On 22 January 2015 On U-sound re-release the first four albums by the psychedelic dub collective. Louder Than War’s Paul Scott-Bates reviews.
Formed around percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and driven by that man Adrian Sherwood, the African Head Charge ensemble has been making music since the early 80s along the way incorporating such luminaries as Jah Wobble and Skip McDonald. The percussion of Bonjo was always the underpin to the sound which started as dub but not in its truest sense. Taking the spirit of Africa and combining with psychedelic dub roots and electronica they remain a performing act to this day.
As part of the stunning re-release programme On U-Sound have seen fit to send the first four African Head Charge albums our way via vinyl and download.
Seen as a ground-breaking album, the 1981 debut for African Head Charge not only played on the title of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but also on the concept. The idea from Eno was to create a ‘vision of a psychedelic Africa’ and that ideal was taken one step further by Sherwood and Bonjo with the ‘hole in the ground’ referring to London’s Berry Street Studios which were accessed via a flight of stairs.
Samplers had not yet become part of the studio set-up so multi-edits were used as a way to enhance existing sounds. The album was, and still is viewed as an experimental work combining African rhythms, dub and jazz. From the opening sounds of the kuwenge (and African version of the Jews harp), the album is never simple to define moving from the downright weird to continuing strange.
Tracks Stebeni’s Theme and Far Away Chant were used in the David Lynch film Wild At Heart which gives an idea as to the esteem in which it was regarded. Far Away Chant displays a sumptuous emptiness which must surely have been the influence for Mark Stewart’s Jerusalem two years later with it’s dubbed out percussion and spoken reverbed vocals, indeed several sounds which would appear in subsequent On U releases can also be occasionally heard.
The Race Pt One employs a near ska backbone as it skiffles and echoes along and Stone Charge has some near painful saxophone screeches and Primal Once Drop draws on oriental influences too.
Family Doctoring provides possibly the most commercially listenable track in an album that owes as much to the past as it does to the future.
A year after their debut, African Head Charge released their second album Environmental Studies allegedly named after the Producers passing interest in the subject as school.
Again working as a collective the album drew on the talents from members of The Slits, The Pop Group, Aswad and Rip Rig & Panic amongst others. The sounds of distant drums were created by Sherwood positioning speakers and microphones in the stone built toilets at Berry Street making it literally the only place it could have been recorded.
The album becomes less avant garde and progressively more ‘musical’ but is noticeable for having several effects and sounds played louder than the band itself. Take opener Crocodile Had Luggage for instance with the sound of water and overpowering the sound of the music. The bass voices resonate and reverb over a tribal beat creating a fine result.
Snakeskin Tracksuit has some wonderful dubs throughout and bounds along from start to end. The use of heavy dubs is prevalent throughout the album often overtaking much of the music itself with High Protein Snack being case in point as it intermingles with freeform jazz interludes.
The dark vocals appear again on In A Tap, Breeding Space and closer Latin Temperament with the later sounding like a cross between Human League’s Do Or Die and The Clangers.
With the third African Head Charge album came intense tracks with Sherwood quoting them as “experiments in active frequencies, out of time noises, rhythms within rhythms, and endless tape edits”.
Many of the effects used would form, or may already have been included in, the sound armoury of Sherwood. Several noises would later appear in varying guises across many On U tracks particularly those of the Tackhead experimental spin-off Fats Comet.
African Hedge Hog and Depth Charge in particular were uncompromising pieces of avant garde collage and the band could now firmly say that they had indeed created a genre of their own with few dubs and more ‘weird’. Drastic Season was largely instrumental with Sherwood now stamping his own inimitable style.
The eight tracks were certainly not easy listening, and one had to question the direction that African Head Charge were now taking and where their audience would lie. The answer was simple and an army of On U aficionados was slowly growing.
With Off The Beaten Track came a slight change of direction fuelled by meets with Skip McDonald, Doug Wimbush and Keith Leblanc as the African Head Charge sound took on a funk fuelled percussion driven angle. The new percussive side would meet with the approval of Bonjo and his wanting of ethnic chants.
Studio technology had leapt forward and the team were able to use loops ad samples to great effect and with the addition of guests Jah Wobble and several dogs, violins and sounds breaking glass it became the album to set the standard by.
One Albert Einstein even makes an appearance (presumably unknowingly) on the semi-ambient Language & Mentality and the beats employed throughout paved the way for the genre of World Music. Throw It Away too sounds like the forerunner to albums of the mighty Tackhead as vocal samples combine with hard-hitting sound crashes.
Off The Beaten Track was probably the most ‘organised’ album to date. Gone were the avant garde touches to be replaced by at times, a hip-hop pre-cursor and the act had now set the bar very high indeed.
All words by Paul Scott-Bates. More of Paul’s writing on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive. Paul’s website is hiapop Blog and you can follow him on Twitter here, and on Facebook here. You can also follow him on Twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news.