Album Review: Groundation - One Rock
by Gardy Stein
"This album is livicated to the elders. Those legendary Jamaican reggae artists who challenged the system and inspired us to become better individuals. (…) It is to them that we owe an eternal debt and the utmost gratitude." (Liner Notes "One Rock")
Once you decide to make music your mission, there's no doing things by halves. It is thus with full devotion, passion and commitment that Groundation have embarked on the creation of their 10th studio album, entitled One Rock. Leaving nothing to chance, the recording of the nine tracks (most of them written and developed during lockdown) was placed in the capable and experienced hands of Jim Fox, who was Groundation's sound engineer from Hebron Gate (2002) onward. He welcomed the band as well as some additional musicians at his Prairie Sun Studios in Sonoma Country, California, to captivate their magic on 2" analog tape.
The band, that's Harrison Stafford (lead vocals & guitar), Eduardo Gross (lead guitar), Isaiah Palmer (bass), Zach Morillo (drums & percussion), Matt Jenson (organ, keys & piano), William Blades (organ & clavinet), Brady Shammar and Alreca Smith (harmony vocalists), Jeff Cressman (trombone), David McKissick (trumpet) and Roger Cox (saxophone). In case you want to get to know some of them a little better, check out the mini-documentary on YouTube called Creating One Rock that takes you into the studio.
The completed release starts with a sensation. Not only was Original Riddim the first song written and recorded, it also brings two legends of Roots Reggae music together: Israel Vibration and The Abyssinians. The moment when Lacelle "Wiss" Bulgin and Cecil "Skelly" Spence come in, announced and accentuated by a full musical stop, is nothing short of enchanting, as is the intense duet of Bernard "Satta" Collins and Donald Manning right before a short dub section. Speaking of intense… both instrumentation and lyrics will take you to another place. While the latter digs into the eldest cultural practice of mankind, asking who originated music, this "ancient form of communication in times of sorrow and celebration", the former stands out by conversations. A hybrid of one-drop and tribal drum beats, strengthened by Nyabinghi pounding almost physically palpable in the accompanying video, lays the foundation for the colloquy between bass and guitar, wind instruments and strings.
Those, in fact, are a surprise addition to the album also present in the subsequent Human Race. The inclusion of Ivo Bokulic on viola and Mathew Szemela as well as Liana Berube on violin was an idea of pianist Matt (who claims that there were "higher forces at play" in the creation of the track), and their cumulative force peaks in a breathtaking triple starting at 2:35. They lend a classic severity to Stafford's words, further illustrated by some colorful murals in the video shot by Roger Landon Hall: "Poets prophets and musicians all find their place, sending love into an inner space." Another highlight in the unfoldment of the song is Roger's sax solo, a wild, slightly chaotic stretch that seems to symbolize the dissonance of human experiences.
How about some more surprises? Just continue listening and try to grasp Greed. Its polyrhythmic design is elusive, even after several listening rounds. A masterpiece of innovative musicianship and multilayered harmonies, it combines different vocal, lyrical and instrumental elements (the strings shine here once more) and leave the task of detangling their combined impact to your brain.
A similar challenge is brought across by the equally odd-metered Market Price. After a strong piano intro, coupled with jazzy horns (represented in the video by a glorious sunrise), the drum roll kicks the beat off with that typical Reggae feeling, but as soon as you start nodding along to it, you suddenly feel the difference from the traditional 4/4 conceptions. I leave it to musicology experts to comment below what exact meter this track is in, and talk about the beautiful marriage of voices and words instead. Backing vocalists Brady and Alreca amaze with their on-point delivery of the first lines of the song, to which Harrison's tenor adds the pensive lyrics about wrong leaders and gullible followers. Contemplating the past (and present) failures of mankind is indeed disheartening, but the last rhyme leaves us with a glimpse of hope: "This is not the end, you see, for I believe in prophecy, and there's a riddim inside of we a gonna shift society."
Other tracks are less intricate riddim-wise, but interesting twists and turns in their set-up will keep listeners engaged, and they have a similarly powerful impact. Silver And Gold, for instance, with its laid-back heartbeat, is steeped in biblical allusions and subliminal warning. Absolutely Clear, which starts in discord, evolves into a relaxed Reggae beat, goes through an impressive amount of chord changes and then, at 3:30, alters its character completely just to come back to the initial composition, making it the longest track on the release.
Day When The Computer Done builds up a tight percussive tension, broken twice by well-placed, soothing soli of guitar, drums, keys and horn, but the energetic effect carries over to the rest of the album.
Which leaves us with… the title track! One Rock invites yet another veteran Reggae group, and The Congos vivify both audio and visuals immensely. The different vocal qualities of Cedric Myton, Ashanti Roy Johnson, Derrick "Watty" Burnett, who have already collaborated with Groundation on Hebron Gate and Here I Am, make for an exciting contrast to Staffords' voice, and together they implore us to treat the "One Rock that we de pon" with respect and care.
The release closes with Iron, closing the circle to the beginning in featuring Israel Vibration once more. Its triumphant energy connects to all previous tracks, and again, the careful arrangement of instruments and harmony makes repeated listening a rewarding experience.
With One Rock, Groundation have added yet another musical treasure to their already jam-packed disco chest. The creative spirit that breathes through all pieces makes each one unique, thanks to the extraordinary musicians and vocalists involved. Also, Harrison's dedication to the elders, his effort to integrate the foundation artists in current productions and thus use the time that they are still among us, is exemplary and will hopefully serve as a model for other releases.
In Stafford's own words: "Yes, I can say that we are extremely proud of the new 'One Rock' album. Having Israel Vibration and The Abyssinians on the same song is reggae history and as a fan of the genre, I can say "that's awesome!". "
Groundation - One Rock
DIGITAL RELEASE / VINYL [Easy Star Records]
Release date: 05/13/2022
01. Original Riddim feat. Israel Vibration & The Abyssinians
02. Human Race
04. Day When The Computer Done
05. Market Price
06. Silver and Gold
07. One Rock feat. The Congos
08. Absolutely Clear
09. Iron feat. Israel Vibration