Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Duff Review: Destroy Babylon "Long Live the Vortex"

Music A.D.D. Records (CD)/Young Cub Records (LP)

(Review by Steve Shafer)

It's not every band that lays out their mission statement in their name, but with Destroy Babylon, what you read is what you get: defiantly political roots reggae--which, in the best tradition of rebel music, blisteringly denounces, skewers, and parodies societal, governmental, and economic injustice. But even this description sells them short, as their lyrics aren't a cliched laundry list of perennial left-wing grievances--they're much more subtle and intelligent than that--and require that you invest a bit of time interpreting their meaning (the lyric book that accompanies the CD is much appreciated). And their superb late 70s reggae sound is permeable enough to allow the influence of other musical genres (such as rock and 60s psychedelia) to seep in, adding color and a pumped-up muscularity to their mix.

Destroy Babylon's extraordinary third record, Long Live the Vortex, is a concept album (!) of sorts that brilliantly captures the tenor of our Wall Street bailout, Citizens United, crony capitalism, 1% versus 99% times. And it could arguably serve as a soundtrack for the masses who are slowly-but-surely awakening to the fact that the political structure (and judicial system) of the nation has been increasingly rigged over the past 30 years to respond almost exclusively to the demands and voracious greed of wealthy individuals and corporations, who in turn largely view the public as saps to manipulate, exploit, and fleece. In short, Long Live the Vortex is an odyssey through the disorienting, alarming, and oftentimes brutal landscape of an America in crisis--seemingly in the process of societal disintegration, really--but a sojourn that also reveals real hope for salvation through the decency and tenacity of its people who are willing to struggle for what is good and right.

In "DB Inc.," the band has an idea how to "save us all" in this dire economic era. If corporations can be accorded the same kinds of constitutionally-protected rights as people (and enjoy all sorts of entitlements and perks through favorable policies enacted by in-their-pocket politicians), why not go that route: "Incorporate me now/Buy in, sell out/When the bottom fell out/our empty hands parade/Left some of us without/Why work?/Why slave away when/we can all be businesses/big, big businesses!" "Echo Chamber" is a salvo aimed at Fox News and their ilk for broadcasting what is nothing short of reality-challenged propaganda (i.e., lies)--and inflicting real damage on our democracy as a result: "How long can you filter out truth/Distort and disgust/How long can we eat that dirt/before it eats us...if you plant the seed/something's sure to grow/You have nothing to teach/Nothing that grows/Seems the more you have to say/the less the people know."

While it's not that specific, I imagine the wholesale theft and insatiable avarice portrayed in "Mr. Moneybags" to be a corporate equivalent of a Jesse James-type Western outlaw wreaking mass havoc across the nation: "Put 'em up /Put em up/hands to the sky/Your money or your life/Forget my face/Forget my name/There are no new towns/They're all the same/I've met a million people/in a million different places/I hate to pull my gun out/but I love to see their faces as I'm leaving." "#1 Killer" points out the hypocrisy of allowing corporate manufactured and marketed cigarettes to be legal and regulated (though they are a major public health problem causing a slew of cancers and other diseases), while keeping marijuana illegal (despite the fact that it may have several medicinal purposes, such as treating pain and alleviating the symptoms/side effects of cancer treatments).

The anti-war song "BLAST" contains this great lyric, "We will be the turpentine/to their war paint"--and, guessing from their video (see below), the "vortex" referred to in the chorus ("Long live the vortex!") might be a mushroom cloud, but just as easily be the wonderful complexity and diversity of our society, as expressed through such creative and life-affirming mediums as music, art, literature, etc. (see the album cover for a visual representation) that can help keep the annihilatory dogs of war at bay.

"Free the King" poses the charged question as to whether a murderer can ever be rehabilitated and redeemed in society's eyes through the real case of Arnie King ("What's the point of going on/without a way to right our wrong?...I don't condone what he did/but can't a man change?") We're a country that loves rooting for the underdog and has an insatiable appetite for stories about people transformed through impossibly desperate life journeys (and many of us claim to be Christian). Yet racism and an almost innate bloodlust for Old Testament vengeance largely dictate our criminal justice policies. Speaking of police and thieves, "Freeze" is not about being busted, but an ironic call to action--to shake people from their apathy and stupor: "Feet on the ground/carry uphill/You know/if you don't/nobody else will/Stop waiting around!/Stop standing still!"

Other songs on Long Live the Vortex reflect how the malignant political milieu of the larger society infects and corrupts our personal lives. "Bad Draw" is concerned with the aftereffects of suicide on those left behind: "I cannot carry that weight/Was it just a bad draw/or was it the battle that you fought?...You were the joker/and now the King of Hearts/I ain't the dealer/I wasn't from the start/The best lessons in life/come at the worst price." Or consider the bitter "Something Very Wrong," which depicts a stalking, obsessively jealous lover--she's decadently thriving (parasitically) off their relationship, while he's all too aware that it's sucking the life out of him: "Have you seen me at the window baby?/I've been staring while you dine/You can't blame me for the burning eyes/When I've seen you spitting out your wine."

For all of the crescendoing tension, anxiety, selfishness, hatred, and madness expressed in the songs that precede it on the album, Long Live the Vortex's coda is an incredible, almost euphoric release. A major-key tune--after all of those minor-key melodies--"Days of No Future Passed" is a psychedelic trip (flutes, tablas, sitars!) to the post-apocalypse. And everything is going to be okay (the optimistic chorus repeats its mantra: "I've got a future/in the no future!")--we've made it through to the other side of societal meltdown: "Those left in this land/high neon violence/A gun for each hand/on auto-pill dispense/Oh damaged goods/Oh dented cans/Low Americans/I've got a future/in the no future/Oh modern man/Get ready boys, get real fast/Give all your resistance/Speed today the distant past/Oh remaining good/with able hands..." The hope embodied in the "no future" of this track is the chance to start over and rebuild after the corrupt, unsustainable, and ultimately self-destructive Babylon is in ashes. Babylon's future is no more, but humanity's remains ripe with possibility.

Long Live the Vortex is a magnificent and accomplished album whose compelling imagery and brilliantly dread music will haunt, captivate, and reward you for many days to come. This is easily one of the top five ska/reggae releases of 2011.

Duff Guide to Ska Grade: A

+ + + +

Long Live the Vortex's CD and LP packaging deserve a note here. The LP comes in a sleeve silk-screened by the band, while the CD comes in a cool and arty printed book of lyrics (don't just settle for the digital files!). See them both in the video below...

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