Dreadzone – Dread Times

Album Review | Dubwiser Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 3/5

Dreadzone are a British institution. A band who since its formation in 1993 by ex Big Audio Dynamite drummer Greg Roberts, has continued to morph and absorb influences. Alongside a warm embracing keyboard stew that sounds vintage and now, expect the unexpected, North African music, Ska revival, hypnotic acoustic guitar and of course some well-chosen vocal samples. What defines this album is how effortlessly the band tame and master so many apparently disparate musical ideas, directing them into a blend that is recognisably Dreadzone. It appears effortless, an exercise in tasteful understatement. “Rootsman” arrives on a swirling melange of loops, samples and sounds, classic dub vocals, a sweet chorus and some very electric drum n bass percussion. A huge sounding keyboard bass rumbles underneath, everything manages to sound simultaneously 40 years old and contemporary. The tune is infectious and uplifting. The lyrics, while attempting to establish Dreadzone as the elder statesmen they surely are, fall a little flat. Impeccably delivered, they are shallow and leave it to the music to demonstrate the essentialness of Dreadzone and their reggae credentials in 2017. “Mountain” sets a darker vocal reminiscent of Tricky or classic Massive Attack against the warm uplifting vocals. There is a wonderful tension, between the two, like a beautiful musical argument or debate. Again the bubbling keyboards and groove of the track is beautifully constructed. Escape demonstrates the successes of this album perfectly, brass or brass stab samples ride through the electronic keyboards over a sharp bass riff and some very sweet lover’s rock style vocals. It as a warm and seductive blend that you cannot help but nod along to. A slip into a more electronic vibe for the last 90 seconds of the track still manages to maintain the vibe and that feel of ancient and modern. Escape opens with a bright keyboard pulse that is so 90s dance, but the warm vocals and the dub rhythm manages to blend it into the Dreadzone brew. “16 Hole” takes the sea shanty vibe of Captain Dread off their 1995 Second Light and welding it to a rewritten Kenny Rogers lyric makes a driving song about Gun crime. As it’s Dreadzone the samples and found sounds are threaded through the mix. “Black Deus” uses a great spoken piece by what sounds like Gil Scott Heron with his distinctive diction to advocate direct action and protest. As through the rest of the album, the feel is dub reggae, but the soundtrack is hard edged electronic keyboards. A ‘Freedom’ chorus links it back to the 60s protest movement as does the ‘hairs on the back on the neck’ piece from Martin Luther King, as true now as it ever was. Freedom, like the music of Dreadzone, really matters. Short wave radio sounds bleed through a few of the tracks of the album and they introduce the North African musical loops of Music Army, adding another sonic spice to the rich mix. Again the lyrical message is slight but the groove and vibe more considerable with beautiful moments of sparring African guitar and slippery oud. Area Code is a joyous tempo lift that recalls the frenetic pogo-ing of Ska revialists like The Beat and the Selector and is glorious for it. Vocalists Louchie Lou and Michie One inject some attitude and punch. The song still twists and turns with dub slipperiness, but it is an infectious stomper throughout. “Never Going Back” sounds like an end of relationship song, starting angry it quickly becomes upbeat and positive an anthem to change and moving forwards. Superb vocals blend over a bubbling electronic backing, dance meets reggae ballad. “Where Is My Friend” pulls the tempo down and confounds expectations with a late night beach campfire acoustic guitar some splashes of melodica and one of Earl 17’s warmest and best vocals on the album. Slightly marred by the ‘maker Jamaica’ rhyme, this is still a laid back masterpiece of a reggae song. Consciously or unconsciously “After The Storm” replicates the chilled languid mastery of “A Canterbury Tale” off Second Light, the piano refrain, the clipped pronunciation on the film sample and we are back in 1995. Indian music, spacial guitar chords and a building deep keyboard pulse take this to other places, but this glorious album closer manages to bridge twenty years effortlessly with the past and the present holding hands. The more they change the more they manage to seem to stay, at the centre the same and maintain a core of Dreadzoneness. This is an album that comforts and confounds then comforts again, like the best of Massive Attack and those 70s Island Reggae albums this is a grower and a keeper.