Monday, September 20, 2021

The Vault Reviews: Talk The Truth by Isasha

Un-characteristic. I suppose there is some walk of life or field or some other type of strange ass area where things such as uniqueness and originality are not good things, but music is certainly not one of them. I you really think about it, your favourite -WHATEVER- is your favourite because of how much it or they stick out from the proverbial pack. Even if your favourite song, for example, is a remake or a redo, you enjoy it more than the original because of just how different it is. And that is perhaps even clearer when it comes to particular artists. So many times they come up and are influenced (as we all are) by  the people who they grow up listening to and when you listen to them you can hear it; also, maybe they were fully grown and actually making music already but were still certainly taking bits and pieces of others to come up with their own style - and that's okay. However, it is still one of the absolute greatest of joys as a fan of music when you hear talents which, be it in great amounts or just in small bits and flavours which find a way to stand out. On one extreme end of that would be someone like a Jah Cure. Take a song sung by anyone -- anyone at all in history, it does not matter -- if it is redone by Jah Cure it is (most likely better) a different song. I guarantee it. He could not sing it exactly like the original if he tried because Mother Nature gave that man a voice and forgot how She made it. She lost the formula and no one since has had it (and anyone who may've had it prior to him died before human beings figured out to record audio). His music will always stick out because of that. Similarly, I look at great deviation from center in someone like Perfect. Perfect doesn't had this immense voice like Jah Cure (DUH!), but instead, when you listen to his music what you hear is personality. His vibes are quirky, they are spontaneous and, often, downright bizarre. But you make a riddim and voice ten average artists who turn in ten average and then call Perfect - there is your change up. His will not sound like the rest of them. There're other glaring examples of artists who, for one reason or another, inherently and organically have styles of entirely their own creation Aidonia's always an interesting case because, although he was greatly influenced by others, what he did was to take what they did and just... take it to outer space). But sometimes, things are more subtle.

Take for example someone like Sizzla Kalonji. Sizzla is, and has been for quite awhile (and likely will be until my days are done), my single favourite musician of all time. Yet with that being said, I cannot say that what he does is SO much different from everyone else. On his way up he was constantly related to the likes of Capleton, Anthony B and others and, if I can remember correctly (and I usually cannot), at times he welcomed the comparisons. Still, when at his full peak, Sizzla differentiates himself from the bludgeoning lyrical firestorm of Capleton's and the hypnotic, rapturous chant of Anthony B's (probably just me (it is), but Anthony B, on my favourite songs from him, almost always sounds as if he is in 'the zone' and could HAPPILY sing that same song for hours and hours) (I should probably review an old Anthony B album one of these days, it's been a minute) by becoming this alien-like amalgam of PERFECT lyrics, timing and sense of melody. But it isn't a gift which leaps out at you every single time you listen to him. I also think of a Tarrus Riley. If Tarrus Riley's music was a school, you would want your kids to grow up and attend it. He makes such a powerfully refined brand of Roots Reggae that it seems as if he were born and then nurtured to do precisely what he does (because he was). And I mention all of that now because today we're diving back into the vault (I missed a lot through the years) and taking a look at someone who, very much in his own unique way, has made a name for himself doing a style of music which, just in case you didn't notice, is his very own special blend.


Of course we're talking about one of the genuine pillars of Reggae music from out of Trinidad, Isasha. The wonderful Kingdom of Soca that it is, Trinidad has produced a relatively steady stream of supremely gifted Reggae talents as well (none more so than the water-walking Queen Omega) and they have given us hits throughout the years as well. Names such as Marlon Asher (have two albums of his to write about someday), Khari Kill, Prophet Benjamin (who's also proved damn strong at Soca) and others have established themselves as big names while supplying the genre with a whole heap of unforgettable moments. One of them, which is on the album I'm about to tell you about, came from Arima native, Isasha way back in 2006-ish. That song was an UTTER JOY to hear (it still is today) and it would go a long way in introducing to the world someone who had such a PROFOUNDLY faintly (nowhere else will you find someone link PROFOUND AND FAINT like that, as if they are not kind of opposites) DISTINCT style. What I mean is this (now look how I explain my way out of this): You could listen to that song and many of the others on this album and enjoy what you hear. What you will be listening to will be dynamic. It will be exciting and it will make satisfying even the most cursory and casual of spin-throughs. Isasha is an entertainer and it comes through as organically as the subject in his predominately Roots Reggae output. Because of that, at least in my opinion, what you get when you take in his vibes is something which, in some way or another, is highly likely to stick with you. Even if you cannot remember the exact words, you'll walk away remembering  the MELODY. That will remain (and will be highlighted by Isasha's just COOL signature stuttering chant). Interested in an example??? Of course you do. Perhaps you should take a listen to what I believe is the artist's official debut solo album, 2017's golden "Talk The Truth". Previously, Isasha did have released "Real & Down To Earth" in 2008, which was a combination project with his biological brother, Million Voice (biggup Million Voice, who passed away of cancer in late 2018), but at least to my knowledge, despite his immense solo successes, Isasha had never done a full album by himself prior to 2017 (and, unsurprisingly (it was hard to find in its day), "Real & Down To Earth" has all but vanished and never arrived on the digital market) (how nice would it have been had someone written some kind of REVIEW for that album at some point) (OH LOOK! I found A REVIEW!). He had been featured on quite a bit of different projects including the "Reggae Roadblock" series from many years back, which was three better than solid sets featuring Trini Reggae artists, exclusively. On top of that, our old readers may recall Isasha's involvement with one of the finest sets we've ever featured, the amazing "Joyful Noise", from I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings ["Cah who Jah bless, no man curse. Alla di wicked unda dirt"].  Fortunately, "Talk The Truth" came super powered. Released officially by One-Soi Investments Limited (which you will likely not attached to any other release), it would come backed by VPAL -- distribution arm of VP Records -- which means that, in a few decades, it should still be readily available (they've also worked with Khari Kill). That is definitely significant It's already been out and about for four years now, however, and you should have taken a listen. Haven't yet? Been busy? Had something to do? That's okay. Let's do it right now.

"Talk The Truth" was as much of a collection of previously released work as it was a new release. I listened to an interview Isasha gave around its release and he spoke about how he sought to please fans who both wanted new material and wanted a collection where they could find some of their favourites in one place. This album delivered on that (with one exception) and so much more. You would have found both a new song and a familiar one at the head of Isasha's debut full studio album, "Talk The Truth", 'Jah Is With Me'. In the literal and actual sense, as far as I know, 'Jah Is With Me' was new at the time, however, he had a combination with Million Voice of the same name years back (it's even on their album). The older version was very strong and the newer one was sublime. You get a double dose in this one as it comes through, initially, very nice and laid back, but Isasha begins to burn in its second half on this wonderfully DUSTY and GRIMEY vibed sound (it sounds like they made it on just a feeling and didn't do much editing or anything and what resulted was a masterpiece.  'Peace' was a new one completely to my ears and eyes appearing here. As one of the strongest lyrical efforts you'll find on "Talk The Truth", in order to illustrate his point (which is almost Tosh-esque to my ears), Isasha stands on the shoulders of immortals.

" 'Can't be a nation without a country' - that's the words of great Marcus Garvey!
And 'darkness cannot drive out darkness' - Dr. Martin Luther King said this!
And 'leadership don't mean domination' - those are the words of The Conquering Lion!
So teach di youths about Marley and Malcolm and di rest of warriors who die fi wi freedom"

'Peace' is just INTELLIGENT. It is an educated and smart song to have written and I was damn impressed at first listen and I still am right now. Speaking of being impressed, while 'Warn Them' can be harsh (and fittingly so, it should be when you're discussing these type of things), it is no less at all just fantastic lyrically.

