivered THREE albums within the first half of 2014. No. None of those albums were exceptional and, as we move further away from them, I find myself enjoying them less and less as a whole. But the circumstances there're just amazing even on paper: Three new albums from Sizzla Kalonji in about five and a half months or so (probably even less than that, I don't feel like looking up the official release date of "Born A King"). I'll take that any time and worry about how good they actually are later (as long as none of the three come from Penitentiary, Rude Boy or whatever they're calling themselves these days). On top of that, in about three weeks or so, VI standout Pressure Busspipe is also set to deliver a new album, "Africa Redemption". That record will follow his all-conquering "The Sound" from earlier this year (and you have some serious problems that you need to seek help for if you've yet to pick that one up) as Pressure makes a big run at Artist Of The Year to go along with Lyricist Of The Year which seems to be a lock for him at this point. And who knows who else might fall in that line as, hopefully, the last third of the year may feature a new album from Lutan Fyah at the very least. HOWEVER, curiously absent from this very welcomed breath of a nostalgic air has been the one entity in the genre who, seemingly, was completely unaffected by the gradual changing of the times - Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite. It would be foolish not to use this time to acknowledge and make a mention of the fact that the single Midnite album from 2014 was one of their finest in recent times and has been one of their most popular… ever, as well. "Beauty For Ashes" was a downright magical release and, as is normally the case when Midnite links with I Grade Records (label of the year???), it was very well promoted and, already, should be regarded as one of their most well-known releases to date. For anyone else, that would have been more than enough for any twelve month span but when it comes to Midnite, anytime I hear a new album I always find myself wondering - What's next? 
"Beauty For Ashes" [2014]
Maybe a Rastar album? The label with whom Midnite has been most frequently associated recently wouldn't go a year without releasing a new project would they? Well maybe not. Rastar did, very quietly kind of release a dubbed out version of "Better World Rasta". But it has yet to make its way to any type of a full circulation and until/unless it does, we won't count it. If not Rastar, then perhaps Fifth Son Records who delivered both "In Awe" ["I hold His Majesty in awe. In awe. In awe"] in 2012 and its more than solid 2013 follow-up, "Be Strong". Neither of those? Well then, even though they just gave us a 'full' Midnite album last year in "Lion Out Of Zion", perhaps the next record would come via Rastafaria or Afrikan Roots Lab. Nope! None of them, instead Midnite goes about the process of likely introducing fans to another new label placing themselves in the healthy rotation of release Midnite music.

Meet Iaahden Sounds. To my (surely incorrect and misguided) knowledge, the Virgin Islands based imprint was one which existed almost exclusively to push music from an artist of the same name -- Iaahden -- and he's had at least a couple of relatively recent albums. But now they're branching out and doing it in a most familiar way. Earlier this year, Iaahden would push a trio of singles from Midnite and, seemingly, begin to set the course to an eventual album as… generally you don't just release a whole heap of music from Vaughn Benjamin and just kind of let it sit. That course, though it began with a flare did not present much in the way of twists and turns and, wonderfully, has already led us to "Stand The Test" which, by my count (which is always wrong, but I'm the only one who does it) album number fifty-one from Vaughn Benjamin and company. You have to give a nice amount of credit and respect to a label such as Iaahden for the moves that they've made. This album figures to have a few more eyes and ears focused on it than it may've had typically as, presumably, "Beauty For Ashes" brought in quite a few new fans to Midnite who may stick around for at least one more album and, in releasing three songs, it was a very nice way to get the attentions of, at least, the more savvy fans who make up one of the most passionate of fan bases this genre has ever seen in my opinion. There have been Midnite albums from labels likely more capable and surely more experienced which have gone IMMEDIATELY forgotten, overlooked and un-promoted altogether and Iaahden have done a very formidable job in ensuring that their release wouldn't be added to that pile. While the fate of its popularity does ultimately remain to be seen, its quality is something we can deal with right now. Can "Stand The Test" stand up to the reputation of its FIFTY predecessors which comprise one of the most decorated catalogues in modern Reggae history? Let's find out. 

Although I had actually taken in the aforementioned three singles released prior to the album, I had absolutely nothing in the way of expectations when it came to this album and, essentially, I was most excited to just actually hear another new Midnite album. What did occur in this case, however, was that the album quickly makes you aware that something different is going on with its sound. You hear all types of different sounds including Hip-Hop, Jazz and other types of sounds which make up, for the most part, the instrumentals of this album. Fortunately, Iaahden Sounds also managed to mix in some Reggae music, which is what you came for (you know you did). Beginning this on Midnite's "Stand The Test" is definitely a tune with a unique sound in the increasingly formidable 'Ina Zion'. This song is one which has well been a process for me over the course of listening to it. I can't say that I hated it from the first time I heard it, but I did not enjoy it and, after a few more intense listenings, it started to bake for me. Now, it is still in the oven although I do hear a far more streamlined version of the somewhat chaotic track that it originally registered as with me. This kind of 'slimming' view of the tune has well allowed me to hear Vaughn Benjamin, at times, dazzle.

