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Steel Pulse: Handsworth Revolution

Album Notes

Steel Pulse: David Hinds (vocals, guitar); Basil Gabbidon (guitar, vocals), Selwyn Brown (keyboards, vocals, percussion); Ronnie McQueen (bass, percussion); Steve Nisbett (drums); Alphonso Martin, Michael Riley (vocals, percussion).

Producers: Karl Pitterson, Karl Pitterson, Godwin Logie, Steve Lillywhite.

British reggae has always been a bit more polished than that of its Jamaican cousins. The recording studios might be more sophisticated; or perhaps the British music scene is less chaotic; then again, maybe British listeners just have different tastes in music. In any event, you can hear the contrast most clearly on the 70's recordings of reggae's most famous artists, Bob Marley & The Wailers: the music is impeccably arranged, less bass-heavy and more cleanly produced.

The Wailers influence filtered down in England, and eventually crept into late period acts such as Steel Pulse. The first Steel Pulse album, HANDSWORTH REVOLUTION, was released in 1978, and is constructed along the lines of such Marley masterpieces as CATCH A FIRE and BURNING. Terse, lyrical declarations of dread politics and Rastafarian beliefs are given a lush harmonic treatment over reggae riddims as tight as a burra drum. Singer/songwriter David Hinds wraps his melodious hooks around phrases like "Doesn't justice stand for all?" ("Handsworth Revolution") and "Give I back I witch doctor, give I back I black ruler" ("Soldiers"), giving a clarion voice to the struggle of the black underclass in England.

And while "Ku Klux Klan" stands as one of the definitive send-ups of racist sentiments, Steel Pulse's other songs belie their political intensity, and provide a lyrical, celebratory contrast. Thus you have "Soundcheck," which praises Jah and music (in that order), and "Macka Splaff," a piquant ode to Ganja. HANDSWORTH REVOLUTION is such a beautifully realized album, it renders debates about the relative merits of differing reggae styles irrelevant.

Compared to the crossover-oriented, synthesizer-heavy sound of its mid-1980s records (EARTH CRISIS and STATE OF EMERGENCY), the vibe of Steel Pulse's 1978 debut is pure, stripped-down roots. HANDSWORTH REVOLUTION may not appeal to fans of the band's later formula, but there is no denying the spare, surging energy of cuts like "Bad Man" and "Sound Check," with their classic reggae rhythms. The record also shows that Steel Pulse's political and religious convictions emerged fully formed--"Ku Klux Klan" and "Prediction" establish the band's militant stance on social issues and Rastafarian beliefs.

But for all of the group's hard-edged allegiance to traditional reggae principles, Steel Pulse distinguishes itself from its Jamaican influences (the band is from Birmingham, England) with a sleek, tight-knit sound that contains uniquely textured percussion webs and the hints of pop and jazz fusion. (The bridge in the title cut wouldn't sound out of place in a Steely Dan song.) That Steel Pulse is able to mix these musical advances with a no-nonsense roots sensibility is among the reasons for the group's longevity and popularity. The ensemble's auspicious debut marks that trajectory, and remains one of the strongest and most compelling releases in its catalogue.


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