Dub Trio’s debut, 2004’s Exploring the Dangers Of, presented the band as a modern outfit playing dub reggae in the classic style. Aside from some Edge-y guitar work and electronic effects, the album could really have come out at any time in the last 30 years. Exploring… made you realize that, yeah, these guys were pretty good and kept it real. But it also begged the question of why it was a necessary addition to a record collection that already included King Tubby, Lee Perry, Mad Professor, and others. With New Heavy, Dub Trio have attempted to answer that question by seeking out a different record collection altogether.
Stu Brooks, DP Holmes, and Joe Tomino have decided that their identity lies in the back catalogs of the Clash and their ROIR-label predecessors Bad Brains. It’s a noble undertaking, attempting to match roots/dub reggae with hardcore punk. In terms of ethos, conscious reggae and punk have much in common. They both made their initial international impact at about the same time (mid-to-late 1970s); and, in England in particular, shared stages, producers, and fans. But when it comes to the actual construction of the music, there isn’t much common ground between punk’s guitar-driven powder flash and reggae’s taut, mid-tempo rhythms.
That’s why the Clash’s most reggae-centric album, Sandinista!, is considered a gross overstep by many, and Bad Brains’ early albums are considered all-time classics, revolutionary in their command of both reggae rhythms and ear-shredding guitars—and why the band hasn’t matched them in the 25 years since. Look at it that way: New Heavy isn’t just a noble undertaking, it’s an ambitious one full of pitfalls. Thankfully, the album doesn’t succumb to all of them, but it doesn’t avoid them all, either.
Bad Brains had a versatile and incendiary vocalist/lyricist in HR; the Clash had Strummer and Jones. Dub Trio is an instrumental outfit. To help compensate, they’ve brought in ex-Faith No More belter and all-around crazy man Mike Patton for “Not Alone”. Great move—Patton’s easily the highlight of the song, and the song’s easily the highlight of the album. Exploding from a mercurial falsetto, Patton’s bracing howl is as weirdly soulful as ever. With lines like “We’re all alone / In this psychodrome…Like a Starbucks chain / we’re taking over this neighborhood,” he takes it over the top, and he reminds you how much fun self-conscious self-parody can be.
Musically, “Not Alone” starts off as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and works itself into a fairly standard power-metal anthem. But that’s where New Heavy‘s primary problem begins. On the ten non-vocal tracks, Dub Trio are left mostly to alternate between blasts of stuttering guitar noise and mellow oases of dub, often within the same song. It’s an awkward effect that sometimes leaves you feeling like you’re listening to two bands at once. And, based on the evidence here, the dub band is the better one.
While the sub-Metallica chugging of “Angle of Acceptance” is so laughable it practically demands a Beavis and Butthead reunion, the submerged atmospherics of “Table Rock Dub” and “Sunny I’m Kill” sound natural enough to hold your attention. “One Man Tag Crew” would be a successful punk/reggae amalgam if it didn’t sound like My Morning Jacket’s “Off the Record” and, in the process, highlights how My Morning Jacket have done a better job with similar material.
It’s hard to know just what to make of New Heavy. The potential problem is that Dub Trio themselves don’t seem to know. When your album leaves listeners eagerly awaiting Mike Patton’s upcoming solo record, what was it trying to accomplish in the first place? File under “transitional.”