Super Ape Returns To Conquer The Infinite Genius of Lee “Scratch” Perry Hawks and Reed Greenfield, MA May 12 2017 BY CHELI MENNELLA & DAVE NOONAN
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The King of Dub, the indomitable Lee “Scratch” Perry, reigns with a spellbinding new album, Super Ape Returns To Conquer. A re-envisioning of his 1976 dub masterpiece, Super Ape, Perry’s new work is at once an expansive version of the original and an unparalleled experience of its own. From the opening invocation and first drum beats of “Zion Blood,” to the jungle heat of “Dread Lion” to the closing notes of a dubstrumental version of the title track, Perry and Subatomic Sound System deliver potent, bass heavy, dynamically layered music infused with mystical power and massive grooves.
At an age-defying 81 years, Perry is a living legend, artist, musician, singer, producer, and lightning rod of creative superpowers. An early pioneer of freestyling and sampling, he is known for playing his mixing board like an instrument and for his innovative, often unconventional, production methods. His career spans 60 years and includes producing some of the heaviest reggae albums ever made at his Black Ark recording studio, legendary hits with his band The Upsetters, and modern collaborations with a diverse range of performers.
Through it all, Perry has remained relevant, controversial, and boldly inventive. He continues to tour internationally, bringing the transformative power of dub to the world. And he has gifted us music for a new era, this time mixing live performance with studio recording and next generation technology. The album is produced by Perry and Emch, co-founder of Subatomic Sound System, who offers up his talents on mixer, melodica, guitar, beats, bass and more. They are joined by venerable Jamaican conga player, Larry McDonald, who played on the original Super Ape, and saxophonist, Troy Simms.
Additional support is provided by Omar Little on trumpet and cornet, Screechy Dan and Jahdan Blakkamoore on vocals, and Ari Up, formerly of the punk band The Slits, whose voice reaches beyond the grave to sing on “Underground Roots.” “I feel like the whole reason we went back to revisit Super Ape 40 years later,” Emch told us, “is we’re just kind of expanding on the concept. Those songs (on the original), in a way, are like sketches of ideas Lee had. We can flesh those ideas out. On the saxophone Troy is playing a lot of Ethiopian jazz melodies. Lee was always so interested in African drums and horns. This is an extension of his idea to take those songs and put more of the Ethiopian melodies in it and the African drums and use today’s technology to extend the frequency range.”
The result is a blistering collection of tunes to take us into the next 40 years. Super heavy bass roots the sinuous lyricism of the sax against the magnetic rhythm of the congas to create killer, hypnotic grooves. The melodica, which complements dub without ever getting tired, winds through the tracks, conveying both melody and harmony with haunting allure. Echo and reverb pull and push through time, bending the musical arc as they transport you back to the yard and the early years of the sound system. The organic beat of the congas pulls you back even further, to dancers and drummers round an ancient fire, while new era frequencies, sounds, and effects cast you into the future. All of these forces unite in a pulsing soundscape for Papa Lee’s holy transmissions, the garlands of fire he weaves through each song, mantras of a mystic madman, the choicest pearls of wisdom dropped by the High Priest of Dub. Tender, fierce, wise, wild. Galactic growls and cosmic truths. Perry mesmerizes.
A genius of incomparable talent, his newest masterpiece, Super Ape Returns to Conquer affirms there is no match to “Scratch.” (Subatomic Sound 2017) If an album has this much power, imagine what happens during live performance. Here’s our firsthand account of Perry’s show at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
THE ORIGINAL UPSETTER LANDS AT HAWKS & REED (5/12/2017) The energy was palpable when we arrived at the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, MA. Hundreds of reggae fans streamed into the venue, where the Original Upsetter, Lee “Scratch” Perry, would soon unleash his rare phenomenon. Perry, who resides in Switzerland, was touring with New York-based Subatomic Sound System in honor of his 1976 dub masterpiece, Super Ape, and in advance of their upcoming album, Super Ape Returns to Conquer. The band featured Perry on the mic, Emch on mixer, turntables and melodica, Troy Simms on sax, and Larry McDonald on congas – a brilliant ensemble for expressing Perry’s genius.
We scored a spot at the front, wanting to immerse ourselves in the magic and madness that is Lee Perry. But first Emch warmed up our ears with some sound system education, testing the frequencies by playing a couple tunes that gave us the highs, the mids, and the deep lows that rolled under our feet. Incense clouded the stage, its thick, fragrant smoke cast a ceremonial vibe as the crowd buzzed the dance floor. We were ready to step with I-man. The band struck up their instruments, and the room erupted. From a side hallway, the King of Dub appeared: trim and fit, a spry 81 years, with bright red hair and beard that evoked equal parts whimsy and danger. His clothing, especially his hat, was decorated with a sea of cosmic accoutrements – pins, patches, mirrors, crystals, beads, baubles, and pieces of glass. Necklaces hung like a royal coat of arms on his chest. He passed through the cheering crowd and made his way to the stage, where he seized the mic and held court for the next 2 ½ hours.