"The whole place gwan different-
An wi act like, yow wi neva si dat 
From ah caught inna babylon system, too many youths dem ah move like idiot
Look how brother kill  brother and sister kill sis
Father kill mother, mi ah ask dem wah dis

Ah warn dem again!
Unuh ah tell dem that di beast is roaming 
Protect your children 
Cause like a raging storm, it's coming

Time fi stop di shedding of di children's blood
Through nature, send an earthquake or flood
Teach di youths dem goodness with kisses and hugs
Sometimes mi haffi wonder down inna mi soul-
Like di heart of mankind getting so cold

Ah warn dem again!
Unuh ah tell dem that di beast is roaming 
Protect your children 
Cause like a raging storm, it's coming

Tell mi how come Jah so love mankind?
Children a di only reason I can find
Vanity in all wi heart, soul and mind
Worse yet when envy and rage combine
Mek wi win this war that Satan sign
Put away di violence, break up all crime
Love reign supreme, hate stop shine
Cause wi live inna di end of time"

This ^ is one of those moments where I felt as if I had made my point and wanted to stop, but each time I did, Isasha said something else that I thought would be good to include. 'Warn Them' was just mighty and aimed at those who do THE WORST in the world by preying upon the pure and defenseless. You may know the Signs Riddim for having backed Khari Kill's HEAVY 'Bird Pepper' track ["RUN GO HAIL SELASSIE I, THE FIRST! THINGS WILL BE BETTER!"] but its creator, the once mighty Studio 53, also voiced a few others, including Isasha who dropped the most memorable 'Who Jah Bless' on the track (incidentally, Million Voice's song on the riddim, '11 Days, 11 Nights', may've been even stronger than his brother's), which was a nice sized hit for the artist in its day. This tune was about perseverance through His Majesty and it had such a nice, aggressive vibes to it and, like I said, it will stick with you as easily one of the most sonically pleasing on the whole of the album. And I'm all but certain that I hadn't heard the oft-hilarious 'Complaining' ahead of it appearing on "Talk The Truth". Isasha is pissed off and tired as hell of the woman in his life whining and complaining over and over again ["Can't stay late inna di studio. She complain about girls inna my video"]. Despite its title, I do not take a song like this one very seriously at all (although relatable... to some of you I'm sure, not me) and as I alluded to, it seems like a piece Isasha just wanted to do to have some fun with and, if so, mission accomplished. 

On the other side of 'Complaining' would be something like the SWEET 'Tell Me', which was a single from "Talk The Truth" and just an excellent love song. i mentioned it briefly earlier that, if you aren't familiar with it, Isasha has this really cool stuttery thing he does in his music. It is all his, I've never heard anyone else do it and it SO NICELY livens up the relationship driven 'Tell Me'. Just on the heels of 'Tell Me' is the very curious marriage-ish 'I Do' which, although it took more than a few spins, did ultimately end up growing on me to at least some degree. The song has what I would call an unusual vibes to it and it's nearly acoustic, but what ends up developing is lovely and has some redeeming value and I do not know if that's the case if you give it to anyone else or at least more than a few 'elses'. I would say that if it does not immediately strike you, to give it some time and do not give up on it because what is lost would be yours and yours alone. And after giving love to his special person, Isasha goes special-er on the album's obligatory mama song, 'Big Up Mama'. This one may be a little more lively than you're accustomed to, but it well works for what the song ends up being (and is nice for a change in the vibes on something very much a nearly REQUIRED entry for such an album) (if you make Roots Reggae music, you need to be able to make mama songs. You just do), which is an attempt at a slightly more all-encompassing effort than usually present on these type of specific sets. And we'll just keep the love flowing all over "Talk The Truth", this time in the form of 'Red, White & Black', an ode to Isasha's place of birth vibed by Martian Music. I am sure I must have heard someone do a song like this one at some point (specifically meaning Trinidad) (seems like something Bunji Garlin may've done), but I can't actually recall it, specifically, right now, so biggup Isasha for answering the question. As for the song, CLEARLY Isasha has a whole heap of pride in being where he is from and Trinidad is an amazing place and he should feel that way. Its lasting impression may be in how detailed 'Red, White & Black' is at times with the artist referencing so many different aspects about the country including, at one point, legendary cricketer, Brian Lara, by name. As someone who comes from Trini heritage (biggup my Dad), it is a very nice tune to hear.

Part of the reason 'Red, White & Black' is so nice is just the general vibes of the song and the same could definitely be said for the album's closer, 'Pull Up' which is given a very curious... 'pull up' as not only present is the original track but also its radio edited version. It's the radio edit which means that the only changes are in some words being omitted from the original. I don't know why they chose to include it - my guess would be that they either assumed it would be quite popular or it was popular and someone told them that it may have difficulty getting played, so instead of leaving it to someone else to cut, Isasha and company took care of that themselves. Were that the case, it's not surprising. Coming across the lovely old school Dancehall licked Armageddon Riddim from Lion Twin Music (which is worth looking up, it had three other selections and two of them, from Princess Kazayah and Black Loyalty, respectively, were nice), 'Pull Up' goes in a few different directions which just makes me think that it was a vibe. Isasha heard the riddim and, organically, he came up with this one. That isn't to say that it's lacking at all, it's actually one of my favourites on "Talk The Truth" (and Isasha actually reminds me a bit of Fantan Mojah on the song with his delivery at times) (biggup Fantan Mojah) , and it does have a centralized theme of just enjoying oneself and putting away the negative things. The Meddi Riddim from Optimus Productions backs the solid 'Chatty Chatty' where Isasha addresses nosey ass people who have great difficulty keep their mouths shut.

"Yah caan live in glass house and throw stones
Everyday you ah live yuh life one way yow
You waan mek my business yah own
Yuh too badmind and false
Quick to rejoice and laugh when dem si yuh cross
Stranger bless yuh, dem act like they shock

Negative people are also the target of the EXCELLENT, explosive title track. In succession, 'Chatty Chatty' and 'Talk The Truth' pack a knockout punch because, as I said, they have a similar objective in mind ["Dem boy deh too evil. Dem nuh really give a damn bout people"] and the title track steps up the levels considerably over an already strong selection. A big credit goes to Outlaw Muzik who provides the POUNDING Classified Riddim for 'Talk The Truth' (that thing is VICIOUS!). And I also have to mention (because it's on the album and... I talk about all of them) 'Live Together' which was actually produced by another big name in Trinidad Reggae, Jamelody, for his big Guidance Riddim (if you remember the well gifted Daniel Bless, he tore into that track with 'Judge Not', which you should look up) - about as NICE of a one-drop as you'll find here. This song didn't do what I would have expected it to, 'Live Together' has HIT written on it to my ears and eyes and it's gone largely overlooked, but you can rectify that for yourself. Lyrically, it is easily amongst Isasha's best work to date ["Tell dem wi burn di animosity. Bun out hatred, wi burn out all vanity. Wi no waan no more hatred and jealousy. More love, yeah, we want in every community. Tell dem, tell dem fi stand up as a people. Tell dem di battle will between good and evil. Don't let di system pollute yah temple. Caw when Jah wrath, di evil shall go get trampled"] (WHAT!) and well worth digging deep into. 

NOW! With all that being said, the absolute reigning class of "Talk The Truth" is found in two songs. The first of them was one which I was SO happy to see included, 'The World Is Inna Mess'. Featured on Studio 53's BRILLIANT (IT WAS SO GOOD! One-drop with a steel pan!) Show Version Riddim (which may be THE finest Reggae riddim from out of Trinidad that I can remember), Isasha's cut was the strongest of them all and, even about a decade later, it has not lost a damn thing! The song ranks as one of the three finest that I have ever heard from the artist (curiously one of them is missing, more on that in just a second). As for THE best song of Isasha's career. It comes as no shock that they also chose to include 'Don't You Know', which is probably.... one of the thirty-ish best that I have ever heard from ANYONE, EVER. It's well traveled at this point and it was actually on "Real & Down To Earth" as well (whenever he gets around to making another album, I would suggest they put it on that one also), but who cares! 'Don't You Know' is Isasha's signature and if he spends the rest of his career attempting to reach its level, coming close, but never actually getting there, he will have been very successful (because it isn't as if anyone else is reaching it either). 

Overall, I was surprised to see that not included was the syrupy sweet praising track, 'I Know Jah', which was a combination with Million Voice ["Heeeee's my Kiiiiing"]. I have no idea why it isn't on this release. It should have made it here, but it is readily available should you want to hear it and you do. As for what actually is on "Talk The Truth", it was a very strong release and one, in retrospect, which may have come as somewhat of a very nice surprise. At the time, it just kind of showed up one day (but don't they all??), there didn't seem to be some type of sudden push towards an Isasha album, but "Talk The Truth" arrived and, when it did, it IMPRESSED! Again, if you REALLY tune it in, what you begin to hear on this release and from his music in general is just how different Isasha can be. Placed together in a form like this, what you would have had is of the more exciting releases of its era. In a career full of blazing singles, "Talk The Truth", unsurprisingly, proved that the style transferred very well to an album form as Isasha shined throughout.

