Monday, July 23, 2012

'Lifting the Fog': A review of "Danger Zone" by Avaran

Off radar. Just very recently we complete a list, "Ears Wide Shut", which went through speaking about ten different artists who I wish I paid more attention to. In this list were individuals who, for whatever reason, I just have a difficult time in either keeping up with or really getting started to be in tune with on some level. While it certainly was an idea for a one-time (although I'd have no trouble in packaging up a sequel), it also really spoke just how frustrating it can be in music, and particularly a genre like Reggae, to follow someone who may not be at the absolute height of the game in terms of popularity. The music is getting so popular and global in this era that while just about any 'side-effect' that comes with such a situation is definitely allowable, it can become quite a frustrating experience when you either stumble upon someone who you probably should have known about long ago or find out that someone who you used to enjoy has been far more active than you knew about. Not too long ago at all we dealt with someone who researching became a rather educational experience, Qshan Deya'. The St. Vincy born singer has just pushed a fresh new album, his first in more than a decade, the outstanding "Love Govern Us All" [in stores now, pick it up]. Doing the background work for that one was just a revelation and I ran into not only tunes that I'd known somewhat of, but not fully, but also producers and riddims and it started to become evident that the album was the final goal in that particular case. Today, we're going to take a look at a someone with a very similar set of circumstances as far as I can tell as we delve into the most recent work from a singer who was once extremely well regarded and didn't really seem to stick around long enough for the Reggae listening world to give him the respect he was so obviously due (although he did get a great deal of it), the incredible singer, Avaran. The Bahamas born vocalist gave us just a taste of his merit and his place in the music and then he hung around for awhile and . . . then not so much. But thankfully, talents such as his can't fight the urge to comeback forever. 

"Short Rope" [1999]
In 1999 a singer named Avaran delivered a debut album by the name of "Short Rope" which may not have exactly 'set the world ablaze' or 'take it to another level' or some other crazy bullshit like that, but it did leave a fine impression on just about anyone who had the good fortune to hear it (and you can still hear it, it's currently available digitally and the actual CD shouldn't be too hard to find either) and generated a nice buzz. It showed the singer as very classy and potential saturated. That was 1999, the year I turned eighteen years old. I'd be thirty before he'd release another [!] and while I certainly didn't forget about him, it wasn't like Avaran was bombing big singles the entire time. Following his output, even if I was most keen, wouldn't have been without trouble, which is awful considering just how talented he is.

So hard to follow the music of Avaran it is, in fact, that it would be well into the second half of 2012 before I would become aware that in late 2011 he had returned in some 'formal' capacity. "Danger Zone" was Avaran's very first album in more than TWELVE YEARS! According to the bio I read, the singer essentially took a break from the music for five years or so, so it wasn't as if I was totally futile in my efforts to follow his work - there was no work. Upon his return to recording and performing, he did what many artists in his position do and headed to Europe which had embraced the first album and where he would subsequently, again, find producers and, more importantly, audiences for his music. I was still rather surprised to see that he had just so recently done a set, however, because, as I said, there was once such a strong reaction to his work and, unlike we've seen in the case of Deya, whose album has gone on to make a nice round in terms of promotion, there wasn't very much discourse around "Danger Zone". The album officially comes through Hungry Belly Records and BluFire Productions, which I think may actually be Avaran's own label, but much of the identifiable work, as you may imagine, comes through European outfits, where he had gained a nice reputation, dating back even to the "Short Rope" days. Going through the album I was actually a little surprised at how many of its thirteen tracks I recognized in some way. Be it actual lyrics (have you ever had the experience where a tune starts and you just start in singing along with it, but haven't the slightest of ideas where you know it from?) (that happened to me at least three or four times on this record), a riddim or some other small facet of the tune, several of the songs were familiar to me in some way. On top of that, I was just happy to see Avaran back and, again, doing research for this album has once again showed me that perhaps I wasn't as far out of the proverbial loop of Avaran's as I had assumed, although it would have been so nice to learn of the existence of this one . . . About six or seven months ago - that would've made things so much easier for me. Still, taking a listen to this album, ultimately, well fulfills on some of the promise and potential displayed by the artist on his first album and although you would surely think him a different person today (or last year in this case), than he was way back in 1999, what you have here is something which isn't such a grand step in a different direction than "Short Rope". Ostensibly, that isn't a shock at all, but it also appears that Avaran 'simply' seems to pick right up where the first album left off (with a bigger sound behind him, of course). The results are powerful as "Danger Zone" proves to be a release guaranteed to be enjoyed by almost any fan of modern Roots Reggae. Let's have a listen. 

