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  1. This piece is somewhat different to every other one I’ve written for this 2023/4 Albums Thing I committed myself to. Why ? I hear you ask…well here I am writing this on March 20th and the album isn’t due to be released until June 14th (the sharp eyed will note that’s today). Here I am writing stuff about a record I haven’t heard yet. But…there are a couple of reasons I decided to do this…firstly I’m a Decemberists obsessive (if you are not aware of this you maybe need to go back to May 2023 in this Blog and read through the stuff I’ve written about them previously) and the thought of a new album has me quite excited…secondly, and as is the way these days, The Decemberists “dropped” (I believe that is the current parlance) 2 tracks to digital streaming platforms as a tease, “Burial Ground” on February 6th and the 19 minute and 21 second epic “Joan In The Garden” on March 19th, the same day they announced the release of “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again”, their first album release since 2018.

    I remember first hearing “Severed” and “Once In My Life” when they teased them from their previous album “I’ll Be Your Girl” and being floored at how good those songs were. So on February 6th as I prepared myself for my first listen to “Burial Ground” you may well appreciate that my breath was baited and my hooks were tentered…and oh what a disappointment…my first impression was this is a thinly disguised rewrite of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B” and subsequent revisits haven’t convinced me otherwise. Oh well, I figured, everyone is allowed a stinker (Bowie and Tin Machine is a prime example) and we have a whole album to look forward to.

    Fast forward to yesterday (that being the 19th March) and this album is announced. At the same time a second track is “dropped”, the aforementioned “Joan In The Garden”. Now The Decemberists aren’t scared about a long song, their debut album had one that ran to almost 10 minutes, there are a couple of 7 minuters on their 2nd album, one of almost 9 minutes on their 3rd and they breached 12 on the 4th, so this is not something I’m unused to from them, even with my notoriously short attention span. All these songs have one thing in common, they are very wordy stories, melodious in the extreme, musically multifaceted and they hold your attention. “Joan In The Garden” isn’t overly wordy and the story is hiding (from me at least). It is multifaceted, being constructed from 4 distinct sections BUT…part 1 is the sort of thing writer Colin Meloy probably produces without trying too hard, part 2 sounds like a middle 8 they couldn’t find a home for so let’s just chuck it into that long thing to pad it out. Then there is part 3, which begins at around 9 and a half minutes in and lasts for around 6 minutes, 6 minutes of tuneless, droning synthesizers that I can only liken to the sort of thing Prog fans enjoy getting stoned to in darkened rooms or outtakes from some great lost Krautrock epic featuring former members of Neu!, Cluster and Popol Vuh…and not the interesting former members. And if you think that’s painful the final section is what I can only describe as “The Decemberists try (shit) heavy metal”, it’s shockingly bad !

    I’m now left having already spent the (not inconsiderable) £££ pre-ordering “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again” wondering whether The Decemberists bubble has finally burst ? Well I have another 3-ish months to wait to find out…

    …or do I ? Here we are now on April 24th and a third track is released to streaming services, “All I Want Is You”. It’s a short ballad made up mainly of picked acoustic guitar and vocals with some muted brass instruments and harmony backing vocals, again the sort of thing that Colin Meloy knocks up without trying very hard. It’s nothing special. The Decemberists have a recent habit of releasing 10” EP’s shortly after an album release, made up of songs that were recorded for the album but didn’t make the final cut, songs that would once have ended up as B-sides. That’s where “All I Want Is You” (and “Burial Grounf” for that matter) sounds like it belongs, it is not doing anything to assuage me of the notion that this bubble has burst…

    …this is getting a bit daft now isn’t it…16th May and yet another song, the 4th, is released on streaming services, meaning that just over 30% of the record is now available before release. This one is titled “Oh No!” and…well, thankfully it’s better, not a classic but better than any of the previous 3. It’s built around a vaguely Bossa Nova type of rhythm with horns.