Rated: 4.25/5
One-Soi Investments Limited

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Vault Reviews: Rootz And Kulcha by Ras Batch

Wizard. Roots Reggae music, more so than any other we deal with here, is an artform very much based on the message. It is about an artist who has constructed an opinion and a point of view coming up with a way to express that idea and then presenting it to the masses for our digestion. At its best, it provokes thought and action and really just challenges the listener to do more than just sit and enjoy what they are hearing (although you can do that as well). These messages... you know them very well if it is your intent to read a review such as this one, are staples of the genre. They occur so frequently in the music that people like me often use the term 'obligatory' in describing particular songs because there is a virtual 'checklist' of requirements in terms of certain foundational ideas of Roots Reggae music. And it is still music, which means that there is an inherent 'show' or entertainment aspect to it (it has to sound good, at the very least), but the messages behind that music can be so strong that... well I don't even have to explain it. You can go through the archives of these pages and see just how appealing and moving some of this material can be and I have not even scratched the surface of tiny percentage of what has existed during our time. On top of just how plentiful and popular the music can be, it does have a ROOT and a purpose. Though we may tend to overlook it or maybe people like You and I have listened to so much of it that it takes something truly extraordinary to get our attention on a higher level, it is still present and the very fact that the music is so populated may just be the greatest piece of evidence that a great deal of work remains to be done. Now when you get into that next aspect of individuals who at least seem to take that next step and actually apply it to something further than making a song (and we don't know them, we don't live in their houses and we cannot say what they do behind closed doors or what is going on in their thoughts), I think that the list of those type of artists becomes much less populated. SURELY one of the individuals who carries the mantle of not only making a certain type of HEAVY Roots Reggae music and, again, at least seemingly, living it as part of his everyday life is St. Croix veteran, Ras Batch. Batch is someone whose presence I have so wonderfully grown to appreciate as I've gotten older and while I would not say that in my youth his work was unattainable or incomprehensible, I would have been absolutely SHOCKED had you come to me... a decade and half or so ago and told me that I'd wake up one day and he would, rather easily, be amongst my favourite artists. I surely appreciated his work and was coming around more and more to know about everything he had his hand in at the time (more on that in a second), but I never would have imagined that I'd wake up one day in 2021 EXCITED about writing a review for a four year old Batch album.

So what changed? What clicked? I wish that I could tell you about one specific thing or moment, but I think that I may be able to come close to doing that if my memory is correct. in 2005 Batch had an album by  the name of "Jah Guidance". I heard it, I thought it decent and I put it down and moved on from it. Fortunately I hung on to that set (which wasn't always the case and I have passed on some GEMS in my day, but fortunately I still own the physical disc for that album) and, somewhere down the line I gave it another listen. I could force my memory to attempt to be able to explain what the shift was or I can just tell you that an album that I had once set down and marked as "decent" had grown to the point where you will now find it listed as a Modern Classic on these pages which as distinct an 'honour' that we give to full studio releases. "Jah Guidance" is one of the finest albums that I have ever heard. It just is and, what is most remarkable, is that he's managed to top himself since then, with an even stronger project.
2005 & 2012

In 2012, Ras Batch would FINALLY link up with the Virgin Islands' dominant label for Roots Reggae, Achis Reggae favourite I Grade Records and the Zion I Kings collective. That union would birth the downright STUNNING "Know Thyself", another modern classic (probably time we got around to doing a few more of those), and really take Batch's career to another level in terms of notoriety. Prior to that, Batch's career is one of someone who has had to GRIND. The man has seemingly been one of Reggae's hardest working soldiers of his era. Starting out on his own Sound V.I.Zion Records imprint, Batch did virtually everything there was to do with his music and for that of other artists as well. He played instruments, he wrote, produced and put it out (PAID FOR) on his own label. He was also very instrumental in bringing to the world, fully, one of the most naturally gifted artists we have ever seen as the first two albums from the great Ras Attitude, "Happiness" and "Love Life" were Sound V.I.Zion productions as well (they also took a credit for the "Trodding Home" release as well) AND, were that enough (and it was), the label also released an album called "Ah We Deh Ya" in 2012 by an artist named Ima, who is Ras Batch's wife. As I said, it has been a grind and he has been someone who has CLEARLY embraced it and doing the work required. So, following the step up that was "Know Thyself", I was damn interested in seeing what the next move would be for Batch and it took half a decade, but in 2017, the chanter returned with his eighth studio release to date, the most fittingly titled "Rootz And Kulcha". The set would mark Batch's first album released through Sound V.I.Zion Records since 2007's "To The Root" (which was excellent. It was so good!). And, like "To The Root" and "Keep The Faith" and "Who You Are" before it, "Rootz And Kulcha" was a project steered by Batch himself. I heard him say in an interview that there was about ten people, totally, involved in the work of the album, including his own son. That's the type of thing that you're going to get from someone TRULY dedicated to doing this work and getting the message out to the masses (in the very same interview, he would go on to say that he had, years previously, come to the conclusion that the work he was doing would not bring him economical success, but he felt it still so very important to do the work. He felt like he HAD to do it). There's no one over his shoulder, telling him what he has to do or about a deadline or anyone talking about a performance or anything like that. It all comes from Batch, himself, and when you look at exactly what he's managed to accomplish in his career, given that he has had to be self-motivated and, for the most part, self-sustaining, it makes it even more striking. Strictly on the music side, Batch's style has remained so wonderfully simple and direct, that I have made the case in the past that he may be someone who has actually ahead of his time. That, years from now, someone will come up heavily influenced by Batch and doing their own fantastic work. Until then, however, we're in a position to APPRECIATE the artist for what he has become.

Which is very strong. These days, I don't worry about Batch's music very much (and it's been a minute since I have, actually), in terms of the quality or the actual sound, for the most part. The formula he has used throughout the years is well proven and he knows it. He is well aware of his strengths and weaknesses and you know precisely what you're getting into when you listen to his work. I don't know when his next album is coming (hopefully it is in the works, it's been four years now since this one), but I can tell you already how it sounds and that it's going to be some type of excellent. Reasons supporting that prediction can be found throughout "Rootz And Kulcha", the most recent album from VI Roots Reggae wizard, Ras Batch. The title track and, I think, the second official single gets us up and going. If you were going to name Batch's entire career -- like a greatest hits album -- 'Rootz And Kulcha' might be apropos. The way this one is written almost has a double meaning if you take it just a bit deeper. Along with the 'roots and culture' being a clear identifier of the style of the vibes you're listening to, Batch also takes the tune to African shores and uses it to say that he will always be observant, respectful and prideful of his origins ["No tree can live without roots. How can it stand? How will it bear fruit?"]. When you combine the two, and the general structure here, you end up with one SWEET offering and one of the finest on the album it titles. Another highlight, 'Bless Up', is second and it definitely keeps the levels high as, following an electric beginning, it ascends into this sparkling Roots set which is geared towards reminding us all to take a moment and appreciate the things that we do have in life No, everything isn't perfect (it never will be perfect and if it were, it would probably drive you crazy), but you do you have something good in your life and something to be thankful for. I also really like how Batch specifically directs this one to his own community and neighbouring areas in the Virgin Islands, which is something that I don't recall hearing very much, although it is not at all surprising coming from him. Though "Rootz And Kulcha" gets off to a fine start with its initial pair of selections, its third, 'Rastafarian Chant', is even stronger. Beginning with a traditional chant, the song goes on to SOAR!

"With the drum beating, from deep in the wilderness
A royal gathering-
To see the Rasta kinship and the Rasta Empress
Everyone feeling the best
Fragrance from the frankincense and he myrrh incense
Headstrong come deh and kette ah beat 
Judgment, hotta fyah fi tun up di heat
Crushing devil unda feet
When Rastafarian ah chant!"