The obvious comparison to be made in Avaran's sound is to the legendary Garnet Silk (they even make it in his official bio), and while I do hear that, I do think that he has some type of loud projection which may even push him in the direction of sounding something like a more traditionally Gospel singer at times. However, you want to categorize it, it well works for Avaran which is apparent throughout his sophomore release from 2011, "Danger Zone", which gets up and moving in a very familiar direction, by means of the triumphant 'I Will Rise'. As soon as I heard this riddim I knew it was something I had heard at least fairly recently and didn't take me long at all to come up with Goldcup Records (a label that has worked extensively with not only Avaran, but also Achis Reggae favourite Jah Nyne, also from out of the Bahamas), whose Mirror Riddim of 2010 underpins the track. This song is golden in just about every way. It's very dynamic Roots Reggae music, but the message is still well present. Avaran does something similar to Jah Mason's now classic (in my opinion), 'Keep Your Joy', by essentially saying that your happiness or unhappiness is your responsibility and it's very important to maintain and "rise" no matter what type of outside forces may contribute to your life. This one should have been a greater hit than it was because it is excellent and one the strongest songs on the album that it heads. We go on to another tune which made my ears jump, 'Things Tough'. This song did make quite a bit of damage in its day. It's featured across a knocking riddim with which it shares a name from VI Connection, a label from out of France. 

"You watch my people suffer
You say it's gonna get better
That's what you write in yuh newspaper, while politicians eating steak and lobster
Hey, it's blood we cry from our eyes 
I can't take this touchy life
While you promote death and poverty, we're the ones who suffer!

Things tough round here!
What about the poor round here?!
Politician dem no really give a damn round here

They call this a ghetto -
Where anything goes, anything goes
They call this the ghetto -
Where politician they don't dare to go
They lock you up, throw away the key and charge you with a crime
You won't get away this time
Oh my people you've got to stand firm and strong"

What you have here is a very specific social commentary/observation as Avaran is as pissed off as he can possibly be with the way that the powers that be are running and ruining the world. It's another song whose sound, albeit in a much different way than on the opener, really is nice on an early intense bite of "Danger Zone". And rounding out the opening of the album is my favourite song on the entire project and another piece which I was well familiar with, the gorgeous praising offering, 'Let Jah Be Praised'. The mighty I Love Jah Riddim from Zion Gate has to be maybe four or even five years ago at this point, but I'll likely never forget it because it was really, really beautiful and when I first dove on this tune for this album, it came in and I'm singing along with it, but it took my mind awhile to make the connection (I tell you guys and girls I'm not the bright every chance I get) and when I did, it was a surprising moment that this song I had been enjoying for some time now was actually Avaran's and it, obviously wasn't a fact I learned for the first time, but it's exactly how things like that happen when you don't have a reason to think of someone so often. Sometime they push brilliance and it's something which doesn't reside firmly in your memory. This is a flawless example because this song is fantastic. 

The acquaintances continued to grow and grow as I made my way through this zone and it definitely was somewhat trying (at least for me, mind you, I'm a nerd) because you want something like this to be stuck in your mind, but I had a hard time with this one. Of course that's not due to the actual music, most of it is fine. 'Gonna Be Dread' is a precise model of both the frustration and the quality. This song comes through on yet another big creation from Goldcup, the Keep It Clean Riddim, and I know this song in some way (Nyne actually had an increasingly big tune on the same riddim, 'Zion I') (which you can find on his own 2011 album, "Holdin A Vibe") (in stores now), but I would have never made the equation to it being Avaran's tune which is just damn unfortunate because it's strong. The well known Sane Kry Riddim, from VI Connection, backs 'Rumble Jumble Life' as Avaran goes all King Kong on the people. This tune actually has stuck with me over the years and although I was somewhat surprised to see it on an album, it wasn't an excavation project by any means to figure out exactly where it came from. I always liked this song also (pretty much anything on that riddim is nice) so it's nice to see it afforded a 'second wind' of sorts on this album, which also features a nice remix of the song later on. 'Times Getting Serious' is a serious standout on "Danger Zone" and you may recall it on the Respond Riddim from the mighty Pow Pow, a few years back. All of Pow Pow's work (that I can think of) is top notch and here we have just as refined of a tune as well. 

