Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Duff Review: Max Romeo "Horror Zone"

Cover by Tony Wright, who created the album art for
"War Ina Babylon," Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves,"
Lee Perry's "Super Ape," and Bob Marley and the Wailers'
"Natty Dread."
Nu Roots
Heavyweight Double LP/CD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

There's really no need for Max Romeo's new album Horror Zone to be pitched as a (very long-overdue) sequel to his iconic 1976 collaboration with Lee "Scratch" Perry, War Ina Babylon, as this conscious, roots reggae record is astonishingly good in its own right. But since his post-Babylon falling out with Perry--and despite working in the years since with an array of name producers, like Jah Shaka, Tapper Zukie, Mafia and Fluxy, even Keith Richards--Romeo hasn't come close to matching the greatness of War Ina Babylon (or his extremely underrated 1975 album Revelation Time, also known as Open the Iron Gate, which I think even outshines Babylon). So, gently forgive the necessary marketing hype that is being employed to bring attention to an album genuinely deserving of it.

Romeo's key collaborator/secret weapon on Horror Zone is UK producer Daniel Boyle, who recreated Lee Perry's analog Black Ark studio set-up in his Rolling Lion studio for a series of recent albums he produced for Scratch (including the 2014 Grammy-nominated Back on the Controls) and uses it tremendously well for Romeo's recordings (so much so that they sound like warm and vital contemporaries of Revelation Time and War Ina Babylon). Occasionally, you catch familiar bits of Perry-like arrangements or percussive passages or sound effects (in the intro to "What is Life?" I hear The Congos "Fisherman")--but these are the contextual underpinnings (in a version-mad genre!) supporting terrific new tunes. Hatchet buried, Perry himself contributes percussion, backing vocals, and effects on many tracks and their dubs here, as do several members of Perry's band The Upsetters, including Vin Gordon on trombone, Robby Lyn on keys, and Glen DeCosta on sax.

Even though humanity more or less survived the seemingly apocalyptic late 70s, now forty years on--when man-made climate change has replaced nuclear war as the likely means of our self-destruction--Max Romeo (71 years old and in great vocal shape) still finds much to lament, as not much progress has been made. "What If" chillingly opens the album with these lyrics:

"What if I tell you that the world is in trouble
What would you say?
And what if I tell you that you will die tomorrow
What would you do today?

What if this was the start of the Armageddon?
Tell me, would you be prepared?
If all the things that said is true
Tell me what are we to do?

Said it's the system that sets it so
And don't you forget you know
What if the sun no longer shines
And there's darkness all the time?

Then all life on earth would perish
And all humanity would surely vanish
No more thunder and no more lightning
No more wind and no more rain

No more stealing, no more killing
No more stars that shined above
What if I tell you..."

And Romeo is just getting started. Horror Zone is packed with sharp, potent lyrics full of empathy for the downtrodden and oppressed, often delivered in wonderfully catchy and buoyant songs. He decries how badly those with power treat the less powerful--depriving them of basic needs and rights, or sending them off as cannon fodder for their wars--but also points out how we choose to act in wicked ways and how poorly we treat each other and ourselves (the myriad dangers of smoking tobacco cigarettes are defined--"I have a friend who has a daily pack/I tried to tell him that he should not/No matter what I say, he wouldn't stop/Now he's laying in a cemetery in a numbered spot"--as much of Rastafarianism is concerned with maintaining a healthy body).

Max Romeo--photo by Nick Caro
In this supposedly populist age (note the "mad as hell"/"Network" reference toward the end of the song!), Romeo has penned an anthem to rally the beat down/complacent people to band together for some sort of revolution to overthrow Babylon's/Western society's corrupt and greedy system--"Fed Up":

"Fed up, fed up
Can't take no more
I said we are fed up
Can't get no more

For too long we sat here
And taking all the crap
This cruel and unusual punishment
Certainly have to stop

We wake up every day
With the beat of the same old drum
Uninspired people sit
And waiting for the Lord to come

No hope of survival
No chance to rise
Wondering and thundering
Will our children survive
Under this wicked and brutal system
That Babylon provide

Time for us to get serious
And take it to the streets
Time for Babylon to understand
There's no surrender or retreat

It's either or either
We will do or we will die
Put your heads out your windows
Now with one big voice we cry

Yes, we are fed up..."

