Tales of Power

Tribute To The Martyrs album review

Angus MacKinnon in NME

30 June 1979

The second chapter of the book according to Steel Pulse, Tribute To The Martyrs provides further proof that the band, already recognised as integral to the self-confidence and development of UK reggae, are not to be found wanting in these dark days. Purists might, probably will object that, like last year's Handsworth Revolution, Tribute isn't roots as they perceive them, that Karl Pitterson's production of both albums has been disappointingly soft. Well, such grumbles are really only a very small part of the point... Steel Pulse, Aswad, Matumbi, Cimarons, Reggae Regular, Misty, Linton Kwesi Johnson, whoever - UK reggae has obviously had to contend and make contact with a wide, disparate audience, one that only Bob Marley (and at a pinch, or three, Third World) among JA artists have so far succeeded in reaching. As a result, the means it uses to achieve these ends have been and will continue to be necessarily many and various. So be it, as far as I'm concerned.

There are eight songs here, and five of them deal specifically with black martyrdom. Spun on Selwyn Brown's undulating keyboards, Unseen Guest opens, graphically depicting a martyr-to-be in a vermin-infested cell. He's resigned to his execution but confident in his God with whose help his spirit will be victorious; an attitude that's forceably reasserted throughout the album. The title songs ends the first side. Edging down a path intricutly crosscut by Basil Gabbidon and Davis Hinds' guitars, it ambitiously places black martyrs in a wider historical and philosophical context, proudly traces the veigns of pain and sacrifice with a final rap. Toussaint L'Overture, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, George Jackson, The Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Steve Biko, Malcolm X - the names are called and thus enshrined.

Side two sharpens the focus. Reinforced by percussive synthesiser, reverberating gongs and short, plangent guitar and solos, George Jackson stands firm for the memory of a man whose miserable fate Bob Dylan was moved to consider at the turn of this decade. Biko's Kindred Lament examines another case and cause, this time that of the civil rights activisit murdered by South African 'security' (whose security?) forces. Both tributes are emotive and emotional; neither are trite or trivial. Blasphemy (Selah) closes the album, reconciles Old and New Testaments, calls to heart and mind Christ, that most misunderstood of all martyrs. Needless to say, all these songs are articles of faith and, as such, can be taken or left. Me, I'll take them as best I can - for their commitment, eloquence and conviction.

Elsewhere you'll find the statutory Babylon Makes The Rules riding on blazing horns and carrying a distant echo of Marley's Natural Mystic, also Sound System, the single and the album's Sound Check (a musical celebration: "heavy Rhythm/Disco jive, conquer I no"...and Jah Pickney (Rock Against Racism), self-explanatory and militant, a confident contrast to the passive stance that paradoxically made Ku Klux Klan seem all the more urgent. To steal a phrase, Steel Pulse have so very many things to say. They also thrust a lot of lyrics into any one song, but Hinds' lead vocal phrasing makes good work of it, effortlessly stretching sense and metre. The instrumental undertone is simultaneously as direct and complex as ever - check, for instance, the arrangement of Blasphemy and the way its lyrical sentiments are carried by the song's rhythmic rise and fall and rise. Masterly. This is devotional and devoted dance music. These are songs of resilience and revolution. Give unto them and receive likewise.

Steel Pulse on the cover of NME 30/6/79

Text copyright NME 1979, used without permission.

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