Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Modern Classics Vol. XXXXII: "Kings Bell" by Midnite

"Kings Bell" by Midnite [I Grade Records - 2011]
It is a most curious fact that it has taken us so many installments of this series to arrive at this point but as almost all things are when it comes to the music of Vaughn Benjamin and Midnite - it is best to take your time. Be it just a single tune, an entire album or even a performance, the quality of their output takes time to be appreciated and it is only with that time that things become more and more evident.

For example, three years ago now (almost to the exact date) Midnite with I Grade Records would go about releasing an album which has gone on to become one of the most high profile and visible albums of either's catalogue (and between the two, we're talking about well over seventy albums at this point). And while it is quite hard to release albums like this when you do three or four a year, they did it. One of the most fascinating aspects about the project was that it was billed as the very first time that Midnite had done an entire album with a Jamaican producer as the scalding Andrew Bassie Campbell would handle productions for the album bringing together, once again, the ever developing Virgin Islands scene with Jamaica and doing so in a way which, very much, continued Midnite's ever persistent methodology (by my count, there were FIVE Midnite albums released in 2011) as well as Benjamin's incomparable style. Also, while it wasn't an IGR production, historically, my favourite Midnite albums have come from that label and it extended to even outward collaborations. This album would prove to be not only one of the most noticeable with the name Midnite but also one of the most vibrant and FULFILLING as well. And, again, this was a fact which has become easier and easier to see with the passage of time. 
So maybe we will all sit here and do this again someday. Until then, we once again give our greatest distinction, this time to a very familiar source for the very first time, to one of the best albums I've ever heard, "Kings Bell" by Midnite.

The Music

#1. 'Exalt The Crown'

The opener of "Kings Bell", 'Exalt The Crown', now looking back, is one which is relatively wide-open and broad by Vaughn Benjamin's standards (and ONLY his standards). To my opinion, it is about living your life in a manner which is pleasing to His Imperial Majesty but he goes through so many different variations and possibilities to illustrate this point that, ultimately, what you get is a song saying that pleasing The Almighty, like what you do with your time (whatever that might be and whoever you may be), is a necessity. It's a BEAUTIFUL song and one which should be regarded as one of the greatest sonic displays on this albums. 

Lyrics: "Natural link up - the youth Jamaica from Cruz. Musical consumption of complete old food. From music weh pleasant and music weh rude. Some even go seh dem music is unpleasantly rude, from that's how dem select it when dem select dem mood. But I exalt the crown. I exalt the crown"

#2. 'Try That Way'

Like its predecessor, 'Try That Way' is another which is joyous to listen to and, also like 'Exalt The Crown', it is absolutely brilliant. What I now take from this song is that Benjamin is saying that everyone needs to step things up in terms of effort giving to what you do in life. And I don't think that this is a song in which you can just say 'work harder', I think his goal here was to say DO harder. Be nicer to other people, be more caring and comprehending and sympathetic to someone else and what they're going through. I also hear that he goes a step further in that, essentially, if you do follow this course, you may find something special in yourself as well as in someone else [“a lot of barrier out yah. A lot of warrior out yah"]. 

Lyrics: "The arch is with The Architect, Haile Selassie I, The Maker, in HIS hands it haffi keep. Feeling powerless - the earthly beings. The aftermath of empathy inna catastrophes. Sending a penance to bring comfort and to bring relief. SYMPATHY AWAKEN I HUMANITIES, INNA RECOGNITION OF THE MIDST OF HUMAN FRAILTY. The live thread is ever inna a delicacy. Within the elements of infinity, EVERY MOMENT IS A THANKSGIVING CHANCE YOU SEE. WAKING UP HEALTHY IS A BLESSED SPEECH"

#3. 'Mongst I & I'
BOOM! Although I still do hear a single better song on "Kings Bell", to the surprise of no one 'Mongst I & I' has well become the album's signature moment and with fantastic reason. 'Mongst I & I' was golden! It was a musical bar of gold and it was a song aimed at those who never think that Midnite songs are the greatest to listen to (and, admittedly, Vaughn Benjamin has never had the best command of melody and he often seems as if he doesn't care about such things) (which, in certain cases, is a quality I've grown to appreciate of his as I've gotten older). This was different and it would, if I recall correctly, birth the very first official Midnite video ever. The composition was one about making the world a smaller and more comfortable place amongst good people. I think a particular point that he was trying to make here was how complicatedly simple and easy it has gotten to 'keep in touch', so you really have no excuse not to be able to do it. Failure to do so can lead to bona fide tragedies, not one of which was a song like this, however. 


