Roots reggae is a form that lends itself to socio-political commentary. Whether this is because the genre was pioneered by Bob Marley—no stranger to using the song as a platform for political statements—or for some other reason, few listeners would blink at a reggae band that used its reach to deliver “conscious” lyrics, i.e., to preach. What might be less palatable in a pop song or a metal tune becomes almost de rigeur for the descendents of Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear and Third World.
This is relevant to Virginia roots-reggae outfit SOJA—Soldiers Of Jah Army—because we’ve reached a point in history where reggae has become distanced from its Trenchtown roots and yet still conforms to its tradition of music with a message. All this is another way of saying that if you don’t want to listen to such commentary, then you’d better steer clear of Strength to Survive, the band’s seventh full-length, because there’s plenty of it here.
In fact, there’s plenty in the first half-dozen tracks, which are not coincidentally the strongest on the record. The band is smart enough to know what its best tunes are, and the album reels off an impressive string of them: “Mentality” offers an irresistible midtempo groove to go along with Jacob Hemphill’s reedy vocals, while follow-up “Strength to Survive” is even better. There are a few guitar solos here and there, and some brassy accents (supplied, I think, by keyboards rather than an actual horn section), but for the most part, the band strikes up a groove and then milks it for a few minutes before moving on.
This isn’t to say that the songs are boring. There is variation from one song to the next, and enough change-ups within individual tunes to keep one surprised even after multiple listens. “Everything Changes” offers thought-provoking lyrics and an endless groove, as do “Don’t Worry”, “It’s Not Too Late” and “Gone Today.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the back half of the album falters badly. Here, most of the songs shift their focus from—to put it reductively—the political to the personal. I know, I know, there’s no difference, except that in this case there is, as much of the urgency in the songwriting and singing seems to vanish. Songs become a little slower, arrangements a little thinner and more predictable. “Not Done Yet” is probably the best tune of this crop, but even it pales compared to the first five or six tracks. The record winds down with a whimper, or series of whimpers, and that’s too bad. Album closer “When We Were Younger” possesses a wistful sweetness, but lacks much-needed oomph.
That said, the album is worth checking out for fans of roots reggae, simply based on the first half alone. Carriers of the Marley torch are thin on the ground these days, particularly as reggae itself has splintered into subgenres like dancehall, and it’s up to bands like SOJA and Hawaii’s the Green to fight the good fight. Listeners who want to fight alongside these musicians should give a listen, as they may like what they hear.