In my opinion, 'Rastafarian Chant' has no equal on "Rootz And Kulcha". It reigns supreme here as one giant piece of praising tune and, from someone who is EXCELLENT on the subject (he had a tune on the "To The Root" album called 'Hail The King': TEARS!) (had another one that I'll you about in a minute as well), it still ranks very highly in his catalogue. 'Burdened' with following that giant effort is 'Truth and Redemption' and it actually does just that quite well. The vibes of 'Truth and Redemption' are a bit difficult to describe maybe. Something about, the pace or something, is very unique at least to my ears, but in a very subtle way (probably doing a horrible job of describing something that no one else has ever felt about it). Whatever it is, Batch uses it to deliver a social commentary with its feet, very much, on spiritual grounds. The point here being made is that when we turn to a Higher Source, many of the problems we have in the world will be corrected. We definitely have to be aware and to carry our load and do our part, but an absence of His Majesty will leaving us wanting more. It is a very interesting lyrical composition as well and one which I have, wonderfully, spent quite a bit of time on working through and you know I will continue. And definitely make sure you take it in its entirety as, later on, Batch dazzles. 'Chant Down Babylon' is a bit more straight-forward, but it also kept me quite busy and I've well enjoyed it. You can take this one in a few different ways (two in particular) and it will work out for you. The first would be that Ras Batch is telling us all just how important to call out and point out nastiness and injustice ["Them think forever dem injustice gonna last. Jah judgment ah come down fast"] wherever you may encounter it and. And you could also, specifically, apply it to the artist, himself. He's talking about how much it means to him, to personally be in a position to make this type of sound and put a flame to those who mistreat the world. As I said, either course (or both simultaneously) will lead you to a fruitful destination... so yeah, you may want to try both. 

Though you'll find my single favourite selection on it in its first third, the next 'batch' of songs on "Rootz And Kulcha" is, arguably, even better in many ways. The biggest attraction here (literally) is the downright EPIC 'Only Truth'. Checking in at a delicious six seconds just south of six minutes, 'Only Truth' is absolutely EVERYTHING you need it to be and probably a bit more. The basis of this one is education. The more you know and the more you are you aware of what is going, the more capable you will be in identifying negative things and negative actions against you. That's the foundation; and Batch begins methodically building on it with a message which reaches out to subjects regarding religion, slavery, history and others. It is a fantastic tune and which now has me questioning my favourite song present here. I also should mention the vibes. 'Only Truth' CRAWLS! It comes through on a divinely slow-paced HEAVY Roots track which is also amongst the album's very best. Surrounding 'Only Truth', right in the middle of the project, are four more stellar efforts. Check the unity-driven 'Live as One', where Batch chants down infighting and disharmony amongst oppressed people, while THE ACTUAL OPPRESSOR walks away unscarred (kind of reminds you of a piece he did with Achis Reggae favourite, Messenjah Selah, from "I-Ver Strong", called 'Us Against Us') (big tune ["Cah di ignorance and folly deh ah gwann fi too long. Waan cut each other throat and still can't get along"]. I loved the background singer on this one as, whoever she may be, she really does a nice job in enhancing the URGENCY of the topic and as it progresses, Batch does the same thing as well. The background singers found on 'Word, Sound, Power' also do very well in helping set the tone of things. They come in with a gorgeous African chant. 

"Just can't keep I down
Rastaman word, power and sound
Jah lifted I face off the ground

From a strictly sonic point of view, this one may just be the best listen on this entire release (and that's saying quite a lot, especially considering some of the later ones). What I ultimately took away from it was that Batch was attempting to infuse some PRIDE in his listeners and to be proud and HONOURED of our heritage and what we come from. Again, the method he uses to make this point is a GOLDEN one. It is so nice! And, taken as a whole, you have another highlight from an album which is proving to be better than the rating I had in mind for it (which is part of the reason why I write the way I do, when you scrutinize EVERYTHING, you get so much more detail as a listener). There're also two more 'colourful' tracks in the mid portions of the album, the scathing 'Hue Man Race' and 'Red, Gold and Green'. The former actually deals with race relations to a degree in the world an, clearly, it is a topic for which Batch carries a whole heap of passion. 

"Is it because of my broad lips, I dark complexion-
I am targeted, fit description and di colour for detention 
Still remember slavery, mass genocide
Ethnic-cleansing families, conquer and them divide
Like we don't know eugenics, immunization and abortion dem a whoa
While we stay drunk-
Pharmaceutical vaccination pon di people dem ah dump
To control conception of specific people
Marginalizing, discriminating get I and I people"

Batch makes the comparison of the race in the song to an actual race ["The race is on, all bets are in. And a time fi start, so let's begin"] and it is such a wonderfully detailed expression of his ideas, that it comes off as if Batch was standing there not just singing a song, but also teaching some type of class (biggup Reemah) and your fee is free. 'Red, Gold and Green' is another strong piece about being proud of who you are and where you come from and it is outstanding. I won't rank it (even though I really want to, I'm not because I'm going to start working on the last few tunes and then hear something that will make me have to come back and rewrite this), but there is not a single thing on this album that is considerably better than it and if you were someone to say it is THE best, that would be fine as well. It has this very large sound at times, which mixes with a more laidback sound which Batch and co. utilize to near perfection ["For so long, wi ah wave this yah banner, for so long. From father to son"].

Along with the title track, there was one piece on "Rootz And Kulcha" which caught my eye from just looking at the titles and that was definitely, 'Healing of The Nation'. What was so special about this one? It, sort of, shares a title with a previous Batch song from the aforementioned "Jah Guidance" album (which is officially called 'Healing', but you listen to the song and they share a punchline) -- and he's done that before, having one song on two different albums, as the towering 'Zion Kingdom Come' from "Jah Guidance" was originally "Zion King Come" from "Keep The Faith" ["IT'S A PRIVILEGE FI SEEK OF ZION KINGDOM! AND IF YOU SEEK HIM, THEN YOU KNOW WILL LIVE LONG"] (WHAT!) (BOOM!) -- but while similar, these two are different. I won't compare them directly, but I will say while both are strong on both fronts, one is stronger lyrically and one has a finer sound, in my opinion. Of course, they share a subject and that is one of Batch's favourites  as he LOVES singing about the medicinal and remedying effects of the herb. Batch's ganja songs have always been big and 'textured' (my favourite probably is 'Green Gold' from) and you can really tell his love of the plant (I've also heard him on an interview talking about the topic and saying how much better the world might be if everyone indulged). So for something, CLEARLY, so important to the man, he gives it the quality it deserves and he always has. If 'Hue Man Race' was Ras Batch teaching a class, 'Teach Dem' is a full honours course. Batch takes this one in a variety of different ways, with the prevailing theme being one of Africa being an ancestor for not only people, but for knowledge and education, in general.

"It is a long  time dem ah tell lie pon wi
Talking about some kinda supremacy
When every nation come from wi 
Melanin Mama, and di child di belly
Longtime dem plagiarize history
Ah still ah try to hide di truth from wi 
Remember culture, our story
Di African science, math and philosophy

Come fi teach dem
Come fi teach dem
Recognize di brainwash inna di system"