"Carnal and carnivorous is the flesh speak of
Some feel that a in pull, tugging and shove
Which one of these, are you one of them of?
Some say they don't qualify as none of the above

BOOM! Things go in a downright HEAVY direction on the next tune in, the pulsing 'Put In'. The music in this case, though probably what you'd refer to as more Hip-Hop aimed (and, as I've said in the past, I've never been the biggest Hip-Hop fan), is candy to my ears and, for his part -- again -- Benjamin weaves a brilliant composition. What I took from this one (as a highly and constantly evolving and evolvable [an actual word] line of thinking) is the concept that life is what you make it and it will give you what you give to it. 

"Waan better muscle tone, some haffi go to the gym.
Waan clean a sinner spirit, haffi go The King"

The way this song is situated is, at times, reminiscent of burners such as 'Sha Tee' from the "Maschaana", which operate in these unrelenting bursts. And rounding out the first quarter of "Stand The Test" is another very unusually vibed selection, 'Survivor'. This one is not a favourite of mine on the album. It can be a very awkward tune to listen to, but I am still working on it and, as there virtually always is in Vaughn Benjamin's output, there is an obvious substance to this tune.  
The next batch (biggup Batch) of tunes on "Stand The Test" actually begins with the first of the afore-alluded to singles, 'Ina Culcha'. This is another song which has settled down just a bit to my ears and I'm now prepared and capable to take it in, in such a way that it has fully heightened for me. At its core, 'Ina Culcha' is a social commentary but Benjamin doesn't make it easy on you (he never does and you don't want him to) (if you did, you wouldn't have bought a Midnite album) as he takes you in so many different directions before arriving at his lyrical destination. This song is one of the best on the album and kind of a microcosm of how, in general, I've experienced a growing joy in listening to Midnite's music. 'Ina Culcha', because of its sound, kind of made genuinely hearing the album's next offering, 'King Ring' somewhat easier. Neither artist nor riddim on this tune seem to care about things such as overwhelming the listener as the chanter has a point to make and has a perfect track to do it on! This one is a praising piece on the surface but just as was the case of its predecessor, it is not an easy song to accept and is going to take a whole heap of work (and I have no problem with that). Because of its title, alone, I was really looking forward to 'Count Your Blessings' and the song still managed to impress. The root here is one about embracing and being happy for what you have and how the STATE of being thankful can improve your life and how its absence and its eschewing can be harmful to you. Sonically speaking, as far as songs throughout "Stand The Test" which may be similar to 'Count Your Blessings' - this one shines. It is easily amongst the very best.  
The title track and main-attraction on "Stand The Test"  brings in the album's second half. Unlike some of the others, this song I really liked from the very first time that I heard it and it made me very curious to hear what else Iaahden and Midnite might be working on. The "test" in this instance appears to be the test of TIME and Vaughn Benjamin applies that test to a  variety of subjects in an even more numerous variety of different ways. Amongst them, incidentally, is music and Benjamin mentions the likes of Marley and Tosh and even Tenor Saw and Barrington Levy. The song really took things a step higher on this album for me, still, I was very happy to say that it is not the single best song that I hear on this album. The fullness of 'Speak Complete' chases the eponymous track and it too is a big winner here.

"100,000 or more dem airlift outta di country
They were searching for a better fee weh inna di currency
But classism and religion take ascendancy

'Speak Complete' is RIPE with discussable and broad moments and it is a meal of a song for an over-thinker like myself. Where I am now with it is under the thinking that the song is kind of a moving message of honour and tribute to His Majesty. Benjamin has done songs like this in the past where he presents The Almighty as this STANDARD of living, or of anything, and the notion is to ALWAYS strive to reach the wholly unattainable in living up to that standard. A fantastic song to my ears and one which I'm looking forward to enjoying for years and years. The bulky 'Identify' doesn't quite present the potential kind of all-encompassing listening experience, although it is a pretty good song to my opinion. This a selection about finding where, and with whom, you belong in the world. Benjamin (and you) fully knows where his place is and he constructs this song around that.  
"Stand The Test" reaches its end on the strength of three more very compelling pieces, the last of which is the class of this album in my opinion. First is the grinding 'News Real Life'. The riddim on this song is kind of ponderous and it kind of dominates what you notice here (you're going to have pay some special level of attention to get this song). There are nice things to be noticed being said on the song, and given its title, I was very interested in what Benjamin had come up with. But I didn't particularly like this one. 'Upfull Day', on the other hand, I have grown to enjoy somewhat. The final of the previously released singles, the Jazzy effort is bright, vivid… and still kind of odd. I was LOST several times here and I probably still am, but I think the composition is about how music applies a certain level of colour or dye to certain things in life and how mentioning things in song can help the masses to take notice them and take more of an interest as well. And finally is my absolute favourite song to be found on "Stand The Test", 'Lamb Skin'. In almost every category in which I measure how much I appreciate just about anything, the title track is the best song on this album, but something about the closer just grabbed my senses and emotions and forced me to take a deeper listen. What I found after that was quintessential Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite - finding sense where none seems to exist. Chaining together words and ideas with no links and just speaking from his mind on a tune which comes as much as someone just speaking their mind as it does an actual piece of music.

