Album Review: Jah Sun - Magic & Madness
by Steve Topple
It was in 2006 that Jah Sun made his first entrance onto the music scene, with his debut release The Height of Light. Since then, his conscious combining of Roots with myriad of other genres has earned him critical acclaim. Now, he’s back for 2020. But where has the journey to this point led him?
Magic & Madness, released via Six Degrees Records and More Love Productions, is Sun’s seventh full album. It’s a well-constructed and detailed journey through Roots-led music. But of note from the off is Jah Sun’s right-hand man, Omar “Jallanzo” Johnson. He is responsible for the album’s production, composing, arranging and mixing. Moreover, he also played most of the instruments. So, it’s clearly a very personal project to both men. And this shines through across Magic & Madness’ tracks.
Hold a Vibe opens proceedings. It’s a modern, Dub-heavy, synth and engineering-led affair – with the bass on a drop-beat riff that focuses on the root triad. But the electric guitar mimics this, making the riff Hold a Vibe’s driving force. A drum one drop asserts the track’s Roots credentials, as does the keys’ bubble rhythm. Tomorrow treads a similar path, but with more emphasis on detailed Roots, with Dub taking more of a back seat over some interesting divergence. For example, there’s almost an 80s Synthwave feel about the rasping, stark electric keys. It builds a musically unsettling, almost dystopian aura – perfectly fitting the track’s worrying message.
Wasted Time sees Jah Sun move into more Blues/Rock-led Roots. It’s a complex picture, with an electric guitar taking centre stage. Musically it’s a delicious move: the frequent use of bending and the melodic arrangement and improvisation around the pentatonic scale has all the hallmarks of classic Blues-Rock. But add in the complex, layered backing vocal harmony, the chord progressions and some interesting synths and Wasted Time takes on a Bluesy-Rock feel but with Roots sensibilities. Gorgeous.
Jah Sun shows his Lover’s Rock side on Sunshine. The joyful sax comes out to play; the electric guitars are still there, but bathing in a summery, soulful Isley Brothers’ vibe; the bass is on a repeated drop beat riff, giving the track air and room to breathe and horns repeatedly peep out from behind the musical clouds. It’s a delightful and ultimately smart composition, with the instruments performing musical word painting – that is, sounding like the title and lyrics.
Ancient Soul is probably the track which best represents Jah Sun’s geographical and spiritual homes. Because it represents a merging of that Californian, Surf Rock sound and Roots sensibilities. It shows the skill of Jallanzo, as the lead guitar technique is different to Wasted Time. Here, he sits nearer the bridge when playing, running it through a mid-to-treble amp with just the right amount of reverb. This gives that distinctive, Californian sound versus the more Eric Clapton vibe on Wasted Time. There’s also a clever vocal sequence, where Sun’s voice is layered to represent a choral group, chanting on vowel sounds in an almost African arrangement; nodding to the song’s meaning and spiritual home. Inspired.
Having covered Roots extensively, Jah Sun then takes us on a musically ambiguous journey with Law of Attraction. It’s almost a sum of the parts that have come before it: the Synthwave vibe has returned but in a less eery form; elements of Dub and Roots are littered throughout; Soul fills the vocal arrangement and you get a whiff of Hip Hop in the drums. This peak-amalgamation of genres shouldn’t work. But with Sun and Jallanzo it does, becoming one of the album’s strongest tracks.
Magic & Madness concludes with Suffering in Silence. It’s ostensibly Roots in its formation, although the horns could as easily be from a more sombre part of a New Orleans Jazz-led funeral procession as they could be Ska. The brooding, minor key and the elongated melody serve to emphasise the theme and the sum of these parts is a rightly unsettling conclusion, leaving you with a feeling that Jah Sun’s job, and many of ours too, is not finished yet.
The album finishes proper with a Dub version of Law of Attraction, and also a “live” Dub rendition of Tomorrow.
It’s lyrically and thematically stirring stuff from Jah Sun, too. From the conscious rallying cry of Hold a Vibe, to the relationship-led Sunshine, themes of spirituality are the overriding ones. Tomorrow deals with the human response to the realisation of the inevitability of the way the system keeps the world turning – with Wasted Time almost an answer to that track’s questions. Law of Attraction deals with Jah Sun’s thoughts on the workings of our world, while Suffering in Silence is a humble reminder that while some of us have spiritually been found, many more are still lost. But it’s Ancient Soul where Jah Sun is strongest – full of vulnerable self-reflection, which at times is highly emotive and moving.
Magic & Madness is a strong project from Jah Sun and Jallanzo. Compositionally deft, it’s accessible and intricate in equal measure and the two men have a clear affinity and bond which shines through. But the album also represents a surge in growth from Jah Sun. Vocally led, the guitar-heavy sound coupled with the musical experimentation across genres and styles is extremely pleasing – moving forward and to the side of his previous work. It’s a joyous experience and sets Jah Sun on a heady path for this new decade.
Jah Sun - Magic & Madness
DIGITAL RELEASE [More Love Productions]
Release date: 05/29/2020
01. Hold A Vibe
03. Wasted Time
05. Law Of Attraction
06. Ancient Soul
07. Suffering In Silence
08. Law Of Attraction Dub
09. Tomorrow Dub