Sunday, February 23, 2014

Album Review: Radikal Guru – Subconscious (2013)

Back in 2011, Polish dub specialist Radikal Guru (aka Mateusz Miller) came up with an almost flawless blend of dubstep and roots reggae on the aptly-titled The Rootstepa album, producing one of the genre’s best debut albums of its year. It was a remarkable effort from an artist/producer who tends to fly well below the mainstream radar.

Then, in November of 2013, this follow-up full-length release arrived to very little fanfare, but Subconscious is every bit as good as its predecessor, and just quietly, it may actually be a little bit better. Again Miller gets the album title just right – sub as in bass heavy, conscious as in “conscious roots” ... perfect for the increasingly popular dubby hybrid Radikal Guru specialises in.
Radikal Guru started releasing music back in 2008, with a series of inspired vinyl releases on the UK-based Dubbed Out Records label, before moving on to Moonshine Recordings, the label responsible for this release (and for that of The Rootstepa). Throughout the past half dozen years or so he’s simultaneously established a reputation for being a big live draw at various roots and dub-related festivals, as well as performing as a regular working DJ on the club circuit(s) across Europe.

But it’s also fair to say that beyond the confines of the roots-meets-dubstep production niche, he’s a relative unknown to the wider record buying public. Barring a serious shift in popular music trends that won’t change anytime soon, so Radikal Guru just carries on doing what he likes, picking up a growing army of followers who tend to like everything he does.

Again, as with The Rootstepa, Subconscious is relatively light on vocal contributions – Echo Ranks features on ‘Warning!’, YT on ‘Stay Calm’, and Dan Man on ‘Know Yourself’ – but I think that’s a good thing. It allows for vast swathes of space in the music, which Radikal Guru uses to apply his special touch – loops, vocal samples, echoes, horns/brass, and all manner of digi-dub FX.

The surprising lack of melodica this time out does nothing to dull the sense that Subconscious still draws its primary inspiration from true Jamaican roots music, for all of the modern technology at play in its production. And I still struggle with the notion that Radikal Guru is producing this stuff from his mainland Europe location and not the island of its muse.

There’s a feeling that the album slowly builds in intensity the further it progresses, ‘Wicked Dub’ providing an almost upbeat celebratory climax, after the floaty skank and additional textures of mid-album cuts like ‘Spaced Out’, ‘Outernational’, and the pretty damned special title track itself.

I’d love to hear this stuff on a huge sound system. I think something gets a little lost in translation when listening through headphones – most likely copious amounts of bass! – but short of the man touring this part of the world anytime soon, I guess I’ll just have to take what I can get for now.

Subconscious clocks in at ten tracks across nearly 49 minutes, and a large portion of it is pure bliss … here’s ‘Different Dub’:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Classic Album Review: Third World - 96° In The Shade (1977)

The news this week of the death of reggae great Bunny Rugs had me fondly thinking about the music of Third World and just how much it has touched me at various points through my life – from the first year I left the bosom of the family home, right up to the present day.

One album in particular stands out for me as an almost constant companion from those teenage years, and it carries a lot of special memories for me. Although 1978’s Journey To Addis tends to get the credit as Third World’s most acclaimed album, you'd have to delve deep into the band’s long and illustrious discography to find a more complete or fully realised album than its predecessor, 96° In The Shade.

For many years I was actually under the impression that 96° must in fact be a compilation album, such is its quality. But the fact is, it isn’t a compilation, it’s simply a plain old ordinary regular long player from a band right at the top of its game.

What is most striking is the way Third World effortlessly manage to blend reggae with funk to produce something quite remarkable and unique. The quality of the musicianship is a joy to behold and that vital element is supplemented by soulful – verging on gospel at times – harmonies and a powerful set of lyrics.

In 1978, Third World struck disco gold with its own version of ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’ (originally an O’Jays number, and available on Journey To Addis), but the seeds of dancefloor crossover success had been nurtured over many years, and 96° In The Shade offered real evidence that the global breakthrough beckoned a year or so before it was achieved.

It’s the sort of album you can play right through without fear of hitting a bum note, and I’ve done exactly that many times across the last 30 years. It’s perfect for lazy summer weekends, and if you need a little sunshine during winter, I dare say it can offer you that as well.

One of the best reggae albums of alltime? … quite probably.

Highlights: ‘Jah Glory’, ‘Human Market Place’, ‘1865 (96° in the shade)’, ‘Tribal War’, and ‘Rhythm Of Life’.

RIP William Clarke, aka Bunny Rugs, Third World’s lead vocalist, who died in Florida, aged 65, after a long battle with cancer …

Blog Update: Happy Anniversary, Depeche Mode, and other tidbits …

It's three years today since everythingsgonegreen took its first tentative steps online. It’s fair to say I had no idea at all where the blog would go, or how often it would go there. I didn’t even know if I had much to say (and still don’t) … or how long it would take for the novelty of blogging to wear thin (and still don’t).

But I’m still here, and if anything, the blog has been gathering some momentum over the past year – a very quiet January period excepted. It remains very much a hobby blog, a place to dump stuff, a place to rave or vent about the small – mostly music-related – things that make up my world. I’m not the greatest or most entertaining writer in the world, I get that much … but I write about this stuff purely for me. To help satisfy my near OCD-level of obsession to document shit. And if others come to visit and want to read it, well, I like that too.

If I’m learning anything it’s that the key to getting others over for a visit is to keep the content consistent and fresh. Weeks and weeks without posting not only defeats the purpose of having the blog, it also kills the prospect of repeat visits. I’d still like a few more comments I suppose, but feedback has increased markedly over the past 12 months so I can’t really moan.