    Just over a year ago, in this very Blog while writing about The Decemberists last album release (“I’ll Be Your Girl”) I said “I’m very much looking forward to whatever comes next”…and now here is what comes next. The release time, June 14th but the record arrived 48 hours early and after spendinga couple of days with it…I find that it’s not all that great.

    I really don’t like this current fad for dripping tracks out from a new album months before it’s released. I don’t use streaming services (well just YouTube if I need a quick listen to something I don’t know) primarily because they sound rubbish. Example; when I first played this album track 1 side 1, “Burial Ground” SOUNDED great, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s a half-arsed rewrite of the Beach Boys “Sloop John B”, it just sounded better than it did on YouTube.

    I went and read some online reviews to see what the world was thinking. I was shocked to see descriptions like “their best album”, “a triumph” and “a return to form” (although that last one was by a guy who described previous album “I’ll Be Your Girl” as a disappointment so he’s obviously a cloth eared no mark) which got me to thinking “is it me”. Well no it’s not…if you’ve read anything  here you’ll know how highly I value The Decemberists but this album, outside of Colin Meloy’ voice, could be almost anybody. The things I love about The Decemberists aren’t here. The humour is missing, the soaring, intricate melodies are missing, the ridiculous dictionary moments are missing, it’s all very dour and ordinary and The Decemberists have never been ordinary to me.

    On the bright side penultimate track “Never Satisfied” is pretty good and might have had a shot at appearing on a Decemberists album in the past. Having said that it’s not hard to stand out among this meagre company. 

    I’ll persevere with it, of course I will, but I guess this qualifies as the first bad write up on this blog.

    Never Satisfied - https://youtu.be/Ah0KYze_y-c?si=tFZhjlhTa-Upsaqi

  2. Released exactly a year after their debut “Tribute To The Martyrs” picks up exactly where “Handsworth Revolution” left off. It’s one I’ve only relatively recently (4 years ago to be precise) acquired my own copy of. It was one of those records I used to hear from down the hallway at home. I owned “Handsworth Revolution”, Miles owned this one. No point in us both buying it, this was 1979, there was too much good stuff to get so doubling up was a waste of our meagre resources. Eventually though I needed my own copy.

    We’ve lost Michael Riley from the line up but otherwise it’s the same musicians and Karl Pitterson is still in the Producers chair. Loosely the album is themed around martyrs, both overtly in song like the title track, “Uncle George” and “Biko's Kindred Lament”, in the lyrics with references to the likes of Toussaint L'Overture (a former slave who led a revolution in Haiti) and on the cover, whose Mount Rushmore style image features caricatures of George Jackson, Steve Biko, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Paul Bogle and Haile Selassie.

    We kick off with “Unseen Guest” which recounts the prayer of condemned man (“Jah Jah watch over I, Evil watcha gonna do ?”). The music is the equal of their debut, clean, bright, aimed equally at the head and the feet, Ranking Roots reggae. But this isn’t the roots sound of JA. Like Bob Marley, Steel Pulse were working in a more rock/pop vein to get that message out to a wider audience. Make ‘em dance, make ‘em think.

    Elsewhere the subject matter diverges, “Sound System” is a tribute to the joys of standing swathed in ganja smoke in front of towers of homemade speakers while the selector drives the groove; “Jah Pickney (Rock Against Racism)” carries a very obvious political statement of intent with it’s chant of “We’re gonna hunt, the National Front”; “Babylon Makes The Rules” and “Blasphemy (Selah)” carry the traditional Rasta religious messages.

    “Tribute To The Martyrs” is very close to being the equal of “Handsworth Revolution”. The one thing that separates the two is that “Tribute To The Martyrs” just isn’t “Handsworth Revolution”, that’s all. But that doesn’t make it any less than what it is, a superb British Reggae album.

