Lee "Scratch" Perry - Arkology
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Black Ark. For reggae and/or dub aficionados, those two words conjure up myths of magical sounds, supernatural forces, and a brilliantly mad producer at the center of it all. Black Ark was the name of famed Jamaican producer Lee Perry's studio, which he built in his backyard back in 1973. It was in this studio that Perry created his legend—a legend that puts his name second only to Bob Marley's in the pantheon of Jamaican music. Between the years 1973 and 1978, Perry collaborated with dozens of artists (including the Wailers, Augustus Pablo, The Congos, Junior Murvin, and even Paul McCartney), crafting some of the best music ever heard out of Jamaica. Island's 1997, 3-disk compilation, Arkology, highlights much of the music the Black Ark period, and it is, without question, the essential Lee Perry release.
What makes Perry so vital? Just take a listen to two tracks on this compilation: Max Romeo's "One Step Forward" and "One Step Dub." Romeo's track is, according to Perry biographer David Katz, a song aimed at Michael Manley, the then-Prime Minister of Jamaica, to encourage the socialist leader not to waver on his principles. The title refers to the cliché, "one step forward and two steps backwards," suggesting that, while Manley might pay lip-service to help out the poor of Kingston, he is really in league with "Babylon" (aka the US, Britain, and the corporations and rich men who control the island). The song is, in short, a classic example of "roots reggae," both in its political declarations and in its sound, which is dominated by the off-kilter rhythm that is the one certifiable musical signature of Jamaican music and performed brilliantly by one of the better voices of 70s Jamaican music.
Ah, but "One Step Dub" is different. As with all dubs, the track takes the basic rhythm, melody, and even the vocals of the original and uses these elements to create something far new. This track showcases some of the touches that make Perry's sound unique: effects that chop the voice into pieces in places, and expand the voice through echo and phase shifting in other places. He also uses these effects to the rhythm itself, so at times the beat begins to echo back at itself, at times the beat disappears altogether save a small echo, and at other times the beat and the melody (a nice, lilting guitar) get immersed. Now effects like these were not new when Perry recorded these songs in 1976, but Perry does something with his dub effects that electronic artists today should pay more attention to: he uses the effects to enhance the message at the heart of the song. The chorus of the original ("One step forward, two steps backwards / Step out of Babylon") is repeated over and over in the dub, but they are repeated in odd ways. On one occasion, the "one step forward" is chopped at the "step," as though the step forward was cut up (or interrupted) before it could be made. On other occasions, the "step backwards" is stretched out by an extreme echo, better emphasizing the importance of those two steps. The beat and melody, likewise, are chopped up, reconfigured, or otherwise distorted in subtle ways to better disconcert the listener and emphasize the mood of uncertainty and caution that everyone in Jamaica felt at the time (it was only a few years after Jamaica had become an independent nation). These two songs showcase the brilliance of Perry's production. They are not flashy tracks, nor do they demonstrate the amazing sounds Perry could conjure up from his limited, 4-track studio (just listen to Heart of the Congos if you want to hear Perry in his most magical form). But the songs expertly fuse the music with the message.
This creative fusion between music and message is in evidence throughout this collection, from the five "versions" of "Police & Thieves" (no, The Clash version isn't among them) to Keith Rowe's fantastic "Groovy Situation" to Perry's own statement of purpose, "Dub Revolution (Part 1)." The whole set is essential listening, for it contains some of the most important Jamaican music from the 70s. Moreover, this music is important because it demonstrates Perry's lasting influence on other artists. Before the arrival of modern computers, effects processors, and digital mixing boards, Perry found a way to take the sounds rattling around in his mind and transform them into music. He showed that even the sparsest studio could be used to realize his most oddball musical visions. In this, Perry's work has influenced all studio and computer-based music, especially electronic music, which is centered on the notion that music is a process and sound itself a fluid entity, always changeable, always being reinvented. Arkology is a testament to Perry's legacy: each track is brilliantly chosen to highlight Perry's amazing creative and technical wizardry.
By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2003-09-01