Lee “Scratch” Perry, one of the key originators of dub, is now 60 years old, a Baby Boomer, a gray-dyed-yellow-red-and-green-haired survivor of a genre, reggae music, that has seen the lives of many of its founders cut down far too early. Now well into his fifth decade of recording and producing music, Perry is still going strong, as is evidenced by the sonic adventures, political lyrics, catchy melodies, and deep grooves found on Panic in Babylon. Originally released in Switzerland in late 2004, we have Narnack Records to thank for making this excellent music readily available on this side of the pond. The Swiss may have vaults full of gold and the improbable tennis genius of Roger Federer, but they couldn’t keep a record this good all to themselves forever.
On the album’s title track, Perry reminds us of the proto-punk vitality implied by his nickname: “I am the Upsetter”. Perry understands that an important part of creating lasting music is to subvert expectations. Of course, at this stage in his career, we’ve grown accustomed to these subversions. Although he doesn’t reinvent dub on Panic in Babylon, he delivers an unexpectedly consistent and fresh record, when plenty of sexagenarians would be content to rest on their laurels and sleepwalk through their thirty-second album of all-new material. Perry clearly still has plenty of fire in his belly, as he calls out the cowards of the world on “Panic in Babylon”, chanting: “panic American government”, “Island Records panic”, and “even Satan panic”, all interspersed with trumpet solos whose melodies are caught by the tail and whipped around the echo chamber a few times.
Dub began at the cutting edge of music manipulation technology—literally! Along with other early masters like King Tubby, Perry and his cohorts would slice up segments of tape from popular reggae recordings, feeding drum parts through delays, adding cavernous reverb to vocal snippets, and ping-ponging melodies from one side of the listener’s brain to the other. With its heavy emphasis on bass and drums, dub became a precursor to remix culture as a whole and to hip-hop’s musical underpinnings. In fact, in 1973, Perry earned his other tag, “Scratch”, by being the first to use that now common DJ technique. It’s taken a while, but these inventions are now a seemingly permanent part of a vast portion of modern recordings, and not just reggae, electronica, and rap.
On Panic in Babylon, Perry employs all of the techniques he helped to birth, and maybe a few more, as well. This is not strictly a dub album, however. He is backed by live musicians and sings his own vocals on every track. Still, at least some aspect of every song is subjected to Perry’s bag of studio trickery, as organic performances are ensnared mid-flight and psychedelicized, only to be seamlessly set back on course a few measures later. The opening number, “Rastafari”, is fairly straightforward reggae, with the rhythm guitar played on the upbeats and a horn section punctuating Perry’s vocals on the one-word chorus. It’s only near the end of the song that he throws in some space-time-altering delay and a snare drum bomb that resounds as if it had been detonated in the back of a cathedral. On the light-hearted “Are You Coming Home?”, he utilizes a (presumably) fake voice mail message from a giggling and gushing female conquest of the previous night, who proclaims, “You were like a god in my bed!”, before the song swings back into the silly, sing-songy chorus. It’s good to see that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Except as a musician, of course. Other tracks, such as “Greetings”, are constructed as showcases for his mastery at the mixing board. The album concludes with a live track, “Devil Dead”, which features scorching guitar and some very forceful vocals from Perry. Clearly, the man’s still got it, both in the safety of the recording studio and when he takes it to the stage.
A bonus CD features three remixes, one from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek and two more from DJ Spooky, two men who have undoubtedly been hugely influenced by Lee “Scratch” Perry’s ongoing school of mixology. Professor Upsetter shows us all how it’s done on the terrific Panic in Babylon.
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