Klan warfare

Handsworth Revolution album review

Dave Ramsden in Melody Maker

29 July 1978

Steel Pulse (pic Melody Maker)

Of all the young British reggae bands who have sprung to prominence in the last year, Steel Pulse have probably had the largest impact - at least with white audiences (it has taken much longer for them to gain the acceptance of the black community). Their success has partly been due to their frequent appearances sharing the bill with new-wave rock bands and also because, of all the reggae bands, they pay the greatest attention to stage presentation. Their use of costumes (notably the masks for Ku Klux Klan), good musicianship and a well-paced set make them an exciting band to watch. Strong response from the media has also kept them very much in the public eye, and this debut album has been anxiously awaited by a great many people.

Their singles have shown a steady improvement in their ability to get their distinctive sound across on record and this album marks a large step in the right direction. The playing is for the most part excellent and the vocals come across much better than before (compare the version of Ku Klux Klan here with the single). It's an impressive piece of work for a first album by a young band but it also shows up one serious flaw. Stimulating as I have always found their live performances, few of their songs stand out in my memory apart from the odd line.

Much of reggae's strength derives from its simple and direct melodic and rhythmic appeal, and few of Steel Pulse's songs possess clearly identifiable melodic lines, their songs tending towards lyric domination and repeated rhythmic guitar and keyboard riffs. It is, perhaps, a matter of taste whether one puts melody or lyrics first (I personally tend to respond to music first rather than lyrics, unless the lyrics are exceptionally good). I can't help feeling, though, that if you want to communicate the lyrics most effectively a strong melody helps. One clearly bad effect of the lack of identifiable melodies is a tendency for all the songs to sound much the same so that the album as a whole becomes slightly monotonous.

Steel Pulse themselves do lay great stress on the importance of their lyrics and the message they are trying to communicate. Certainly they do make some attempt to break out of the usual lyrical format of reggae but too often they seem to be saying the same things in a more convoluted way. One song, Handsworth Revolution, does deal directly with the situation of black people in Britain today, but most of the other material deals with subjects very much in the mainstream of reggae: slavery (Bad Man), war in Africa (Soldiers), music (Soundcheck), return to cultural roots (Prodigal Son), Biblical/Rastafarian prophecy (Prediction) and marijuana (Macka Spliff).

Perhaps I am being over-critical, but the band set themselves high critical standards. They are trying to redirect the course of British reggae and have made a very worthy step towards this. This is an important album for British reggae and Steel Pulse's endeavour to make their own music rather than merely copy Jamaican models is very praiseworthy but not, as yet, totally successful. I look forward with interest to their future development because I'm sure they still have a long way to go before they reach their peak.

Text copyright Melody Maker 1978, used without permission.

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