Album Review: Wailing Souls - Back A Yard
by Steve Topple
The irrepressible Wailing Souls are showing no signs of losing artistic momentum, if their latest album is anything to go by. Because they are back (and with this album, ‘back in Jamaica’) and still at the top of their game.
Back A Yard, released via Greensleeves and distributed by VP Music Group, sees longstanding members Winston “Pipe” Matthews and Lloyd “Bread” McDonald team up with Alborosie across production. The album is clearly paying homage to the 1980s, as the intricate compositions and production incorporate varying degrees of styles from the decade. But across the board, Back A Yard still sounds fresh.
The album opens with Down In Trench Town. Classic in its formation, it’s Roots heavy with all the relevant devices in play, which also feature heavily across the entire album: Tyrone Downie (formerly of The Wailers) keys running a bubble rhythm; the bass from Errol “Flabba” Holt rolling a syncopated, melodic riff which rarely misses a beat and the drums doing a stripped-back one drop. But central to the track are the whining, bending and heavily wah-wah’d electric guitars, nodding to the early genre’s Funk influence. The rasping horns finish the vibe off – and the end result is brooding, funky and affecting. It’s a clever opening, too – given the ‘back to Jamaica’ theme of the album.
Wailing Souls move into some glorious 80s throwback territory with the positivity-inducing ode to collective love and consciousness This Is The Time. There’s a nice musical paradox, here – with the positive thematic message being placed against a minor key backdrop, which shouldn’t work – but does. The additional synth drum lines are pitch-perfect, transporting you back four decades. Samples and breaks finish the retro, Dub-heavy vibe off well and the synth horns are delicious - high-passed and rasping. In The House Of Jah is in a similar vein, as Wailing Souls sing the praises of faith and Jah, and the fortitude both bring – with a nice melodic motif used by the vocals, keys and the bass.
The track No Chalice Malice sees Wailing Souls go heavier on the Soul influences. The first appearance of a vibrato-heavy electric organ signals the stylistic shift, with the keys right hand running additional riffs on top of the bubble rhythm. And the 80’s synths are back – even sharper than before. Wailing Souls and Alborosie love their guitars, too – as they take centre stage once more.
Invisable Wall (with the intentional misspelling) builds on the previous track’s Soul vibe, with some gorgeous call and response backing vocals. But the arrangement is more stripped back and unfussy – drawing the ear into the track’s overly political and social message about those system-invented borders (whether geographical, ethnic or class) that keep us all contained.
Alborosie moves from behind the production desk for Shark Attack, bringing the original 90s hit bang up-to-date. When parallelled with the original, the team has made some notable changes. The drums are still a mashing-up of Roots and Hip Hop, with an absence of a one drop marked by the kick hitting the downbeats. A focus on synths is still there – but rasping horns have been embellished with a more sample-driven vibe, with the overall engineering leaning towards the lower kHz. And in 2020, Shark Attack has leaned more towards Dub with its pointed breaks. But the sentiment is still the same – and the message about Babylon’s nefarious agenda sadly still resonates.
Next, and Stay Calm is a lush, detailed and overly gorgeous piece of work – invoking the track’s self-resilient message. Roots musical devices are still present, but here the focus is shifted to the horns taking centre stage. Their arrangement is lovely, full of heavily-layered, dynamically-fluctuating responses to the main melody’s call – but notably swerving between the more traditional arrangement of the lines being an octave apart and heavy harmonisation. All About You stands in contrast to Stay Calm, moving back to that brooding, heavy sound dominated by 80s synths and a particularly stark bass line, doubled-up to give a slappy, abrasive feel. The unfussiness of All About You makes the powerful message to our ‘leaders’ and proponents of Babylon really stand out.
Eyes On You is a genius, almost anti-Lover’s Rock track, given its lyrical content about a potentially cheating partner. Musically it sits in the genre, with its delicious guitar-heavy second melodic line and drop-beat bass. But some stark Dub snare synths have been brought in, reverberating around the track – and additional, pensive samples add to the disconcerting vibe.
Back A Yard concludes with Look What’s Happening. It’s a wholly fitting conclusion: a narrative about the state of the world – and smashes apart everything that came before it, bringing the album to an extremely moving crescendo. No Roots devices are in sight. Instead, Alborosie and Wailing Souls take us to RnB ballad territory: unpretentious, with its stripped back piano, drums and bass and heavy on the Gospel-like backing vocals; almost nodding to a Nyabinghi style. Breathtakingly good, the unexpected nature of the style perhaps makes Look What’s Happening the album’s most affecting track. Wonderful.
It’s important to note how impressive Matthews and McDonald still are. Having been in the business for over 50 years, their artistry is still potent and rich – having qualities not only endemic of their experience but also their motivations. Back A Yard also delivers lyrically, with an overwhelming message that, despite these troubled times, hope is still to be found – not least in Jamaica.
Back A Yard is a strong return from Wailing Souls. Alborosie’s deft and creative hand is all over the project, with Matthews and McDonald delivering thought-provoking, affecting lyrics and performances in droves. A classy release which is a pertinent reminder of Wailing Souls’ talents.
Wailing Souls - Back A Yard
DIGITAL RELEASE / CD / VINYL [Greensleeves]
Release date: 08/28/2020
01. Down In Trench Town
02. This is The Time
03. In The House Of Jah
04. No Chalice Malice
05. Invisible Wall
06. Shark Attack feat. Alborosie
07. Stay Calm
08. All About You
09. Eyes On You
10. Look What’s Happening