    Uncle George - https://youtu.be/3laBTblAd94?si=O3Hku9UM9ScHnyOH

  3. OK, let's get back to the alphabet... 

    Back in the far off mists of time (October 2023) I was talking here about the question of “Which is the greatest British Reggae album ?” while writing about Linton Kwesi Johnson’s “Dread, Beat An’ Blood”. I offered that “this record would hog quite a sizeable chunk of that discussion, and would have every chance of coming out on top of any list constructed from that discussion”. Well, another sizeable chunk of that discussion would be hogged by this album and it too would have every chance of coming out on top of any list constructed from that discussion. Steel Pulse’s “Handsworth Revolution” is utterly majestic.

    I had a friend at school, Howard. Howard’s grandparents had come to the UK from Jamaica in the 50’s in the rush of people who came to the “mother country” when it called for people to re-build it after the second World War. By the time I’d met Howard he was already aware of what was going on in Jamaican music, the roots reggae revolution led by Bob Marley and it was Howard who introduced me to the likes of Prince Far I, Big Youth, Dillinger and others that kick started my love of reggae.

    The UK in the 70’s was a tough place to be for a black kid. Racism and bigoted attitudes were the norm, the far right was on the move in the shape of the hateful National Front (sound familiar ?). This led to the rise of some radical and politicised UK reggae artists in the late 70’s, the likes of Matumbi, Misty In Roots, Linton Kwesi Johnson and, obviously, Birmingham’s Benjamin Zephaniah and the mighty Steel Pulse.

    I probably first heard Steel Pulse on the John Peel Show, that late night beacon of all that was good in new music that you couldn’t hear on daytime radio (as Peel himself once said on his show “there are some daytime DJ’s in the next room, probably listening out for the records they’ll be playing in 6 months time” or something like that). They were around our age, from the same kind of places we lived in the same city. Their songs were firmly aimed at the black youth of the late 70’s, tackling the subjects that mattered to them. But us skinny white Punk Rockers lapped it up. Partly because they were from Birmingham and we were proud of them and I think because not only was this clearly rebel music of the kind being made by The Clash, the Pistols and The Jam but it was rebel music you could dance to !

    “Handsworth Revolution” was released in March of 1978 and was produced by respected Jamaican engineer/producer Karl Pitterson who had worked with the holy trinity of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. 10 days after its release it had reached #9 in the UK Album chart. In June and July Steel Pulse went out on tour opening for Bob Marley & The Wailers about which singer David Hinds has said “To play as part of that package exposed Steel Pulse to audiences that literally were in awe of our message. Of course, being formally introduced through Bob Marley helped us tremendously. Playing for audiences, especially those in Paris who saw the force of Steel Pulse and the force of Bob Marley play on the same bill, enabled us to sell out shows every time since then”. The Youth Club at my school ran a bus trip to see that tour at Stafford Bingley Hall on June 22, 1978, the only UK date on the Kaya tour. I didn’t go…WHY ??? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since.

    The core of Steel Pulse’s sound was David Hinds superb voice, the spidery guitar work of Basil Gabbidon and then there were Alphonso Martin and Michael Riley’s backing vocals (the two would don KKK hoods to perform “Ku Klux Klan” which was a most disturbing sight) plus their absolute authenticity. They are one of the few reggae acts from outside Jamaica that are taken seriously there.

    I finally got to see them play live on the tour that supported their second album “Tribute To The Martyrs”. Me and my dear friend Mick found ourselves in the darkness of the Top Rank in Birmingham, surrounded by Rastas and breathing in the smoke of hundreds of spliffs that hung in the air. After the fourth support act had finished I was almost ready to go, I was reggae’d out, and then on came Steel Pulse and blew our minds, one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. This wasn’t just reggae music, this was truly magical, inspiring music being made right there in front of us. 

    Steel Pulse are still releasing albums and touring 45 years later This album still gets a spin on a regular basis in our house…it should in yours too.

    Handsworth Revolution - https://youtu.be/A3LFvaAD2-Y