When Bob Marley and his restyled Wailers made their international reggae debut with "Catch a Fire," he was already the veteran of countless recording sessions and an established star in Jamaica. He had grown enormously as an artist over the years, especially in his writing -- probably the most sophisticated and technically accomplished in reggae's history.
With "Survival," his ninth release for Island Records, Marley continues to refine his craft -- in a way that tends to hinder rather than advance his cause.
Ideologically and lyrically he has not mellowed one whit from earlier angrier days ("Africa Unite" or "Let Us Fight and Rebuild Zimbabwe"), but his music has became complacent.
"Survival" (Island, ILPS-9542) has a smooth orthodox-rock feel to it, obviously aimed at broader audiences. Bass and drums are recorded light and mixed low; guitar solos and twittering synthesizers occupy the forefront on most aggangements. Marley has tried to clean up his sound -- not to compromise his basic material but his presentation of it.
As a result, "Survival" is a well-balanced well-mannered, yet tame-sounding record. It's unlikely that the music would incite anything beyond casual toetapping.
Marley's one-time collaborator in the Rudeboys, Peter Tosh, suffers from much the same problem.
"Mystic Man" (Rolling Stone COC-39111), his new L.P., undercuts its revolutionary messages time and again with bland sounding music.
Here again, mis-production is the prime culprit. The instrumental mix is too clean, polite and unrelentingly predictable; it is archetypal FM-rock ear-wash.
Third World is a group that takes commercial assimilation one step further. On "The Story's Been Told" (Island, ILPS-9569) they tamper with style, not just packaging.
Their current single, "Talk to Me" (Island, ISD-8846), is pure, high-octane disco and a joy precisely for that. Elsewhere, singer "Rugs" belts home prime Philly soul with amazing power and class.
In between, though, Third World fails miserably, in attempting to fuse these formats with reggae.
Disco feeds off endless repetition and unrelenting drive; reggae is based on wild unpredictability and big, bold, empty spaces. Unless handled with the utmost delicacy, the two cancel out each other's good features, leaving a mundane, confused mess -- "The Story's Been Told."
"Forces of Victory" (Mango, MLPS-9566), however, is something else.
"Forces" is the first American release by activist poet Linton Johnson. It too twists reggae into new shapes in order to keep up with changing circumstances. But where others have turned outwards, Johnson digs more deeply into reggae for fresh insights and strategems.
In place of stoned repartee, Johnson offers stark, committed poesy. Musically he and producer Dennis Bovelle (of U.K. reggaeists Matumbi) turn reggae back on itself. Rather than palliate they emphasize black voids, dreadnought bass, mad noise and shuffling textures -- the accidental but essential birth-right of the most daring reggae.