The Upsetter, Lee “Scratch” Perry has just released a new album, Back On The Controls, with Rolling Lion Studio’s Dan Boyle. The release is unique in that Mr. Boyle employs an audio setup that mirrors closely Mr. Perry’s own legendary studio the Black Ark, when it was in operation during the ’70s (see my previous post, written at the beginning of the project, on the concept of the project and its inception).
The release comes out as a double album and CD; 11 tracks along with their dub versions and a couple of dubplate specials.
It was funded as a successful kickstarter campaign and the songs were released to backers digitally. We review this remarkable new product which all reggae fans should appreciate immensely.
First of all, Dan Boyle (who owns and operates the Rolling Lion Studio) is an amazing audio engineer, with particular attention to detail and a crisp but heavy sound, carefully built up over the years to provide that essential Black Ark experience. In addition, Lee actually is mixing as well. Dan and Lee are credited with recording, engineering, mixing and producing - activities they spent many sessions on over the last couple of years.
The format is right on - CD1 has 6 tracks and dubs and CD2 has 5 tracks and dubs (plus 2 dubplates). The dubs all come right after their vocals which (we think) is the proper way to release reggae music - as opposed to all the vocals on one disk and the dubs on the other, or dubs just by themselves (unless they are dub concept albums).
The first track opens as one of the strongest tracks, with Lee Perry taking on Wall Street - relevant as always. It comes on a driving dub - we learn that Mr. Boyle plays bass along with Hughie Izachaar but it’s not clear exactly on which tracks. The first dub is a little like a subdued version - a tradition in Jamaican music. You can tell from this first track how powerful Mr. Perry can be with his signature opening words and lancing attacks on the Wall Street wolves.
The next track comes in with a sound similar to Adrian Sherwood’s Jungle rhythm and the dub to Pow Satan is one of the best on the album. You get hints of Mad Professor and Dub Syndicate integrated into an authentic Black Ark sound, combined with solid roots reggae played by real musicians.
Tug O’ War is another strong cut - the first 3 tracks bear some similarity but are not the same. The rhythms from this release appear to be all original and they also are not recycled exessively on the album, a typical indication of filler.
The next track is a very different zippy reggae number with cool vocals by Scratch and a catchy, lively dub version. Do the Dubstep really doesn’t actually sound like dubstep (which is good since it’s a reggae album).
One John Ganja (aka Lee Scratch Perry) tears it up on I Believe, where as always, Scratch has some outrageous lines, like our favorite “I believe in me, a crazy man”. It seems a definite nod to his mid-80s track I Am A Madman from the Battle of Armagideon album. This track stands out with its martial sound and crazy effects. You can really hear the Black Ark sound on the guitars, a kind of echoed, muffled plucking that I associate more with the early Black Ark sound and that often makes the hairs on my neck stand up when I hear it.
Finally, CD1 concludes with an astonishing reworking of the groundbreaking Blackboard Jungle Dub - it seems hard to tell whether some of this was taken from the original masters and blended in, or all original (we shall have to ask Dan!) What’s so much fun about this (and the CD2 recut of Words) is that Dan and Lee seem to weave seemlessly in and out of conformity to the original, breaking new ground - a nice touch and more interesting than a straight rework. By this time we’ve been up and dancing around, always a good sign for a release, and we move on to CD2
CD2 opens with another heavy cut, with the Upsetter referring repeatedly to the man with the cap, Daniel, which Mr. Boyle is likely to like a lot! This is one of our favorite tracks, although it again bears some similarity to the first tracks of CD1.
Repent is a decent cut that builds steam over time. On a bluesy skanking rhythm, the Upsetter exhorts people to drop the cigarette and take up Lambs Bread. This was one of the tracks where we ended up skanking out, jumping around and getting overall irie with the vibe and dubbed out Black Ark sound.
The next track, Land of Dub, is reminiscent of the Black Ark Almighty Dub era, with relentless bassline and piercing guitar licks. Copy This Copy That revisits an old theme with Scratch (recall Don’t Copy from the ska era almost 50 years ago). Come Up Scratch, like Repent, gradually builds up a musical vision out of an otherwise ordinary treatment.
Overall the album features solid roots rhythms, arrangements and mixing - with The Upsetter at his most ferocious, playful and let’s just say it - coherent! Superb spoken intros (e.g. “I Am the Upsetting Upsetter”) introduce most tracks, as fans of the Upsetter have come to expect. The dubs could be categorized as wild but they don’t feel like they are overdone.
It feels like this product is opening the door to a new era in roots reggae music. The album and the way it was released - with patient attention to detail and working on it until it was right lay the foundation. The past is littered with unfinished, partially released work by (and not authorised) Mr. Perry. This is not one such album. Also the Kickstarter campaign was a home run and Mr. Boye and Mr. Perry have made sure (with interaction from their supporters) that it gets a great release, including 180gm double-vinyl audiophile pressings. The bar has also been reset as far as creating great dubs to go with the vocal tracks - these are the primary ways in which the engineer and mixer express themselves in exploring a song and provide a deeper understanding of the song’s essence.
Second to last is an impeccable recut of the famous Upsetters/Gatherers tune Words of My Mouth, once again indistinguishable from the original - in places - wandering off into an almost jazz-like mood.
The album ends on a high note with the upbeat Lee’s Special, a floating dubplate instrumental with beautiful dreamy background female vocals, causing this veiled take on the Return of the Super ape era to leave us with a taste for more from the duo of dubmasters. It has all the elements of a masterpiece - killer spoken intro, gripping transition intro, groovy rhythm, ethereal vocals, sprinkled effects, guitars and then … silence. Our favorite track on the album.
As the Master and his protoge roll into history, as Lions, it’s too soon to start looking to the next project, but we wish the best for Dan and Lee and wait eagerly for our vinyl and CD packages … and news of their future plans.