The roots in this one go REALLY deep and, as it progresses, 'Teach Dem' wonderfully begins to acknowledge legendary African intellects and others. This is the type of song that you KNOW he did his research for, he refreshed some ideas and placed them together in such a gorgeous package. There's also 'War Fighting' which doesn't have the sound that you would think its title would dictate. It isn't at all aggressive and, instead, its actually more of an anti-violence set and not the kind of commentary that I envisioned (which was probably just a mistake on my part). Regardless, it is solid and one which I would suggest you spend a bit of time on. 'Still Have Love', on the other hand, is pretty much precisely what one would expect in terms of sound. It's course, however, is something different. I was thinking it would be a love song, but it's actually about perseverance. I THOROUGHLY enjoyed the direction of this one which, if you replace certain aspects of it (and what I mean is that 'love' can be a very specific thing, but if you 'broaden' it and make it just general 'positivity' -- meaning, though I have been through so many things, I still have a positive outlook on things, I do not think the world is ending and the sky is falling) it GLOWS! And, I think it's actually quite unique. As I said way back at the beginning of this review, there're certain messages which are foundational to Roots Reggae music, but this isn't one of them. Occasionally things can seem a bit bleak and desolate, but a song like this is damn reassuring in the small and large senses. You take 'Still Have Love' in anyway in which is resonates to you, but to my ears, it's one of the most satisfying on "Rootz And Kulcha". And finally, Ras Batch is sure to give a massive praise on the golden 'Hail Jah' (THE foundation of Roots Reggae) before sending us on our way. As I said, Batch's musical history is brimming with tracks like this one and they are always very impressive. 'Hail Jah', which is quite detailed and specific, is certainly not an exception. It's also excellent (and I would also recommend you check out a tune he did with an artist by the name of Haile Israel called 'How Excellent [Pslams 8]' for Israel's "No Worry Yah Self" album from last year). 
Overall, I want to talk about TIME briefly here. There're fifteen songs on "Rootz And Kulcha". Its run time is sixty-nine minutes. By my count, out of his eight albums now, six of them have been at least an hour long and one of the two which is not, "I-Ver Strong" ["Africa a weh wi from!"] (BOOM!), was more than fifty-nine minutes. The smallest was "Vizionary" (which mysteriously has not gone digital) (whatever happened to Itation Records???), but it only had twelve tracks and eight of those were at least four minutes long. On the opposite end would have been "Keep The Faith", which was more than seventy-five minutes in length. The point being that Batch does not make that kind of 'cookie cutter' brand of Roots music. His is far more involved and developed. He is most certainly not the type of artist who some producer/label could give a bucket of riddims and then churn out a release in a week or two. His work is so RIPE with material and, when you combine that with the fact that he does so much of this work on his own and with a very small unit of  people, it becomes that much more impressive. He is his own boss here and the 'quality-control' is, ultimately, his responsibility alone. Throughout "Rootz And Kulcha", in that respect, Ras Batch is EXTREMELY responsible, but in a career and a LIFE which is seemingly gone in courses like his have, that comes to no surprise. Lovely, as always. 

Rated: 4.35/5
Sound V.I.Zion Records
CD [Good luck finding it] + Digital

Sunday, September 12, 2021

'Normalcy?': A review of Soca Gold 2021

Irregular. I don't want to spend too much time talking about that.... thing that happened last year and  pretty much locked everyone in the house for a long time and wiped a lot of us out, because I'm tired of hearing about it and that's not what we do around here. But there was definitely a resounding impact to be felt virtually everywhere in the world and, certainly, music was not one of the rare exemptions. When you really think about music, although it is appreciable in almost any situation, is actually quite visible and the further we go along in terms of time and technology, the more that becomes the case. It is also, as it has always been, a unifier. It brings people together in many different ways (literally and figuratively, especially considering the type of music we cover around here) and when, suddenly, actually coming together becomes a potentially fatal thing (that's just a fucked up thing to type out) you can, at least temporarily, WOUND music. Almost instantly there were things such as virtual performances, concerts (virtual clashes) and full-on virtual carnivals and, a year later, we're still seeing much of that now, with the total return (presumably and at least in most cases) set to come in 2022. And of course, there were also dozens (maybe even hundreds by now) of songs (a personal favourite of mine being the genius 'New Hail' by Zagga) and we'll probably still being seeing  those for at least a few more years. And that's fine;  likewise it's just another topic to sing about. But music will heal. It will restore itself and it will do so immediately. Obviously something like a concert will inherently lose a bit (just about all of it) of its appeal when you remove the crowd. It basically becomes just a television show and there just so happens to be a certain genre for which "a television show" will simply not suffice. Of course, I am talking about my beloved Soca which almost NEEDS a crowd to reach maximum effect and, should you remove that crowd, it  turns into almost some type of a social experiment (which, again, hopefully ends COMPLETELY in 2022). It also does not help that the genre is somewhat 'seasonal' so, unlike in Reggae, you kind of don't have that entire year to expect certain things (and I've likened it to movies. Generally speaking the longer movies tend to be dramas. I am willing to drive you crazy and play with your emotions for three hours, but I cannot possibly beat the shit out of you for the same amount of time, which is why you don't generally see action films of that length). HOWEVER, the business and the practice of Soca music did go on and will go on.

While the road remained clear this year, the vibes were not bare and you can even make the case that... certain occurrences have forced some artists to bring out a new part of their games as we're now beginning to hear songs which are talking about how much the miss the party and how much fun it will be when things get back to normal (EASILY the best of these type of songs is Skinny Fabulous' DAMAGING 'Pieces', but there're several others which are very good as well and I will tell you about a few more of them shortly). On the album side in particular, unfortunately, things haven't changed for the most part and the last couple of years, as the couple before that and the couple before that, haven't produced much out of the ordinary and unexpected. Save for the same two or three individuals, with the odd surprise here and there (which is also expected, actually), the business of Soca artists making albums has remained predictably slow. Still, regardless of who or what may've intervene, the genre's most recognizable release has not taken a year off.
Of course we're talking about "Soca Gold", the annual compilation from VP Records. The oft-scrutinized release has actually enjoyed a fairly good spell over the course of the past two years or so, at least in my opinion, with the most recent two (I was about to name them, as if you couldn't figure it out) (I dare not insult YOUR intelligence like that) (I'll insult mine all I want, thank you very much) being pretty good installments of the series. "SG2020", in fact, though it may've lacked the absolute biggest tunes (it did), did contain a handful of real winners, including what may've just been my single favourite from the year (a tune called 'The Struggle' from an artist who just happens to have the biggest tune on this year's edition as well) ["Get ya dictionary, learn about the esophagus"]. "SG2019" wasn't quite as strong, but it was another more than decent compilation which, as you would hope, featured some of the biggest names from the genre with a few stellar efforts. So because of that and the fact that I just always do, I was damn interested to seeing what would become of "Soca Gold 2021" which has now arrived. First of all, let's give it the credit of the eye that it deserves because they clearly put a lot of effort into it: There is that cover. While not very different from its most immediate predecessor (it isn't very different from any of them, actually - beautiful woman in some type of pose "Soca Gold" and a year written somewhere around her) (although "SG2019" gave you a double shot, which was a first for the series), it is outstanding. This model, whoever she may be, is gorgeous just like last year's (my personal favourite remains 2003's cover which featured Camille Marshall and all of her wonderful Camille Marshallness) and next year's most likely as well. And pretty faces are nice (and so are pretty bodies), but what about the music? A very casual glance at the names which fill the ranks of "SG2021" should make you quite happy. Some of Soca's biggest active names have supplied the ammunition for this year's project and you also have one or two pieces from names who may not know at all and should keep an eye on for the future. You also have one moment which, though wholly unexpected, is a most welcomed addition. Although with that being said, when you get down to scrutinizing it just a bit (which is the fun part!), you see something a bit unusual about it at the end (literally). Dig in!

If that world sized hanging cloud of... contagion were to have an effect on putting together a program such as this one, I would have thought last year would have been the time when we would have seen the biggest evidence of it, but it seems as if that cloud's lingering ass may have gotten into the batch in 2021. Until we arrive at that point, however, "Soca Gold 2021" is, honestly, quite fun. A nice sized chunk of those good times are had at the head of things in the most remarkable form of 'Jerusalema', a global hit from South African artist and producer Master KG and Nomcebo Zikode. This isn't the first time such a track has popped up on a Soca Gold, if you recall (you don't) wayyyyyyyyy back on "SG2010", there was 'Party Hard' from British artist, Donae'o (I don't know what became of Donae'o but he's not come up on my radars since then, but I'm going to assume that he has gone onto big successes, nevertheless), so VP has previously had an eye on securing more 'world music' hits to place on its projects. Does it have a place? To my ear, 'Party Hard' was not Soca music even slightly and probably would have found a more fitting place on Reggae Gold (although I'm not complaining about it being on the album, I had no problem with it), but 'Jerusalema' does have more Groovy Soca textures to it. If you took the exact same song and did it in English with a Soca artist, no one would say anything about it being on this album. As for the quality, you listen to a song like this and you do not wonder exactly how it grew to become what it was. It is all kinds of infectious and definitely one of the finest selections here, regardless of its genre. We leave the shores of beautiful South Africa and from there we head to more usual boundaries as we get 'Go Gal' from Bajan Soca Empress, the incomparable Alison Hinds. This piece of Soca royalty actually does a bit of genre twisting as well as 'Go Gal' is probably about as much (if not slightly more) of a Dancehall tune as it straight up Soca. Just like the tune ahead of it, however, you can feel free to call it whatever you like, but it is a lot of FUN. As far as I know, the tune is a new one and VP has gone all-in on it making it the first official single from "SG2021" and you're also likely to find a video for it somewhere in here (which means that there'll be a video both ahead and behind this paragraph) and with someone with a history and, clearly, a PRESENT like Hinds', it comes as no surprise (I'm also wondering if them focusing on her like this has more of a reason that just this one album.... hmmm). And also near the head of "SG2021" you'll find a song with which I have a problem (and another one with a video you may find somewhere in this review). 'Private Party' comes to us via Soca supernova, Machel Montano (who did give us an album this year, "The Wedding", in stores now) and it is excellent. Observing the current state of the world ["Times are changing, this is a different day. I nah waiting. Leh wi embrace the change"], Montano, in a very socially distanced manner, holds a private celebration and you're invited. You can shake ya ass and jump and wave in your own house and you don't even have to wear clothes if you want (just keep those curtains closed if you do). My problem with this song? 'Private Party' is featured on the same Origin Project which backs Skinny Fabulous' ridiculous 'Act Normal' -- one of my favourite Soca songs of the past half decade or so -- so everytime I hear any other song on that riddim, I immediately began singing 'Act Normal' in my head (including 'Selfish', Skinny's other song on it). That is to no fault of anyone's (I guess technically it is Skinny Fabulous we could blame) and Montano's tune is fantastic.