Much like Black Uhuru's song of the same name, Romeo's critique of Babylon continues in "What Is Life?"--particularly how our systems of government/economy purposefully deny vast numbers of people the basic things they need for a decent existence, restricting them to lives full of nothing but deprivation and misery.

"What is life?
Here today and gone tomorrow
What is life?
When you have to spend it all in sorrow
What is life?
When you have to live it out on a limb
What is life?
Without love, it don't mean a thing

Is this life?
The way we are forced to live
Is this life?
When we ain't have nothing to give
Is this life?
When you always live in wants
Is this life?
When poverty always haunts

Are you happy to see your children hungry?
And the house is always empty
And the bills are piling high
And the little children all are cryin'--'cause their tummies are empty
I said their tummies are empty

What is life?
When you have to scratch just like a chicken
What is life?
When there's no food left in the kitchen
What is life?
When there's no water in the main
What is life?
When you have to live it under strain"

Mournful violins introduce the tragically beautiful and evocative "The Sound of War." Listening to this track, you can almost see the biblical-looking Max Romeo on a bluff overlooking the valley below that is soon to become a combat zone, describing all he witnesses. With its references to wars waged to supposedly spread/protect freedom and democracy, one also can imagine this song is aimed at the United States' disastrous, Bush/Cheney-led imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (and the disposability of its soldiers afterwards...).

"I hear the sound of war
Echoing over yonder
It make I man stop and wonder
I heard the sound of a bomb
That sound like thunder
The flashing like that looks like lighting
The rolling of the guns across the plains
And the children so confused
And the elders not amused

Is Babylon unleashing all its might?
Destroying everything in sight
I can feel the agony of the people
Cowering with fear
Destruction everywhere
When two governments disagree
The people get least
No one listen to their struggle
Whenever this is war the children perish
Losing everything they ever cherished

They send your sons and daughters to die
On the battlefield
All in the name of freedom
All in the name of democracy
Those that make it back
Is shown no mercy
Living in the streets like rat
Nowhere to rest their pack"

My favorite cut on the album is the joyous (despite the lyrical content) title track, "Horror Zone" (that has echoes of Willie Williams' "Armagideon Time"/Sound Dimension's "Real Rock" riddim within), which places a lot of the blame for our current mess on our own choices and for failing to follow a righteous path.

"Cloak and dagger
Skull and bones
Drifting in
The Horror Zone

We seem to forget the reason we're here
Why Jah has given us this earth to share
It's more than enough for us to take part
But for the glory of Jah we all have come short

We seem to focus on just violent tings
Destroying the fabric of humanity
We never stop for a moment to think if it's right
The terrible things we do in Jah Jah's sight

Men have conjured many concepts
Forgetting that Jah should be shown respect
They come up with little gimmicks that sound so real
But when you take up stock it's your soul they steal

Beware of false prophet, Jah has warned us
Not everything that glitters turn out to be gold
Sometime decision come back to haunt us
The words have been written and the story been told

Cloak and dagger
Skull and bones
Drifting in
The Twilight Zone
All that matters
Is left alone
Cause men bow down
To wood and stone"

The album proper finishes with a prayer of thanksgiving/warning to the unrepentant: "Give Thanks to Jehovah" (or else).

Horror Zone is accompanied by track-for-track dub versions (on a second LP in the vinyl version), all expertly crafted by Boyle (I really like "What is Dub?" in particular). Several feature Lee Perry on vocals and effects ("What If Version," "Horror Zone in Dub," and "Give Thanks Dub"), which take them to a whole new level of wonderful, otherworldly weirdness.

Somehow, all of the stars aligned for Max Romeo's phenomenal Horror Zone to come to fruition, so do all that you can to track down this (somewhat hard-to-find in physical form) album. You don't want to miss out--Horror Zone is likely destined to become a new roots reggae classic.

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