Back in 2015, I came across a Kickstarter campaign by producer Danny Boyle for a new Max Romeo album. I bookmarked the site with the intention of contributing to it at some point since it sounded like an interesting project. I was trying to decide what contribution level I should spring for as there were some really, really cool options available (including getting named as an executive producer on the album credits!). Unfortunately, this bit of analysis paralysis ended up costing me dearly as I eventually forgot about it, and my good intentions were lost to the sands of time. While I’ve never featured Max Romeo in the annals of TickuTalk, I did a write up about his daughter Xana Romeo when she released her Yaadcore produced mixtape “Mercy Please”. For those of you who missed that post, and who are not familiar with Max Romeo, you have almost certainly heard his music before. The classic 1976 track “Chase the Devil” is one of the most sampled reggae songs of all time:
Max Romeo is truly one of reggae’s greats and one of it’s few remaining elder statesmen as well. If Bob Marley was still alive right now, they would be the same age. This fact weighs on me heavily as I listen to this new album titled “Horror Zone” which was released in 2016, exactly 40 years after Romeo’s legendary album “War Ina Babylon”. It’s a bittersweet reminder of the brilliance Bob was able to achieve in such a short amount of time, and the immense creative output that the world was robbed of with his passing. It also makes me very appreciative that someone of Max’s ilk is still with us and making music.
Having said all this, it was my good fortune to recently come across an article talking about a new music video from Max Romeo for a track called “Give Thanks to Jehovah”. It was at that moment that it dawned on me that it must be for a song from that Kickstarter funded album. The video was shot using stop motion animation which is something of a lost art. It is a fantastical retelling of the creation of the album, complete with clay versions of Max Romeo and Lee “Scratch” Perry (who was heavily involved in the album). Watching claymation Lee “Scratch” Perry ride a magic carpet from Saturn down to the Rolling Lion Studio (where the album was recorded in real life) was pure joy as there could not be a more fitting entrance for one of the forefathers of what is modern day electronic music.
Once I was able to wipe the silly grin from face, I listened to the track a few more times. In typical roots style, it’s got a super heavy bassline which can only really be appreciated with a high fidelity audio system. The intro also highlights some absolutely sublime trombone playing that has an uncanny warmth to it. After doing a bit more research on the album, it turns out the trombone player is Vin Gordon who is one of the original members of Lee Perry’s band The Upsetters. In fact, many of the original band members are playing instruments on this album including Robby Lyn on keyboards and Glen DaCosta on the sax. Another interesting nugget I unearthed about the production of this album was that the reason it was recorded at Rolling Lion Studio is because it was set up with the original signal chain that Perry used at the renowned Black Ark Studio in Jamaica in the 1970’s. The Black Ark unfortunately was burned to the ground by Perry himself in 1979 due to the evil spirits and bad energy that he said had engulfed the place. The Black Ark had produced the defining sounds of Jamaica for the better part of a decade. Towards the end of that decade, it brought around some unsavoury characters who were looking only to profit from it’s popularity and Perry’s genius, which is probably the reason why he adopted the scorched earth policy that effectively ended an era. The term “signal chain” in this case refers to the various pieces of equipment used to record the music including microphones, effects units (such as for echoes and reverbs), and the mixing desk. Producer Danny Boyle painstakingly searched for all the pieces of vintage equipment that Perry used in the 70’s for an album they collaborated on in 2013 called “Back On The Controls” (another highly successful Kickstarter campaign). Naturally, it made sense to use it again for this 2016 effort with Max Romeo. This attention to detail does not go unnoticed as the combination of original band members plus the vintage equipment gives the sound a level of authenticity beyond reproach. Before I knew any of this background information, I was blown away by the sound, and now I know why.
The album starts out ominously with the track “What If” where Max Romeo asks:
“What if I tell you, the world is in trouble?
What would you say?
What if I tell you, that you will die tomorrow?
What would you do today?”
The dour tone sets the stage for the songs to come on this album, so if you were hoping for a happy-go-lucky dance party, you are immediately put on notice that you are in the wrong place. This is a serious album for a serious time, and admittedly, may be be too heavy for some people.