Machel Montano actually makes a second appearance on "SG2021", with the second shot coming in the form of the freezing cool 'Gud Gud', alongside Hey Choppi. I'm going to call it Groovy Reggae, but you can call the infectious, addictive offering whatever you like. It just has such a sweet sound to it and, out of all the songs they could have chosen for this album, they selected wisely in adding this one here as it now gets a healthy dosage of new ears and brains to dazzle. VP also did well to head back to Barbados and this time pick up Jus D, who supplies them with also excellent 'Single'.

"If you have one man, well I could make two
And if you deal wid gal, well I could deal with she too"

Again, you take this song and leave it where it is and it becomes shut off to a degree (I could be wrong, but I don't think I've ever heard it before), but you place it within this project and though it is buried in here around bigger names who will surely get more attention, A LOT of people will now hear it who would not have gotten the opportunity otherwise and I predict A LOT of those people will love it. Jonnelle and Trinidad Killa may also be making first impressions with their work on "SG2021" and if so, there will certainly be a whole heap of people walking away impressed by what they here in 'Watch Ova Wi'. One of the more lyrical efforts on the album, 'Watch Ova Wi', is actually somewhat of a spiritually charged social commentary, with an outstanding chorus. It is damn difficult to shake out of your head and you will not be complaining about it. I was really happy that they chose to include a song like this one because not only does it potentially bring in new fans to the artists, but it's just a strong display of talent and, for this release in particular, in registers in its very own unique way. And also, those he's already appeared on three or four Soca Gold albums to date, maybe you aren't too familiar with the work of Ricardo Drue from out of Antigua (and if you are such an unfamiliar individual, allow me to recommend that you check out 'Vagabond' and become acquainted) and 'South Man' may be one of your first experiences with his work. If that is the case then you'll be on the hunt for something else that he's done (have I told you about 'Vagabond'???) because, though it comes and goes very quickly (at just two minutes and fifteen seconds, it is the shortest song here by nineteen seconds) it's another one which has a captivating sound. Dev joins Drue and though I haven't been the biggest fan of Dev's over the years, maybe it's time I gave some of his work another listen.

The remaining four tunes on "SG2021" feature, along with Machel Montano, some of the  genre's biggest names and series staples and regulars. You may not actually get more "regular" Soca Gold than Edwin Yearwood who, in one way or another (be it solo or along with Krosfyah back in da day) has been on the majority of the Soca Gold releases. His track for 2021's edition, 'Resilience [Make It Work]' is another which is observational of the times and Yearwood is eager to rebuild and get back to the way things used to be. I have heard better work from Edwin Yearwood in the past (these days, for whatever reason, I find myself stuck on 'Chrissening') (all-time favourite may be 'Neighbour'), but it has definitely been awhile and you would really expect such a winner from such an esteemed artist as Yearwood. 'Resilience' is a PERFECT song to be on this one.

"But wi shall live
Stay positive
Love, let and live
Practice to give
Each one help one
Help the next man
Cause that is the ultimate"

In terms of active right now, Skinny Fabulous is probably my favourite Soca artist (if we're talking all time, that's still Destra), but if it isn't the fire breathing St. Vincent native (but it is), then it may just be Patrice Roberts. During our hiatus she delivered one of the best Soca songs that I have ever heard, 'Judgment Stage' and that followed just an fantastic career altogether. Hers is an amazing talent and she's someone who I most look forward to hearing every year. Her addition to Soca Gold this year is another winner for her vault, 'Dai Mine'. Coming through across on the lovely Fem Fury Riddim from NMG Music the track finds Roberts marking her territory and declaring what is hers. The song, on the other hand, belongs to me, you and whoever else wants a piece of it. We all can share it. And then there is the BOOM[s] (there's two of them). Lastly is a pair of songs on the same riddim from a pair of reigning Soca royalty, as both Bunji Garlin and Fay-Ann Lyons come through with dynamite on the 8 Bit Riddim, courtesy of producer, Xplicit Mevon. For his part, Garlin thrills lyrically (DUH!) on 'All House Is Road' where he says that 'the road' can exist anywhere you are. You don't need to literally go there (you can probably sit your ass right where you are and keep doing whatever you're doing, listen to this song and go there in your head). It is funny at times and just another brilliant piece from Soca music's all time lyrics king (an even more glaring example of that would be his downright EXHAUSTIVE aforementioned 'The Struggle', which was the best song on "SG2020" in my opinion)

"Dem laughing at Trinidad saying Carnival, wi doh have dat
Wi go tek speaker box and load it up on a van back 
Put rum inna knapsack, THEN JUMP OUT INNA HAZMAT
Party in wi yard, yuh si di gate -
Wi not going pass that"

Lyons, on the other hand, is struggling. She's going all pass the gate and she has no idea how it happened on 'Sleepwalk'.

"Last night I had a dream, that's how I wake up outside
It was a scene, behaving like a landslide
All ova everything, to mi this was a fete-
Til someone shake and wake mi up, man look how I regret
Was the best part of di wine
And the best part of di grind
All on top of di stage, was di best part of di time
Only to realize, when I open up my eyes
Is sleepwalking, I sleepwalking
That's how they find mi outside"

You know you love you some carnival when, involuntarily, YOUR BODY GETS UP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAMN NIGHT AND GOES OUT. She cannot help herself and, though I know it must be hard on her, I'm glad that her condition has inspired work like this. Somewhere between 'All House Is Road' and 'Sleepwalk' is the best song on "SG2021". If I had to pick one I'd.... fuck that, I don't have to pick one.
Overall, though it's a bit on the short side, "Soca Gold 20...... WHAT! That isn't it?! WHAT! In a damn curious move, attached to the end of the release are six ultra-familiar and well traveled tunes. Why? I have no clue. None at all. It would seem that it was the easiest way to make the album just a bit more plump and that is what VP chose to do. As for the actual songs, briefly, they're all pretty good but you if you've read this far into a review, you almost surely know them all. There's Yearwood again with 'Everytime'. It's an excellent song. You listen to it and pretty much anything he's made and it's easy to see exactly why VP has loved Yearwood over the years. His style is very CLEAR and open and he makes easily appreciable predominantly Groovy Soca music. Rupee's megashot 'Blame It [On De Music]' may be two decades old ('Everytime' might be even older, actually) and I can say virtually everything I said about 'Everytime' about it as well. It all applies. The Soca remix of 'Hold Yuh' from Gyptian appeared on the same "SG2010" that carried Donae'o's 'Party Hard' and it's here as well. I actually enjoyed this one from a nostalgic point of view because it has been a REALLY long time since I've last heard this version. South South West gives the GOLDEN 'Thelma' which was also on Soca Gold from nineteen years ago. I love this song, I've heard it this year surely so it has no sentimental value for me, but I may be in the minority on that. 'We Maniac' was a highlight from Garlin's 2007 album, "Global" (which was just a SOLID release) from VP Records and I guess it's a highlight here as well for what it's worth. I would guess that it was included for just a bit of a mix as the first four of these additions are Groovy-ish (although 'Thelma' may be somewhere between Groovy and Power, it's a bit softer if you're calling it Power). And finally, for real this time, is another Power Soca song, this one from Iwer George, 'Gimmi Ah Bligh', which also featured on Soca Gold nineteen years ago. I don't love this one, all these years later, if I ever did, but it's here, it isn't bad at all and there you go. Also, if you are someone who will track down the physical release, it will feature a mix only for it done by DJ Puffy.

