By Luke Massey
There are times when you’re reviewing music that it can be something of a chore. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that you think it’s terrible, and listening to it, let alone writing about it, makes you want to go foetal next to the shattered remains of your headphones.
The other reason is that you’re presented with something so instantly arresting that the struggle becomes articulating what’s so great about it.
Happily, for Soothsayers’ new album Human Nature (Red Earth Music) – the problem is very much the latter. At the outset, I should say that while Soothsayers have passed by on my radar before, listening to their back-catalogue for this review has been astounding.
If I had known that Brixton was home to such a stunningly accomplished and diverse dub-jazz-reggae-afrobeat collective, it would long ago have become a boring topic for my friends.
Human Nature is the fifth studio album by Soothsayers and largely emphasises the reggae elements of their proclivities. Although the album is such a musical collage, that’s barely a signpost for you. In fact, if all the musical elements were signposted they would be surrounding you, facing inwards, while you pirouette on a roundabout made of roots, jazz and afrobeat.
The lilting, powerful trumpet and saxophone of founder-members Robin Hopcraft and Idris Rahman, respectively, form the central thread weaving through Human Nature. In One Day the driving brass hooks provide a cohesion to the other signature theme of the album: the beautiful triple harmonies of Julia Biele, Hopcraft and Rahman. There is a fragility in their voices which is overcome through their heartfelt harmonisation and soaring melodies. And at its peaks these vocals are even faintly reminiscent of roots reggae maestros The Congos (and believe me I don’t make that comparison lightly – one of my greatest roots reggae albums of all time was Heart of the Congos!).
But it is a distinctively modern recasting of dub, reggae and roots and there are brilliantly experimental moments, with cacophonous finales overlayed with guitar, keys, horns and delayed vocals.
The lyrics punctuate the album with social, political and environmental themes – including war, personal strife and climate change. Indeed the intro track Human Nature (Intro) provides a clarion call for action: “can we find ourselves a way to save our mother earth / can we reach beyond / we know we must / stop fighting wars while fires burn and waters rise / don’t close your eyes”.
The title track continues on these themes but instead takes a self-assured and up-tempo form – replete with driving beats and delicious guitar licks. We are also returned to the vocal hook which was stripped bare in the album’s introduction: this time in full force and heralding a sprawling jazz- and afrobeat-infused exploration of the themes of the album (musically and lyrically).
It is rare to see a band so comfortable in shifting gear within and between songs. And the way in which Human Nature drops from buoyant reggae into thoughtful dub and then off into a meandering jazz mash-up, is perhaps the magic of the album: a crystallisation of the wonderful, genre-sprawling chaos of Soothsayers.
Human Nature will be released on November 22. Keep an eye out here on their website for their next gig.