#4. 'Earth Is The Lords'

If you want an example of that melodically-oblivious, yet all kinds of GENIUS, Vaughn Benjamin, look directly upon the nearly Spoken Word-esque 'Earth Is The Lords'. A praising piece in its heart, 'Earth Is The Lords' is DAZZLING! For me it stood as a song about humility. Benjamin was saying that no matter what rank you rose to and no matter how much you achieved in life, you did so "in life" and thus, with a limit. But there exists Someone whose rank is infinite and whose accomplishments cannot possibly be counted. 

Lyrics: "Critical delineation, I can hear dem now: Fine tuning dialectics, discussing the 'how'. But the 'how' without 'know' is a stray out loud. There's a stray out loud, high, official mouth. RESOURCE IS THE TRUTH IN THE ROOT OF WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT. IN THE FIRST PLACE THEY WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO SUPPRESS AND SHOUT IF YOU HADN'T SUPPLIED THEM THE ARMS TO ASSERT, DICTATE AND CLOUT"

#5. 'Kings Bell'

The title track for the "Kings Bell" is one which is so interesting and, these days (like always), I have a very healthy respect for what was definitely one of the strongest efforts on the album named after it. The actual 'bell' of The King, of course, is music which speak to the virtues of His Majesty. What is probably most interesting about this song is Vaughn Benjamin's CONFIDENCE in this subject. He, correctly, calls it a "contagion", he says that the entire world can feel it and that there're so many others who are also ringing the King's bell. ["Music is the thing weh ahgo glue up everything. And then dem yah talent offering unto to The King of Kings. These are the warriors, the priests and the king of the King of Kings"]. 

Lyrics: "What dem woulda do without any kind of a sound bashment anywhere you went? Unique vibration of a offering Rasta testament. LIVING SOUND INHERITANCE, YEAH MAN FI TREASURE THAT WITH COMPETENCE. VIBRANCE, YES MAN, FI PROTECT THAT WITH VIGILANCE"

#6. 'System Peak Out'

'System Peak Out' was a tune with a very unusual sound for this album but it was more of the same incomparable level of writing from its creator. This one was particularly high, however, as Benjamin hit's a 'peak' later on in the piece where he simply begins to shell the listener with lyrics. If you slow it down and listen to what he says, the gift you receive is one which is a total social commentary that says that the world has lost sight of what is truly important ["your immediate frame of reference is short-sighted"] and is… living really nasty these days. It isn't a wholly bleak picture that he paints, however ["the principle of The King is steadily advancing"], but you do get the feel of the most appropriate urgency of his words. 

Lyrics: "Disruption and blockage, email and text. YOU DUN PAID ALL YOUR MONEY AND YOU STILL GET DISCONNECT. Have people deh fi figure out your hablar dialect. Ah pressure di middle class outta tax fi collect. LIKE DEM KNOCKOUT DI WIND OUTTA DI MIDDLE SOLAR-PLEX. How so much people ahgo tek before people get vexed? Dem si di volatility climate and buttons still ah press. Not to mention di press - how dem beat down di press. Rasta order unuh fi humble and quickly issue address. Like how everyday inna war a random dead. And anarchists ah love it how di chaos ah spread"

#7. 'Jewel Inna Africa Horn'

'Jewel Inna Africa Horn' is a song I best remember as being one of those stereotypically DEEP Midnite songs but, simultaneously, being this set which didn't require you to beat it down to the powder to find some appreciation in it (it's better if you do, it always is, but you didn't absolutely need to). I may be alone in that because the sound of the song isn't so incredibly infectious ostensibly and flashy but, for me, just listening to this one makes me feel good and the more I heard it, the more that became the case. The song was another about praising His Majesty but the route taken to arrive at that conclusion was a beautiful one and though it may not have stood out for many, 'Jewel Inna Africa Horn' was CLEARLY amongst the class of "Kings Bell" in my opinion. 

Lyrics: "Have you heard Rasta at all? Our people standing tall. Defend dem home a yard. And defend dem pride abroad. An industrious, righteous heart. Preparing di youth fi all"

#8. 'Bittersweet'

'Bittersweet' is WORK. You're going to really have to pay attention and after listening to this selection for so long and trying to find a meaning in it, I think that the actual 'road' is what this song was about. It's a piece about PAYING ATTENTION and not taking the first direction available because no matter how good it may seem, it also may be just as bad. And throughout the song Benjamin is careful to never go in one direction, good or bad, too far without acknowledging the other because nothing in the world, with one Majestic exception, is all good all of the time. A very ripe song and one which one was one of a kind coming from Vaughn Benjamin. 

Lyrics: "So now go visit HIS speech and then visit reality. The accuracy to Hitler and to Mussolini. Because of serene demeanour, level, balance of speech - gwan go think man fi soft and think man fi weak. And end up inna clashaclism end up inna defeat. Ethiopia victory did bittersweet" 

#9. 'Pon A Watchlist'

BOOM! I hadn't heard 'Pon A Watchlist' for a minute until recently (when this album became impossible for me to put down for a few weeks) (still haven't quite figured out how to do that) but when I came back to it what most stood out, as it did originally, was that masterful riddim backing it. DAMN! I'd love to hear an instrumental of this song but even playing behind vocals it was full sublime and it still is. For his part, Vaughn Benjamin shines just a bright as the track. Bringing the notion that, the further you move away from The Almighty, the more suspicious your actions become. 