Overall (I guess), if you take off the final six songs (or leave them, whatever), I think what you have is an album which is damn fun. It's way too damn short inn that case, but the eleven new songs on "Soca Gold 2021" are fun. They are beautiful and varied and are done by a healthy mix of artists at various points in their respective careers. The name attached to the annual release is often put on a pedestal (there are quite a few passionate people when it comes to criticizing this album each and every year) but again, if you just take it for what is here (most of those critiques that I have heard over the years usually start with the phrase "where is....."), it's a pretty good release. There is another quite strong Soca compilation which has popped up recently by the name of "Soca Universe" from Monk Music, this year's edition of that album has THIRTY songs on it (and I think last year's did as well), so if you're missing something, it may be there. However, in a time which may just be (HOPEFULLY it is) unlike any other, in its own odd way, "Soca Gold 2021" ultimately does what it is supposed to do every year and provides a very fun and colourful experience.

Rated: 3.5/5
VP Records
CD + Digital

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Vault Reviews: Scrolls Of The Levite by Mark Wonder

Comfort. If you are a nerd, like I am, and keep maybe a lose track of such things, it's can be very interesting to take a sort of 'snapshot' of what and who you're listening to at any given time. What you are likely to find will tell you as much about yourself, and the place you are at in your life, as it will any artist or genre. This is besides the obvious -- growing up -- but even in that regards it can be applicable because there is SOME (possibly ridiculous) song you enjoyed as a child that I can play right now, several hundreds of years later and you will LOVE it. You won't appreciate it in some  nostalgic way - YOU WILL LOVE IT! You'll listen to it for a while and then not hear it again for several years and we'd repeat the process again with  the same result. Similarly, if you have kids of your own and I point to a stretch of your adulthood where you found yourself listening to (and secretly really enjoying) (to the point where you listen to it without your kids around) (and on your headphones) (I know damn well I'm not the only one!) music made for children and that would be when your kids were younger. Again, you'll find yourself listening to some of that when you're older and loving it, most likely because it reminds you of your babies, but perhaps for other reasons as well. That being said, however, when it comes to your actual tastes. watching how they evolve throughout your time as a music fan is extremely fascinating. Taking myself, for example, as I've said in the past, the coolest musical gift that aging has ever given me is the ability to appreciate the music of Vaughn Benjamin. I'd tried when I was younger and..... it just didn't work out; but as I got older and older, the things that I once saw as "cryptic" (and some of them still are) I began to see as challenges. I began to appreciate the journey to comprehension and it has even moved on to other artists as well. I would NEVER have imagined that one day I'd look up and rare is the person who has written more about Benjamin's work than I have and I'm still working on it. Another case would be Ras Batch. Although his music is more immediate than Benjamin's (almost everyone's is), for some reason, at least in spots, it did not resonate with me the way it does these days. And I now, because she's fresh in my mind, wonder what I may've thought of someone like a Reemah, had I first encountered her work when I was... twenty-three-ish, instead of thirty-one-ish. And it hasn't completely changed, thankfully. My entire world will stop if you give me a FLAMING song from Sizzla or Capleton, great GENUINE Dancehall makes tingle and I will gladly pull a hamstring jumping up and down like a small child for a massive Soca song (like 'John Wick' by Skinny Fabulous). 

Someone else who has found a very interesting home on my players and has, fully, become one of my favourite artists is the outstanding Mark Wonder. I'm trying to think of around the time when it initially began to happen and I'm relatively comfortable in saying that it would have been in the late 2000's when I really began to hold the amazing voiced Kingston native in a higher regard. I would have well heard his work and would have been familiar with his name prior that, but something just took it up a higher level around that time. It could have had something to do with an album he did in 2009 (or at least the work that went into) by the name of "True Stories Of Mark Wonder & Friends". If you begin to look at everyone who joined him on that compilation -- Sizzla Kalonji, Capleton, Luciano, Gentleman, Anthony B, Lutan Fyah, Chezidek etc. -- it is definitely enough to grab your attention and since then he has SHOT up in a major way. Even prior to that set, now that I think about it, would have been an album that was in the process of growing on me, "Break The Ice" (it's fantastic, it's worth tracking down) and "The Mystery Unfolds" from 2005 and 2007, respectively. That was the nascence of my interest in the wondrous music of Mark Wonder. The prime would come in 2012 when he destroyed everything in sight via one MAMMOTH shot called "Working Wonders" (which I don't want to spend too much time talking about because I'm going to have three (or maybe four) of these to do) (saving the ammunition). THAT album would take the singer to a higher level, one that he has enjoyed from ever since. And he's made the most of it. 

So what was so wonderful about Mark Wonder? On the surface, there was the matter of his voice. Mark Wonder doesn't strike you in the same way as singers such as Luciano, Bushman, Natty King or Prince Theo (biggup Prince Theo who I began listening to just around the same time that I started with Wonder), as this big baritone voiced (and Q'shan Deya as well) vocalist which has become a bit of a new tradition in Roots Reggae. Instead, what he brings are some of the cleanest and CLEAREST of tones in a higher pitch, which is SO BEAUTIFUL and he routinely pushes it to its limits in making his music. That music, when at its best, is simply some of the finest that the genre has to offer. Also, I do have to mention one of Mark Wonder's greatest of assets is his consistency. I am going to assume that he has made music that I don't like. -- he's made a great deal of songs, it is virtually impossible that I would have enjoyed ALL of them -- but sitting here, I can't think of any (and I can in the case of pretty much everyone else who I've mentioned thus far (in a couple of those instances, I can name you full albums that I do not like)). He's been, at his worst, GOOD and generally even better. Since our hiatus, we've spoken about a few artists who haven't been particularly active, at least not on the album side of things and Mark Wonder has not been one of those. I'll spare you the details (I won't actually, I'm just delaying them), but he's released three and TECHNICALLY four albums over the course of the past six years and I have REALLY wanted to tell you about them. The first of them, wayyyyy back in 2015 and the first following "Working Wonders" was a most fitting release by the name of "Scrolls Of The Levite". The album would come via the US based Nowtime Sound (which, unless I'm REALLY overlooking something, would make it the first of its kind as Mark Wonder has typically worked alongside European and Jamaican imprints) (though Heartbeat Europe was involved with the distribution of this one) and feature the works of a Sikandar Syed and Fernando Cardoso. I'd had just a bit of familiarity with the label as they had worked on a tune called 'Real Rasta' by Achis Reggae favourite, Messenjah Selah (which featured veteran Kulcha Knox) and one other project, which we'll tell you about in just a bit. On paper, 'new Mark Wonder album' would have been enough at the time to get me excited (it's enough to get me excited right now), but 'the first Mark Wonder album after "Working Wonders" ' would have made it something even more special in its day. I was really looking forward to this album and, regardless of who did the work, it would have had a little something more surrounding its release and while I had heard of Nowtime just a bit prior to it, after "Scrolls Of The Levite", they had made a fan out of me. I'll tell you why.

.....Because they made an album with Mark Wonder. "Scrolls Of The Levite" proves itself to be one HEAVY release. Even before we get into fleshing it out, I'm going to say that if you're a listener who has more of an ear towards an old school sort of Roots Reggae, you're likely to be someone who finds a great deal in this one to like (and I could say the same to you about a great deal of Wonder's releases, in general, as well). And while it does feature one signature moment in that respect, you can pretty much stop anywhere and find something at least somewhat enjoyable. A nice example of that would be our BRIGHT opening piece, 'Must Be A Way'. This song is just a JOY to listen to and its vibes match the point of it which is about overcoming the obstacles of basic, everyday life. Wonder keeps things fairly simple hear, it doesn't make any deviation at all for the most part and, ultimately, what you end up with is a beautiful and solid composition to get us going (and I also love the focus on the music, particularly later on, which happens more than once on this album). Things really began to soar on the outstanding 'Visions', one of the finest selections you'll find here. Before I even get into the song itself, that riddim is GORGEOUS! It is a such a golden creation and it shines in the four and half minutes we get to taste it. And Mark Wonder, of course, does not waste what he has and makes the most of that outstanding track.

