Album Review: The 18th Parallel - Downtown Sessions
by Gardy Stein
"An exceptional record that combines tradition and modernity by bringing together the original voices of roots reggae with the refreshing vision of the young Swiss collective The 18th Parallel (…)"
What the press release so eloquently describes here sums up this new release pretty well: with Downtown Sessions, The 18th Parallel just presented their sophomore full-length album to the world, and it really comes as a gift to the genre. The result of a decade of studio sessions between Geneva (Bridge Studio) and Kingston (Small World Studio) is a treat for all those who enjoy hand-made, analogue, old-school Reggae music. The good stuff, that is!
Produced by pianist Mathias Liengme, the nine novel tracks were composed and arranged with substantial input from Primo Viviani (who plays bass, too) and Leroy "Horsemouth" Wallace (also heard on drums, percussions and backing vocals), while the 18th Parallel contributed the instrumental goodness. AB Merlin, Solal Excoffier, Samuel Ricucci and Thales Lion Farmer on lead guitar, Léo Marin on rhythm guitar, Thomas Florin on trumpet, Anthony Dietrich Buclin on trombone, Claude Jordan and Tanjia Müller on flute as well as Roberto Sánchez (who is also responsible for the oeuvre's mixing) on Rhodes, synare, tambourine and thunder drum create the original sound that, once pressed play, you'll just have to succumb to.
The vocal guests are true originals as well, living legends all who make this album such a special project. Cornel Campbell is opening with a Lovely Feeling, and his distinctive falsetto voice has lost nothing of its command since it was first raised in the '50ies. The straightforward riddim comes without frills but includes a fine trombone solo that Cornel garnishes with little vocal highlights.
The subsequent Just Like The Rainbow combines two other merited Reggae veterans, I Kong and Max Romeo. Despite their long-lasting friendship, this is the first time they are heard on one track together, which is a sensation in its own right, but the track is also an instant favorite because of its sheer beauty. From the Geoffrey Chung-style arrangement (flute and all) via the harmonic backing vocals of Spain's The Emeterians to the lyrics so emotionally delivered by the two singers, the piece is simply magical. "Always remember, when you are down and troubled, that only love can conquer hatred!"
Less flowery, Fred Locks delivers his The System Is A Fraud on a tight steppers riddim. It was one of the earliest tracks recorded in 2013 in Kingston, and in case you opt for the available 7'' single release, you'll find a fine Dub on the B side. Up next, The Silvertones join the party with Only Me. Basking in the glory of the synthies' sound that Coxsone experimented with in the late '70s, the vocal trio sings about a lover reminiscing "a girl left behind", albeit in a somewhat old-fashioned, chauvinistic manner ("When I find her, I'm gonna change her name to mine…").
With Times Tough, the sharp social criticism of Leroy Brown also found its way to the playlist. On a funky Reggae beat, he laments the difficulties people face all over the planet today, claiming that "poverty knocking at everyone's door" in a glum but touching voice. While the overall effect of the song is a disheartening one, the singer shows us a possible avenue to ease the pressure: "farming is the answer, grow what you eat, eat what you grow!".
Big Youth doesn't need introduction. His contribution is called Man With A Mission, coming on a bass-heavy rub-a-dub riddim that seems tailor-made for his unique delivery. As the press release informs us, the song was recorded in one take in downtown Kingston, late at night. Powerful!
Diving deep into the spiritual realm of devoted Rastafarians, Ride On is an homage to the Jamaican Nyabinghi traditions. And who better represents those than Ras Michael? He unfolded his vocal powers at a recording session at Earl "Chinna" Smith's Kingston home Inna De Yard, backed by a group of singers conducted by the Twelve Tribes of Israel leader Sangie Davis, and the result is a simple but hypnotic song that increases the stylistic diversity.
On a more playful, almost disco-flavored tune, Hopeton James sings about love, sweet love in Just A Wonder before Lala Love closes the album with River. The only non-Jamaican, non-veteran guest singer is also the only female soloist on the record, a young, upcoming talent from Switzerland. With a crystal-clear voice, she likens life to the flow of a slow but strong river that one has to "embrace and let go". Chapeau to this lady!
Special mention also deserves the cover artwork by Ellen G., who created a fine visual representation of the colorful variety that's found on the album. The 18th Parallel are to be praised for what they did here, as it is of utmost importance to invite those founding fathers of Reggae who are still among us to the mic, to show them respect and lend visibility to their craft. Downtown Sessions really is a sparkling gem, something especially younger Reggae heads should listen to in order to understand what all the modern developments are based on. A wonderful album coming right in time for the Christmas season!
The 18th Parallel - Downtown Sessions
DIGITAL RELEASE / CD / VINYL [Fruits Records]
Release date: 11/18/2022
01. Lovely Feeling feat. Cornell Campbell
02. Just Like The Rainbow feat. I Kong & Max Romeo
03. The System Is A Fraud feat. Fred Locks
04. Only Me feat. The Silvertones
05. Times Tough feat. Leroy Brown
06. Man With A Mission feat. Big Youth
07. Ride On feat. Ras Michael
08. It's Just A Wonder feat. Hopeton James
09. River feat. Lala Love