Black Roots: On The Ground – album review
Sadly you see far too little reggae featured on UK music related websites (and radio shows) so it’s nice to be able to help promote a brilliant new release by a reggae band who not only recorded two Peel sessions but who’re also about to release one of the best albums of the year.
I first came across the label Bristol Archive Records last year when they released a quite wonderful compilation album ‘Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978-83‘. It contained 14 tracks of sizzling reggae, mainly (but not exclusivley) roots bands, all of them from Bristol & from the late 70’s / early 80’s. I had no idea that Bristol had such a rich heritage of reggae artists, which I guess was the point of compilation – and indeed is, to a large extent, the whole idea behind “Bristol Archive Records”. Although not exclusivley focussing on reggae (see for instance The Bristol Punk Explosion) reggae has become the label’s focus not least because all the albums in the “Bristol Reggae Explosion” series, now numbering 3 were so successful & well received.
The success of these albums has meant that Bristol Archive Records are now widening their net so, excitingly, they could be coming to a city near you some time soon. Another result of the success of these albums has been to re-shine a light on some of the artists featured on the album – I doubt very much if I’d have been able to see both Talsisman & Black Roots play live in Bristol last year without those compilations, two shows that turned out to be amongst the best of the year, timeless music still being played with just as much passion as when the songs were first being played.
And now, following a couple of compilations of Black Roots material, the band have a new album ready for us, due out in September, 20 years after their last release.
And to cut a long story short, it’s brilliant.
It’d be nice to think that with the release of this album Black Roots will get the attention they deserve. I could never understand why Black Roots didn’t get more attention back in the 80’s. Even with the endorsement of Peel they never became as well known as the Aswads or Steel Pulses of this world. They recorded at least 2 sessions for Peel & he once said about them:
“If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as good British reggae, first tell them that they are a herbert and then (tell them to) listen to Black Roots.”
Perhaps Black Roots failed to achieve the attention afforded to those other roots bands because they didn’t mess around with trying to make commercial sounding reggae. Their reggae was pretty full on uncompromising roots music, especially lyrically. Plus they also refused to move in a gentler, more Aswad style ‘pop’ reggae direction. Times have changed a bit though & having said all the above, one thing that’s noticeable on this new album is that their sound has mellowed a bit, not only has it become more rounded but it’s also become incredibly catchy.
Black Roots formed at a time when Britain was in the clutches of Thatcher & prospects were gloomy for Britains in general & for young Jamaicans in particular. Therefore naturally it was a time perfectly suited to roots reggae, a music that identifies with stuggling, poverty, fighting, ‘sufferation’ & everyday life. And now it’s like we’ve come full circle, again we’re in the throws of a Tory party hell bent on destroying the country – to quote the band themselves “The iron lady is returning – can’t you see we is hurting” – so this is the perfect time for Black Roots to take to the stage again.
It’s obvious all through this record that the band have been playing together for a long time, there’s a smoothness to the flow & a comfortableness with each other that results in an almost ‘slinky’ sound. And the musicianship, as you’d expect, is top notch – in particular there’s some wonderful brass playing. There’s a lightness to their music & an upbeatness that’s guaranteed to fill your heart with joy irrespective of the lyrics.
Lyrically the songs comment on traditional roots reggae subjects such as the planting of yams, the rastafari religion & Africa itself, but a lot of the album is tuned into what’s going on in the country at the moment, as well as politics in general. “Miltancy” in particular is a really strong track & could become a bit of an anthem. Black Roots were (and judging by this song still are) firmly commited to ‘militant pacifism’ & the lyrics in Militancy sum that up pretty succinctly by singing about how we need to be “miltant” without being “malicious” – & all to a great rhythm.
Considering that Black roots formed on a St Paul’s street corner during the oppressive years of Thatcherism it’s hardly surprising that they’re a very politicised band, and although there’s no Thatcher around now there’s still plenty of contemporary material for them to work with. For instance there’s a track about bankers & greed (“you want all, you should surely lose all”) as well as a track about the difficulty of getting a job “i try my best to find a job that’s not there”. And although most of the band are a long way from their teenage years they haven’t lost touch with how demoralising it is to be young & unemployed with lyrics like “Parliament declare war on the youth.”
Despite not sounding like a barrel of laughs if judged on lyrics alone this album will ultimately make you smile & make you happy. And it’ll probably make you move as well – I’ll defy anyone not to skank to this album, or at least not to tap fingers & toes to it. It’s really catchy music and as I mentioned, given the airplay (which could be anywhere – their music could equally well be suited to Radio’s 1, 1X, 2, 6music & local radio) there’s no reason why this album couldn’t be a huge hit. Just a shame you all need to wait till September to hear it – although I don’t need to tell you it’ll be well worth the wait.
Black Roots have some tour dates lined up, all of which you should try & catch:
July 21st – Harbourside Festival, Bristol
Aug 3rd – Sardinia Reggae Festival, Italy
Aug 25th – Shambala Festival [Main Stage]
27th Sep – Talking Heads, Southampton
Nov 10th – Malcolm X Centre, St Pauls, Bristol
Two other similar reggae bands managed by the same people are Talisman & Joshua Moses who also have dates on the following dates on the horizon:
July 21st – Llangollen, Wales
July 22nd – Secret Garden Party [Rhumba Rum Bar Stage]
Aug 19th – Strummer Of Love Festival [Rootikal Stage]
Aug 26th – Big Top, Bristol [Bristol Archive Records Reggae Show]
Sep 22nd – The Wharf, Tavistock [Supporting The Beat]
13th Dec – Talking Heads, Southampton
July 20th – Secret Garden Party [Rhumba Rum Bar Stage]
Aug 19th – Strummer Of Love Festival [Rootikal Stage]
26th Aug – Big Top, Bristol [Bristol Archive Records Reggae Show]
All photo’s ÃÂ© Peter J Butler photography.