"This is my brand new song: lightning and thunder, hailstone, brimstone and fire, music, hurricane and tidal wave judgement. Mixed by earthquake, produced by flood." -- Lee Perry
If you are unfamiliar with Lee Perry, your music history class is missing a very important chapter in the lesson plan. Not knowing or understanding the importance of Perry's achievements should be a crime punishable by law, especially if you consider yourself a dub/reggae aficionado. While I admittedly didn't know of him myself until I was informally introduced via the work of Adrian Sherwood in the ‘80s, I felt a great retroactive shame upon my deflowering -- all those wasted years I spent in the darkness.
Lee Perry is one of the two key figures (alongside King Tubby) in the creation/cultivation of dub, hailed as the innovator of the turntable "scratch" effect and considered the creator of "reggae" due to his production of The Pioneers' "Long Shot Kick the Bucket." This track featured the first example of the reggae rhythm, which was initially so unique that no one knew what to call it, a rhythm that has been described by Perry as feeling as though you're stepping in glue. He additionally produced works for Bob Marley and The Wailers, The Heptones, Junior Byles, and Max Romeo in his self-built studio, The Black Ark. These credentials are surely worth a little more than a passing glance, and amazingly, this is just scratching the proverbial surface (excuse the pun).
This new 2-disc release, Ape-Ology, brings together 1978's Roast Fish, Collie Weed & Cornbread and Return of the Super Ape, as well as 1976's Scratch the Super Ape, with the pot being amply sweetened with seven bonus tracks, including the mixes of the dub plate "From Creation," which appears for the first time ever on vinyl or CD. What most assuredly stretches across these two discs is the sound of a maverick, the soul of an inventor, and the eccentricities of a man who creates, not detracts from, the brilliance. While I am sure by now that most of you Perry newbies are already off to your local shop or are online browsing in quest of this grail, I'll help the doubters along a little by delving into the volumes on offer here.
The first ten tracks of disc one comprise Scratch the Super Ape, presented how Perry had originally intended (as opposed to the Island issuing). The soul present throughout this album is so deep that one needs a life-preserver not to drown in it, most notably present on two highlights that are blessed with the warm, vibrant vocal harmonies of The Heptones: "Dread Lion," with its stumbling beat and trembling bass line (funk-driven to point of sickness), and "Zion Blood," with cooing wordless passages driven by conga. As exceptional as these songs are, no single track suffers under the weight of another; they each establish themselves as utterly essential, as the weighty toast of Prince Jazzbo on "Croaking Lizard" goes lengths in proving. What stands as the most remarkable feat of Super Ape is that each track is as vital today as in ‘76, refusing to age in spite of any lingering hiss that conspires against it.
The remainder of disc one, the album Roast Fish, Collie Weed and Cornbread, is yet another stunning work. Would it be too ambitious to declare it a masterpiece? Not really. It eagerly displays a broader view of Perry's unique character through stronger, experimental stylings and his unabashed vocals, all backed by The Full Experience. While his voice may not be as developed as The Heptones' or Prince Jazzbo's from Scratch the Super Ape, by utilizing it as an instrument in addition to being a vehicle for lyrics through unique phrasing and wordless noises, he creates his own atmospheric stylings. "Evil Tongue" demonstrates the greatest example of this -- lyrically damning, claustrophobic to the last beat, and thoroughly infectious and demented at every angle. Not to mention "Soul Fire" and the title track, which both feature a striking, authoritative presence. With Roast Fish, Perry delivers an uncompromising, powerful, and sometimes humorous record that observed, questioned, and challenged issues relevant to himself and the culture from which he came.
Disc two houses Return of the Super Ape, which displays another step forward in Perry's production. Ambitiously futuristic and, judging by its initial reception, bordering on the indecipherable, Perry's effects were driving this album with a stronger hand than Scratch and Roast, and it certainly wasn't any less engaging. It was just a different beast -- more sparse and seeming to drift in a vacuum. Take for example the highly twisted vibe of "Bird in Hand," which finds him reaching into a Cab Calloway vocal play. You wonder if Perry was up a tree, his stripes disappearing like yarn unwinding, leaving nothing more than a dancing Cheshire Cat smile; 'twas Brilling and the Slithy Toves,' indeed. The wobbly effect-laden "Jah Jah A Natty Dread" is yet another example of Perry's singularity and futuristic approach that, if released today, would still leave listeners with gaping maws. He was seriously untouchable on this record, with perhaps the only low point being his interpretation of Stevie Wonder-penned, Rufus/Chaka Khan-owned "Tell Me Something Good."
The second disc is rounded out by seven bonus tracks, including four mixes of the aforementioned cult anthem dub plate "From Creation" featuring Clive Hylton, which served as a special for the Coxson International Sound System. With the faith-invested vocals of Hylton, this astonishing track is elevated to breathtaking levels, creating a truly transcendent moment on record. This is followed perfectly with its three heavy dub counterparts. There are also two versions of the "Roast Fish and Cornbread" track from the album of the same name. The "JA Single Mix" is a mere skeletal version of the completed mix, while the "Corn Dub (JA Single Mix)" presents a slightly fuller version. The final track on disc two is the wondrous bass swagger of "OK Corral," featuring U Roy. Reportedly unreleased since its creation in 1970, this track is remarkable on every level.
Admittedly, Ape-Ology does suffer from a lack of fuller liner notes, and the packaging could have been yards better -- just visualize a box set with each disc housed in its own foldout digipak with original art work, full credits, and historical essays... mmmm, delicious -- but if this review was not a convincing enough argument for this collection's essentialness, there is nothing more that I could possibly do to persuade you. Instead, closing this review out will be a list of the astonishing musicians that were present on the three main albums, as they are as equally important as the man himself in the creation of these records, and each deserve a special place in everyone's collection:
Boris Gardiner, Anthony "Benbow" Creary, Earl "Chinna" Smith, Bobby Ellis, Richard "Dirty Harry" Hall, Vin Gordon, Prince Jazzbo, Mikey Richards, Winston Wright, Keith Stirling, Sly Dunbar, Noel "Scully" Simms, Egbert Evans, Herman Marquis, Vin Gordon, The Heptones, The Full Experience, Billy Boy, Geoffrey Chung.
Now to work on getting that monument built...