Lyrics: "Looking into effectiveness focus fi live. When di prices are skyrocketing meteoric. Dem have calculus ah tally inna cost and risk and have poor people rights inna di world diminish. And have di whole world ah suspect yuh pon a watch list" 

#10. 'On The Broadcast'

You don't need to turn on your television to see certain things play out because they exist in "everyday life" if you pay attention closely.  The chanter goes through several drastic situations which you, typically, only expect to see in movies and in general fiction but they are, instead, actual real-life events. And I don't think that it is necessarily his intent to do away with 'the broadcast', but he's definitely hoping that the masses will collectively begin to give it less and less attention, when the real fascination is right in front of you. 

Lyrics: "Hear what Rasta Drum saying: Disturbance over food. These times are harsh and rude. YOU HAVE FIVE YEAR OLD NATIONAL CATASTROPHE WHERE HELP STILL CAN'T REACH YET… AS IF THE WHOLE WORLD FORGET. They wander and relocate, recollect. Border to border refugee neglect"

#11. 'Peak Tension Time'

The wholly brilliant tune that was 'Peak Tension Time' was a song about a tunnel. It was about finding something, hopefully something positive, which gets you through the rigours of life and allows you to "simplify" the complicated things that you may experience. That message was wrapped up in one of the most beautiful packages to be found on "Kings Bell" and the song was very calming to just sit and listen to and has probably gone on to become not as appreciated as its quality would have seemingly demanded. So definitely go back and take a new listen to 'Peak Tension Time'. 

Lyrics: "A supernova in a stardust time [!]. May have to contain yourself to survive"

#12. 'Black Mamba'

'Black Mamba' is, EASILY, one my top five favourite Midnite songs ever (what else would be on that list??? Songs like 'Before I Lose My Strength' and 'Hemp Scroll'… 'Mongst I & I' may be there as well) and it has become THE song from "Kings Bell". It was the prime moment when education met entertainment on a Midnite song and they had a baby… which was an eleven foot, six hundred pound tiger. 

Lyrics: "Inna di whole world, mi mean look at the bigga picture: AN ELEVEN FOOT, SIX HUNDRED POUND TIGER. Him get fed up all of a sudden, what dem ah pet him mouth fuh? Inna an instant he remember his true nature. Not to mention Black Mamba and King Cobra" 

#13. 'What About Sudan'

When you place material things and money ahead of money, it goes without saying that you probably have problems with getting your priorities in order. There is no reason to overlook mankind and yet that is the message behind 'What About Sudan' ["business first, I-manity second"] which was a MAMMOTH song in retrospect. The riddim here was a serious one but you lose virtually everything this song is worth if you don't tune in to what Benjamin is saying, especially in its middle portions where Sudan and the entire continent begin to glow in this man's words. 

Lyrics: "It was defenceless inna di jungle, it was survival. IT WAS LIKE SOMETHING ONE WOULDA SEE PON A NATURE CHANNEL. It was sweatshop, child labour, rodent infestation. Inna collision with Native American called puritan. And dem state seh dem was running weh from persecution. AND DO WORSER THAN WHO DEM SEH DEM JUST RUN WEH FROM" 

#14. 'Jerusalem School Room'

'Jerusalem School Room' is another song which was very nice to listen to and brought a very significant message along with a sterling sound. In this particular case, that message was one of educating yourself and becoming familiar with certain aspects of life. What is predominately focused on in here is the economy and financial matters and that's a very nice way to go because so many people aren't completely aware of how those things work, even when they apply to you personally (as my wonderful Aunt-In-Law says, "if you don't know your money, someone else will"). 

Lyrics: "Inna Jerusalem school room, careful up inna di current zone. Decisionous place, where you walk alone. Lonely placed wid di whole big crowd around. Next step you ahgo tek fi secure yuh own. The currency watch the bills and ah beg and ah groan. Say don't go give I to dem, keep I for your own. The government demself caan pay back the loan. And have di people inna terror, repo man around"

#15. 'The Quickening'

Listening to 'The Quickening', I can almost feel Vaughn Benjamin's joy with what he was working with. He seems very pleased by the track. That track, courtesy of Bassie Campbell, was also a favourite of mine, the Drum Melody Riddim. He does make the most of the moment with a tune which remains a highlight from this album to my ears as it sends a giant praise to His Majesty and also, given where it is placed on "Kings Bell", provides the album with another moment from its latter stages which is virtually impossible not to pay attention to. 