The opener “Zion’s Blood” got the dance hall instantly moving. For the uninitiated, it’s hard to describe the volume and intensity present from the very start. As they went to work, the band didn’t even blink. They segued into a bass heavy dub of “Sun is Shining,“ a song from Bob Marley and The Wailers’ African Herbsman, which was produced by Perry in 1971, and is possibly one of the top ten greatest reggae records ever released.
The band amped up the mojo with “Curly Dub.” Written by Junior Byles, and originally called “Curly Locks,” the tune is a testament to the trials of love for a committed Rastaman. This was a huge hit for Perry in 1974, and 43 years later, Perry and Subatomic crushed it. “Underground Roots” had a Sly and Robbie steppers style beat which was absolutely relentless. The horn and melodica played Ethiopian scales, and there were changes in percussion as Larry McDonald switched to jawbone and shakers. Perry discussed disparate topics during this song including his obsession with fire (he was constantly asking the audience to light up their lighters), fat pussy (yes, you heard it right), the pope, and Africa, juggling the sacred and profane like a Rumi Master. “Dread Lion” was a wicked, wicked Super Ape dub! There is a temperature hotter than boiling. It’s called “Dread Lion.” During “Three in One,” a chorus of ‘Love it, Love it’, exhorted the crowd to feel the Mother continent’s vibrations. “War Ina Babylon,” Max Romeo’s hit from 1976, reflects on the dangers of living in 1970’s Jamaica during the election cycle. In concert it is a vicious dub. The whole room started to heave on this one. The ceremony was in full effect. Gifts passed from the audience into Perry’s ring-covered fingers – jewelry, a feather, special stones, weed.
He never stopped moving (he had been a boxer and a dancer, and is a longtime vegetarian), nimbly doing dance steps and high kicking periodically. The night continued to unfold with the wise counsel of “Patience,” and the dancehall pleaser “Come Along.” The textures and depths of tone harkened back to the original Super Ape sound and the irresistible grooves started to possess the crowd, inspiring several women to jump onstage and dance with the Mystic Madman himself. “Super Ape” brought even heavier bass than previously thought possible, so thick and supportive you could sit on it. And an ultra psychedelic breakdown reached transcendent heights, making us feel like we had dosed. Perry, fully in his element, had complete control of the room and the spiritual transformation of the listeners was in view.
One of our notes was, “We’re in it now,” as the music wove a spell to which we had to surrender. Deep percussive grooves, sinuous horn lines, haunting melodica, and thunderous, jaw-shaking rhythm tracks seamlessly integrated with Perry’s quaky, trippy, lyrical flow. All delivered at an impressive volume, the vibrational resonance so powerful it cleansed the room, scouring out negative vibes and raising the collective energy. Perry prowled the stage, puffing on his spliff, sipping wine, checking his tchotchke laden microphone and rubbing it around and around his lips which added a unique effect, totally reveling in his magic. The High Priest of Dub was bringing the room to another dimension, an altered state, a higher state.
A scorching “Obediah” was followed by “Happy Birthday” – a Perry favorite. And speaking of birthdays, the Legendary Larry McDonald, at 80 years young, rocked the congas all night long, invigorating the music with his masterful beats. “Roast Fish & Corn Bread,” one of Perry’s biggest solo hits that he sings lead on, was pumping, the audience singing along. They closed the show with the vengeful, “Black Ark Vampires,” a 2016 release which sounds the alarm on the vampires that drove Perry to burn down his Black Ark studio. But the night wasn’t over yet. With extraordinary stamina and grit, Perry went on to do four(!) encores, including the apropos “I am a Madman” and “Chase Dem Crazy,” a dub version of Marley’s “Crazy Baldhead.” Afterwards, sweaty and joyful, there was a communal sense that something epic had transpired.
Adoring fans gathered round as Perry signed posters and t-shirts, snapped selfies, and hugged people instead of retreating to the green room, his generous love on full display. The King of Dub returned to conquer, and by all accounts, he reigned supreme.
Instagram: @lee_scratch_perry, @subatomic, @hawksandreed Facebook: Lee Scratch Perry (official), Subatomic Sound System, Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center Web: www.lee-perry.com, www.subatomicsound.com, www.hawksandreed.com
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