"All inclined inna heart and mind and soul -
And inna spirit
Haffi live it, if its lyrics, spit it
Straight up from the top wi get it"

This song shows what no one else can do in Reggae music as, unobservant of sound and everything else, Vaughn Benjamin has a point to make and he does it to wrap up the album.  
Overall, while "Stand The Test" isn't amongst the range of the best Midnite albums that I've heard, it still is a relatively decent set and one which, for what it is, offers a whole heap of variation and colour. Because of how diverse the sound is, it may be a fairly nice selection for newer fans. As for older ones… you're going to get it regardless of what I say, but there should be more than enough material here, particularly on the lyrical side which you're likely to enjoy. That is what the album has going for it MOST: I don't know if it will ever be given credit as such but "Stand The Test" well finds Vaughn Benjamin in a fine form with his words (and that's saying a lot) and he really puts forth some fine performances throughout. So, while Midnite and Iaahden Sounds first collaboration may not be gold (although there're a few nuggets to be found here), it is a satisfying set and one which provides a healthy serving of brain food… now what's next?! 

Rated: 3/5
Iaahden Sounds
CD + Digital

Review #523


  1. Hey man bless up. I enjoy reading your reviews. Your a talented writer...

    Wonderful thing though, Jah made us all with different likings. I dont have the whole album yet, but I have heard all most all of it online.. I think this ones awesome. Iaahden produced some tunes on "Treasure" and some on "The way" including one that you wrote highly of in the album review, "Pon on the line" . The drums he uses are crazy.. The drums sound like some southern rap tunes or something, but I love it! So glad Vaughn picked a whole albums worth of his riddims.

    Personally, of course I thought "Beauty For Ashes" was a good album too, Ive listened to it many times, but it wasn't one of my favorites. I enjoy it dont get me wrong, and to say bored by it would be going way to far, but I almost felt like I had heard the riddims many times before, the first time I head them.. This one on the other hand Im really diggin! Iaahdens drums got Vaughn Flowing! The way Vaughn switches up his flow, all most multiple times within each tune is awesome! Top ranking. For my liking if I were to give them number ratings like you, I would have them reversed. With Beauty for Ashes at like 3.5 and this one at 4.8

    Above all its the Kings music and for that I give thanks. Wonderful it reaches us in different ways. Give thanks for witting about it.

  2. Give thanks for your comment and the nice words Anon. We not only respect a differing of opinions but we enjoy them as well, especially when they are as detailed and supported as yours yeah.

    As far as looking at these two most recent albums next to one another - for me the music on "BFA" was amazing.It was refined, it was covering the smallest detail and the way those sounds were constructed, where they seem to continuously develop, was just a joy to listen to and I always love I Grade's work. "STT" is different - it's kind of a darker and grimy sound and a mixture of so many styles, with a significant amount of it being Hip-Hop. And that's fine - with so many albums I'd hate if they all sounded the same but I much prefer "BFA".

    Lyrically, I wouldn't push "STT" down any at all, but I would say that every time I listen to "BFA" strictly under a point of focusing on the writing, I come away thinking that it was all about telling a story because almost all of the songs on that album are interrelated. You listen to 'Same Boat We' and 'Same I Ah One' and it's obvious yeah. But then you hear 'A Healing' [!] and that song goes on a different track but that is the same birth topic broken down and reconstructed in three ways yeah! And some of that even bleeds into a song called 'Generation Again' and that tune goes in its own route and is followed and expanded on also. I can't say that Benjamin wrote them as such, but with him I wouldn't be surprised if was all that detailed. Some of that does exist on "STT", but definitely not to the same degree in my opinion yeah.

    Thanks again for your opinion Anon.

  3. It is really interesting post. I never read such kind of post. It impressed me. Thanks for sharing…