"Dem searching
But yet still dem wanting
Cuz dem nuh know what dem seeking
And dem still complaining

But I see visions of a brighter tomorrow!
Happy people living without pain or sorrow!

So Nyahbinghi keep chanting
And di fire keep burning

'Rude Boys In Town' finds the singer out to disrupt and disturb the oppressive system in a major way on a song which is equally part social commentary and part ganja tune. What I eventually took from it (besides it being a winner, and I think it was an early single from this release. CLEARLY aimed at the deep Roots Reggae fans if that's true) was this idea of everyone playing their part in terms of making changes and helping to better themselves and others. Wonder paints a picture of so many different types of people from farmers, to singers and, definitely, herbs men who populate and STRENGTHEN a community to be sustaining and exist outside of a large type of oppression and injustice. And just in case I haven't said it (I don't feel like going back and finding out), 'Rude Boys In Town' is downright chunky. It could stand to lose a few pounds (and I mean that in a good way. It is a THICK and lovely peace of modern Roots Reggae music.

Speaking of things which are carrying a bit extra around the waist, definitely the massiest moment on the album comes in the form of the giant praising tune 'Hail Jah'. Along with, easily, being amongst the top ranking highlights of "Scrolls Of The Levite", 'Hail Jah' is technically nearly eight minutes long as it features the actual tune and its dubbed out counterpart. I don't know why they chose this song, in particular, for such a presentation and they could have picked nearly every one of the other twelve offerings and likely have scored with similarly impressive results, BUT, the fact that they decided to do it was just such a fine and sagacious twist. You go into albums looking for the 'changeup'. And often times in Roots music, that will be a Dancehall track or something else along the same lines, but what they do in this case is choose a method so obvious that it almost came as a surprise. The lyrical side of 'Hail Jah' is what you would expect, but I do so much enjoy the delivery. Mark Wonder almost TALKS on it, like a bit of poetry at times, and what you get is so damn interesting especially, again, when combined with the dub which follows it. So it should tell you something about the prevailing quality of this set when I say that you will find even stronger material here than 'Hail Jah'. You could make the case (and I would) that such material is found next in the form of the fantastic call to action that is 'Awake'.

"From ancient of days, we rule supreme
Africa land: Pure and clean
Living royally as Queens and Queens
Rule over land - and seas
Science, arts, technology
Spiritual hearts, that's never been seen

Awake Ithiopians, awake!
No more sleeping, no more slumbering, awake
Awake Ithiopians, awake!
No more sleeping, no more slumbering, awake"

'Awake' is a DELICIOUS  piece telling all to.... wake up (!) and take their rightful place in the world and to honour their heritage and ancestors in doing so. This, for me, is basically quintessential/vintage Mark Wonder. Again, while I do find something on this album that I favour over it, if I were to point to something from the "Scrolls" album as the strongest demonstration of who he is as an artist, I might just choose the five minute long 'Awake'. Though it isn't quite as strong as 'Awake' (and that isn't saying a ton, 'Awake' is amazing) (and I keep listening to it and I'm thinking about rewriting that) (I think I will) EDIT: Arguably just as strong as the track preceding it, the next tune up, 'Look Out For the Signs', also does a nice job of showing what Wonder is capable of. Though slightly more of a subtle vibes, at least initially, the song cleverly kind of builds itself (take a deep listen near the end of the song and notice every thing that is going on) up to make for a great sound by its peak. I really love its direction as well as the artist preaches for all to be more aware of exactly what is going on. He ties it all to The Almighty, which sweetly presides over the ideology here, helping to make for yet another lovely moment on "Scrolls", this one DEEP as well. The vibes of the tune just behind 'Look Out For the Signs', 'Break Free', come in so nicely and though it may not be what I would necessarily call a 'happy' song in its course (PURELY speaking, it isn't negative at all either), it is a very nice listen. As to that "course", Mark Wonder uses this one as an inspirational moment. I'm sitting here listening to it now and I'm kind of wishing that I had featured it in the next spot where I talk about my topping selections from this album, 'Break Free'  is excellent. It didn't get that type of spin, but if for you, like me, it's been awhile from the last time you heard it, it's time to take another listen. And "Scrolls Of The Levite" comes to it conclusion with a pair of two more stellar songs, 'Rebels' and 'Revolution'. The former, despite being quite laid back for the most part, is downright cavernous material for an overthinker like myself. I ultimately came away with the notion that it was about people who have great responsibility in society to do their absolute best in maintaining and honouring that position - regardless of what it is. I think Wonder would agree that it would even include someone in his position of being a musician and someone who is looked up to nd respected. For is part, 'Revolution' was a jewel. It is arguably just as potent as 'Break Free' and it sends "Scrolls" out on such a fascinating 'grimy' high-point. While it is typical, classy, refined Mark Wonder as a vocalist and that riddim is one of the finest on the whole of this project, I hear just a bit of spice and agitation on this one as well which is a powerful touch.

Now! To my opinion, "Scrolls Of The Levite" pinnacles during a three track stretch at the tail end of its first half, which might just be some of the best output I've ever heard from Mark Wonder. The first of them, 'Oh I' is THEE crown of the album. It is MASSIVE!
"OH I!
Coulda never, ever stop hailing King Selassie I
Know He's the guiding light for I & I
Coulda never, ever stop hailing King Selassie I
Father for all, Ababajoni"

TEARS! BOOM! Wonder gives infinite thanks and praises on this one which has a.... spiraling, hypnotic and SWEET old school licked riddim carrying it. This song would have fit highly on anything he's ever done and it is without peer on even this very sizable set. Such pieces are staples of the genre, but when you get into Mark Wonder's music, specifically, it's also a bit of a specialty of his as you give that wondrous voice a very broad, but personal, stage to star on and he NEVER disappoints. 'Buzzrock Soldiers' is the second of the triplet and it keeps the levels high.

"As a a militant soldier -
Born to follow Jah
Real African from an ancient culture
Haffi know yah roots like Marcus told yah
Haffi stand tall, bigger and bolder
Inna dis ya time, prophecies unfold
Half of the story has never been told
Nah get tricked by babylon's billfold
It ah vanish away like silver and gold

Buzzrock soldiers!
Forward wi trod and wi nah look back!
Nah get caught inna babylon trap

As I trod pon di earth
Stand firm pon mi feet 
Forward ever, all Jah soldiers ah dweet
Fyah it a burn, wicked caan tek di heat
It a torch dem, more than a thousand degrees
Rastafari wi life
Selassie I wi guide
Forward trod and wi nah look back"

Along with the sound, what really stood out on 'Buzzrock Soldiers' for me was its ENERGY! Wonder dials up the intensity and I love it when you have situations like this when a tune's subject and delivery are so in sync. This is a call to action. He's trying to get your attention and motivate you and you don't want him singing the same way he'd be on a love song. The pitch is different. You can envision him in the studio maybe breaking a sweat! He goes fully in on the song and scores massively. And finally is an offering which may've been familiar to fans prior to the release of the album as the wicked 'Long Road' was featured on Nowtime's Jah Children Riddim from way back in 2009 (it also had two songs rom Junior Kelly and another by Chezidek). 'Long Road' is about persevering and holding the faith during tough times and it has this kind of 'funky' vibes to it which sets it apart from anything else found on "Scrolls" and that is a good thing as Mark Wonder sends up yet another big winner. 
Overall, you do not get very far into "Scrolls Of The Levite" without it become clear that the album was a very big deal - pretty much like all of Mark Wonder's work. What highlights this particular album, at least for me, is its sound. Mark Wonder's vocals are impeccable, they always are. But what Nowtime Sound gives him in this case, for the most part, are these delightfully vintage Roots Reggae compositions and, unsurprisingly, it works VERY well. I didn't want to spend too much time talking about it during this review (because I'm planning to deal with them as well at some point) but the singer has had albums after this one and it still ranks quite high in my opinion. As far as I can tell, Nowtime Sound has not done a ton of material following its release, but even if they never did ANYTHING following it, what they left in "Scrolls Of The Levite" made a fine impression and, for Mark Wonder, it was pretty much business as usual and a full JOY to listen to.

Rated: 4.35/5
Nowtime Sound
CD + Digital