Lyrics: "If I & I humble to order instilled, it's because The King of Kings say so. It's the right thing say HIM. Give Rasta His counsel, make the world drink! Come make the whole world mind drink! Regimented rise and fall out of labour working. The fields work in riddim. Work in riddim" 

#16. 'Torpedo'

Because of its sound, you can listen through 'Torpedo' and really have a good time and (bounce in your chair like I am right now) enjoy it with no problem at all but it doesn't fully shine until and unless you really tune it in and begin the journey to comprehension of what it is actually about. Fortunately, I am very much still in the middle of that journey, so I can give you an update from the inside of it. Where I am now is the thinking that 'Torpedo' is a song about motivation. It isn't a piece telling you to get up and… it is about "motivation" in the pure form. Seeking a proper motivation in the midst of so many reasons to do so many wrong and FOUL things 

Lyrics: "They barter, exchanging salt fi gold. Is a different value system you know. And they say how they ignorant so. And dem approach dem wid torpedo! As a quicker way fi get di gold. Wid a guilty generation whoa, about what dem inherit yah so, dung yah so"


So where do we go from here??? Along with the inherent fact that analyzing Vaughn Benjamin's music provides someone with… A LOT of work to do, every time you do it, looking here is an even more fascinating proposition because of the latest Midnite/IGR effort. In that set, "Beauty For Ashes", there was definitely a running theme, where Vaughn Benjamin took the concept of unity and sliced and spliced it apart and back together again as he produced that piece of mastery which we may be looking at in this capacity someday. As for "Kings Bell" and, in my opinion most other Midnite albums, I don't think that there was as prevailing of a central element in writing the album but I do think that there were a few which you see explored over and over again and I just wouldn't be me if I didn't want to look into at least a couple of them now - one of them, in particular, which very loosely ties into the title.  

"Two or three gather in His name, ah promise Jah is in it
When its soul thieving duppy weh dem ah stand fi resist
Rasta share to humble ones inna di joy of live

As I said before (or at least I hope that I did), I believe the concept of the "Kings Bell" is MUSIC. And several points on the album Benjamin, including this stanza from 'Pon A Watchlist', makes that point vivid. The idea here, as well as on songs like 'System Peak Out', 'On The Broadcast' and others, is that negativity activity diminishes with the closer you move towards His Majesty. When you move further away [?] you'll "have di whole world suspect yuh pon a watch list". And the evolving point here would be that one of the things that does bring you closer is the music [WHAT!] which celebrates HIM. "Rasta share to humble ones inna di joy of live", he says. In that particular case, I think that the "joy" is a musical one. To go even further with that you go directly to the source which is the title track. 

And then dem yah talent offering unto to The King of Kings
These are the warriors, the priests and the king of the King of Kings" 

There, he goes much deeper in downright BLEEDING the point. He calls it a "contagion" like I said (you're catching it!) and that sentiment is also echoed directly on 'Exalt The Crown' and I think indirectly on 'The Quickening'. In general, it can be damn difficult to get into Midnite's lyrics but I think that in this case its rather crystal clear with music being a TOOL used to accomplish so many of the objectives Benjamin tasks the listener with throughout "Kings Bell". 

The other concept I really wanted to look at from this album, definitely, is the afore-alluded to idea of unity. While it certainly is not explored on "Kings Bell" to the depths that it is on its IGR successor, it is well represented here. Of course we look at 'Mongst I & I' which is a lovely statement about looking after one another and that song stands out so widely but a tune like 'What About Sudan' follows it perfectly on a similar note by a sharp contrast. 

"It's a noble aspiration -
Protecting a defenceless population
They seh dem reach fi settle di ease inna war
By bringing dem more and all-out war"

THAT is the type of attention I DO NOT want. If that's what you're bringing then bring it somewhere else and I think that this song stands up so mightily because it even further illustrates how important unity can be. All attention is not equal, there is good and bad and, on a simpler range, it's important to look out for one another to be aware if someone finds themselves in a struggle like this where they are wholly being taken advantage of by someone supposedly carrying "a noble aspiration”. And even that ties back to my first concept because music is a way to make the people aware of such things as well. And finally, I do have to take advantage of this moment, myself. I LOVE examining and scrutinizing Midnite's music. It is, by far, the most challenging brand of this era and, though they have some of the most fervent followers out of anyone in Reggae music today, I don't think that there is a grand amount of people really breaking down the words and, in retrospect, 'they' may have never had an album which has received that level of inspection at one time. You can look at older pieces which have grown in popularity but for what it was, when this bell rang, fans of the entire genre, Midnite fans or not, heard it.
Vaughn Benjamin
Three years later, they're still hearing and thirty years on from now, they'll still be hearing "Kings Bell", a bona fide, Modern Classic! 

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