"Times getting serious
Times getting dangerous
When we don't know who to trust
It's still Jah we love

So Mama set me down to pray, for a better way
So many been lead astray, lead astray
Oh, so Jah please deliver us!
Oh, hear our plea oh Jah!
Wipe these tears from our eyes!
From our eyes!
Through the storm you've been strong
Now it won't be long -
Before you lead us home, Jah Jah
Before you lead us on" 

'Dreams of Home' is also a piece which I knew of as is 'Powers That Be'. The former is very good. It's kind of a veiled repatriation track and one which I enjoyed, ideologically, because it speaks of a person actually PREPARING to go home. More times you hear a song like this and it's very forward 'let's go now' type of thoughts, but Avaran actually suggests that there is work to be done before he's ready to leave which is necessary before the "dreams" can become realities. 'Powers That Be' is also a winner and one which goes back to the type of imagery dealt with earlier on here.

"Now this one goes to the powers that be
The one who makes decisions for me
When I should rise, when I should sleep
When time to eat
I'm in poverty

They lock me up, throw away the key
They say, in time, they'll set me free
All I see is a conspiracy
New world order and world war three" 

Really straight forward (and urgent) social commentary and a good one, which adds a bit more colour to the type of songs on the album, even though it doesn't change things tremendously. 

Of the songs on "Danger Zone" which were completely new to me, we have some of its winningest moments. The biggest of them all, to my ears, is also my second favourite selection on the whole of the project, 'Heathens'. I don't know why this tune wasn't a hit because it has all the makings of one in my mind. It's a big and vibrant composition and one that well shows off Avaran near his absolute best. When it really intensifies, the piece turns into this multi-faceted work of art which makes you smile and move and it invokes thought as well as Avaran goes biblical and does it in a massive way. Next (literally) is 'Another Moses' - which took quite awhile to grow on me for some reason, but these days it's another of my personal highlights appearing here. The same could, in both ways, be said for the record's old school vibed title track. 

"We're living in a danger zone 
Where the streets are filled with blood
We're living in a war zone 
Everyday it takes a life

You see the way they build their policy
It is filled with such hypocrisy
Ignoring the minority -
While living the life of vanity
Stop oppressing the minority
That's the reason for the poverty
The guns, drugs, crimes, bombs it ah mash up a life" 

I always think that the title track is supposed to one of the most immediately striking on your album (and that's generally the case to my experience), and while that isn't the case here, at least not for me, what you do have is clearly one of the impassioned routes taking on the album named after it and a song just as evidently very important to the singer. 

Finally is the only stop here which I didn't too much enjoy, 'Give I Strength'. This song may just be one of the better sounding present and it has also one of the better choruses, but it also very much sounds like a freestyle of sorts when the full lyrics come in. It's a pretty good one, but compared to the level of music you'll hear on the rest of the album, it's not up there in my opinion. The Jazzified riddim, however, is another story. Gorgeous! 

Overall, it may have taken my seven or eight months longer than I would have liked, but I'm finally here and "Danger Zone", looking back, is about as impressive as I may have hoped Avaran would have done for a followup to "Short Rope" (about a decade later, but who's paying attention!) (besides me, of course). My only significant complaint is . . . Maybe it could have stood a love song or two, something to change the mood, but with a title like that, you pretty much know what you are getting into (a combination would have also been nice as well). Since this album, I've come across a couple of new songs for 2012 from Avaran, including more new work from Goldcup Records and, hopefully, he manages to stick around consistently this time and we can look back at the "Danger Zone" album as sort of the foundation for a re-ignition in Avaran as an artist. Someone who is so skilled at singing should be singing as much as possible and their songs shouldn't be so hard to keep up with either. Well done. 

Rated: 4/5
Hungrybelly Records/BluFire Productions
CD + Digital

Review #381

Happy Earthday to The One

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