Some statto tidbits (for posterity, of course!):

It took everythingsgonegreen two years to achieve the 10k “page hit” mark – something it managed around a year ago, but only another 10 months to pass the 30k “hits”, a threshold passed in December. When I’m blogging regularly with two or three posts per week, the blog consistently surpasses 100 hits per day. When I’m not, it sits at around 40-50 per day. Not big numbers, and I won’t be giving up my day job anytime soon!

But I did blog a lot more during 2013, more than doubling the number of posts across the calendar year at a rate of more than two posts per week. So increase in output = big increase in traffic volume. It isn’t exactly rocket science.

Of those 30k hits over the life of the blog (190 posts) – one blogpost is now responsible for nearly 10% of them … the classic album review for Depeche Mode’s Violator, published in April of last year. Any keyword combination of Depeche, Mode, and Violator also account for the three most common searches directing traffic to the blog.

NZ-based readers account for 40% of page hits, with the USA at nearly 21%. Visits from Germany increased noticeably over the past 12 months (are Depeche Mode big in Germany?) to the extent that it now accounts for more hits than the UK – which surprises me a little, given how UK-centric some of the blog’s content has been.

Internet Explorer is the browser of preference at 36%, followed by Safari (21%), Firefox (19%), and Chrome (17%) … and yep, I have been very bored today …

So anyway, happy birthday to everythingsgonegreen, and happy anniversary to us, dear reader.

Let’s celebrate with something relevant, something Depeche Mode … here’s Policy of Truth, off Violator …


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Album Review: Tackhead – For The Love of Money (2014)

It’s been a long time coming but finally it’s here. Back in 2011, Tackhead released a dub version/cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Exodus’ with the promise that the track was a teaser for a new album – the band’s first studio album for more than two decades. Some early reports suggested the new album would see the light of day sometime in 2012, which then became 2013, then “late 2013”…

Finally, a couple of weeks into 2014, it’s here, and For The Love of Money doesn’t disappoint. Nearly a quarter of a century on from the group’s heyday, Tackhead is back, covering a diverse range of material from the likes of Stevie Wonder (‘Higher Ground’), David Bowie (‘I’m Afraid of Americans’), Lou Reed (‘Walk On The Wild Side’), and James Brown (‘Funky President’). There’s the O’Jays’ title track, Marley’s ‘Exodus’, a phenomenal re-working of the band’s own ‘Stealing’, and a whole lot more. If you pick up the extended 23-track version of the album, as opposed to the standard 15-track release, you’ll also get the funkiest Beatles cover you’re ever going to hear, plus a whole raft of alternative mixes of various tracks from a roll call of producers including Adrian Sherwood.
Tackhead has always been a strange beast and something of an acquired taste. Acquired, as in you had to go out there and discover the band’s music for yourself. It’s never been commercial radio fare, the collective has remained very much underground, and four studio albums across 30-odd years tells its own story. Formed from the core of the Sugarhill label’s original in-house studio band – bassist Doug Wimbish, guitarist Skip McDonald, and drummer Keith Le Blanc – Tackhead has often operated incognito or via another name (see Strange Parcels, Fats Comet, The Maffia) and has rarely been given the credit or wider profile it deserves.

It’s easy to forget that without these guys, Hip hop legends like Grandmaster Flash (at Sugarhill) or Afrika Bambaataa (at Tommy Boy) might never have altered the course of popular music as we knew it. Certainly it is difficult to see how ‘The Message’ or ‘White Lines’ could have been anything near the crossover successes they became had it not been for the contributions of Wimbish, McDonald, and Le Blanc. Throw in vocalist and long-time Rolling Stones session man, Bernard Fowler, and UK dub guru Sherwood, and you start to really appreciate the full range of talent and experience this band brings to the studio ... and to this album. 
There might be an argument that For The Love of Money is just another album of cover versions, but I think that partly misses the point. These aren’t just any old cover versions – they’re very specific classic tracks, carefully selected for their funk content, their political relevance, for what they mean to a very special group of musicians. Besides, in most cases the songs have been given complete makeovers. And if they’ve not been given a complete makeover then at the very least they’ve been brought right up to date.
‘Stealing’ – originally found on the Friendly as a Hand Grenade album – is a genuine stand-out on this, the cut-up corrupt preacher samples giving it an edge and a cynicism not fully realised or immediately obvious on the original. It’s a brief return to the industrial-strength Hip hop of yore, and a reminder that for Tackhead, technology works, technology delivers …
And nobody is safe when Tackhead take aim – political figures, bankers, the clergy and religion in general, the media  ... US foreign policy gets a fair old bashing. It’s sample heavy – a lot of Obama etc; it asks all the hard questions, it’s very politically savvy, it’s a form of modern day blues, whatever the hell that is anymore … but chances are you’ll be too busy being seduced by Wimbish basslines to really care one way or the other about the issues.

So no “new” material as such, but a lot of new Tackhead to get your ear-buds into ... and when a band is this professional, this good, this funky, well, there’s not much point trying to resist. If there’s a feeling that Tackhead has softened since that late Eighties peak, a notion that they’re much older and far more mellow in late middle age, then it comes only because this album feels far less “industrial” than a lot of earlier material. There’s less grind and riffage in McDonald’s signature guitar this time out, but the blues element remains strong, and the funk is never less than front and centre.

Sherwood is obviously a key man in terms of production, but from all accounts Le Blanc had a much bigger role on this. Dubvisionist features, while Gary Clail offers up a deft hand on James Brown’s ‘Funky President’.

I picked up the Dude label’s 23-track download on Juno, which gave me a whopping 107 minutes of listening pleasure ... but just go and buy it in whatever form you can. As first album purchases of the year go, this one’s as good as they get.