David Hinds takes on 'Babylon the Bandit' - album review

Ziggy Coltrane in New York Reggae Times

December 1985

David Hinds (photo: Tia Johnson)

In reggae, controversy not only enhances one's status as an outlaw, a #1 'supa' if you will, it is something akin to productive advertising. More than any other reggae band, Steel Pulse has consistently exploited this grey area by revelling in their own rebel charge. It should surprise no one, therefore, that the Pulse's new album Babylon the Bandit doesn't quite live up to its advance billing as their most radical yet. Hype is after all, just that, hype. The irony of all this is, however, that the band's new album features songs that are arguably more commercial than anything on their previous album. Not only that, but it spotlights a softer edge to their sound and lyrics, than one would expect given head Pulse, David Hinds' and announcer Habte Sellassie's self-serving remarks at the band''s concert on the pier this summer (something about their record company's attempt at suppression). But despite all this, the album still makes it as a worthy successor to last year's Earth Crisis set.

BTB continues the Pulse's tentative steps toward pop radio, displaying on song after song their willingness to grow beyond the stylistic dead-end of their sound and sensibility and to explore fresh musical territories. While the album may lack the track that will help them make the cathartic leap into platinum heaven, the shape and sound of the songs suggest that the band members have at least learned that a formula sound needn't be formulaic. On Sugar Daddy the band even manages to display an affinity for beatbox grooves without sounding forced or crassly commercial, or more to the point, without it coming across as the careerist move it probably was. This is not an achievement to be taken lightly in a culture where crossover dreams are viewed as the kiss of death, in terms of respect and street credibility.

The album - Babylon the Bandit - is the sonic heir to its predecessor. While the band, on the Karl Pitterson produced albums, relied heavily on guitars to propel their quirky rhythms, they are now trading on the synth-laden aspect of last year's Earth Crisis (the first without Pitterson). The album sports neither the jagged edges of say Tribute to the Martyrs or the giddy-excitement of True Democracy. In its stead is the smoother surface sound that typifies their post-Pitterson productions. The album is chockful of slick textural music with a decidedly American sound. Years of touring have pruned their musicianship to pop perfection and the band now sounds tight as a drum. While the Pitterson productions jarred listeners with mind blowing sonarities, BTB seeks to seduce with synthesizer textures that cut into the power. The synthetic sounds, however, offer Hinds the opportunity to finesse the songs, instead of having to blast his way through the mix. This works well on adult material like Love Walks in which Hinds confronts his infidelity, no less. Nothing however could save Schoolboy's Crush (Jailbait); a kid's fare about, of all things, a schoolboy's (Hinds) crush on his schoolteacher. The cynic in me can well imagine the production meeting to storyboard a marketing strategy to advance the Pulse as reggae's answer to New Edition. Spare us the video.

Still, the album does have its moments: from its anthemic title song, to the stirring pleas to Save Black Music, to the testy King James Version, wherein Hinds wickedly snarls, 'Venecians, Egyptians, the Moors/Civilisation for sure/Creators of the alphabet/While they were illiterate.' No questions here who 'they' refers to. But if Hinds deserves credit for some of the album's finer moments, he also shoulders the blame for some of its most glaring flaws. As a writer (he pens most of the groups songs), Hinds sports a million contradictions. On one hand, he comes on like a political animal; yet his most searing manifestos are tangled up in biblical metaphors and are obscured by a catalogue of biblical references. If this doesn't detract from his seminal status as a reggae visionary (post-Marley, who makes a better visonary?), it makes it difficult to praise wholeheartedly songs like Babylon the Bandit in which his exhortations to the liberation posse are severely obstructed by his evangelical zeal, as if the revolution is anything to get churchy about. Hinds may have righteousness on his side, but he will surely need more than that when he leads his troops to do battle against Babylon the Bandit.

In the end though its Hinds winning ways with melodies that triumph. The words may not be your cup of spiritual or political beliefs, but the songs are so grippingly melodic, they stay with you long after the social morality is gone.

Text copyright New York Reggae Times 1985, used without permission.

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