The next track called “Fed Up” is an anthem that speaks to oppressed people around the world. Anyone on the spectrum from the destitute, to the working poor, to even the rapidly disappearing middle class can relate to this song as a rallying cry against inequality and the lack of opportunity that comes with it. The first few verses paint a picture of hopelessness:
“For too long we sat here taking all the crap
This cruel and unusual punishment
Certainly have to stop
We wake up every day
To the beat of the same old drum
Uninspired people sit and waiting for the Lord to come
No hope for survival, no chance to rise
Wondering and pondering, will our children survive?
Under this wicked and brutal system
That Babylon have provide!”
While the song is dark, it remains defiant. In the face of these insurmountable odds, Romeo still urges a call to action:
“Time for us to get serious
And take it to the streets
Time for Babylon to understand
There’s no surrender or retreat
It’s either or either, we do or we will die
Put your heads out your windows now
And with one big voice we cry!
So take off your broken scars
To make this thing right!
Sick, lame or lazy
Will have to join the fight!
Fight for survival
We want a chance to rise
Wondering and pondering, can our children survive?”
“Fed Up” is an instant classic, as I had to put it on repeat after the first time I heard it before I could even consider moving on to the rest of the album. In terms of protest songs, this ranks right up near the top for me and is on par with Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”.
The next tune is deceivingly upbeat during the intro, but quickly establishes that it is not deviating from the dystopian path Romeo has set for this album. “What Is Life?” is a lament for the people living in such troubled times.
“What is life, here today and gone tomorrow.
What is life, when you have to spend it all in sorrow?
What is life, when you have to live out in an alley?
What is life, without love it don’t mean a thing!
Is this life, the way we are forced to live?
Is this life, when we ain’t have nothing to give?
Is this life, when you always live in want?
Is this life, when poverty always count?
When you have to see your children hungry
And the house is always empty
And the bills are piling high
And the little children all are crying
‘Cause your tummies is-a empty
I said their tummies are empty!
What is life, when you have to scratch just like a chicken?
What is life, when there’s no food left in the kitchen?
What is life, when there’s no water in the main?
What is life, when you have to live it under strain?”
With his still silky smooth voice, Romeo lays bare the poverty of the ghetto, and the struggle people face just to get by. There are a surprising number of people who believe that people who live in poverty are there because of their own bad decisions, as if people without boots should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Listening to a song about hungry children puts you through a bit of an emotional ringer, but that is the kind of powerful music that is needed to thaw the hearts of the rich and callous.
The fourth track is called “Scammer Jammers” and while it’s got a nice riddim, it’s quite simplistic lyrically. The song basically calls out the fact that almost everything in this world is a scam:
“Scammers, we have a world full of scammers!
Politics is a scam,
Religion is a scam,
The whole damn justice is a scam,
Education is a scam,
Insurance is a scam,
The way they teach the Bible, you can see it’s a scam.”
He’s not wrong about any of these points. But then he proceeds to go off the deep end and just starts blasting everything. No one is spared, not even musicians.
“Football is a scam,
Baseball is a scam,
Tennis is a scam,
Hockey is a scam,
Music is a scam,
Hollywood full of scam,
Every single thing in this world is a scam”
As far as I can tell, the only people spared his scorn are farmers, teachers, and prisoners since they are GETTING scammed, while doctors, lawyers and judges are FULL of scam. Love it.
“Farmers getting scammed,
Teachers getting scammed,
Prisoners getting scammed,
Nurses getting scammed
Doctors full of scam,
Lawyers full of scam,
Judges full of scam,
Me say scammers, the world full of scammers!”
At first I thought the song was kind of silly, but I’ve grown to like it’s cheeky nihilism.
After this is a track called “Sounds of War” which is probably my least favourite track on the album. That’s not to say it’s bad, but the album starts out so strong, that there was bound to be a lull.
The lull is very short lived though as up next is the title track of the album. In the liner notes of the album, Max Romeo states that in his opinion, the world we are living in right now is “a real horror zone” and thus the impetus for this album. The song starts with a chorus that makes use of a haunting echo effect to put you in this ghostly horror zone envisioned by Romeo:
“Cloak and Dagger, Skull and Bones,
Drifting in, the horror zone.”
The imagery used here at first here seemed a bit out of place, until I realized that what he was alluding to was the invisible hand of modern capitalism which in many ways is responsible for the horrors we see today. I find the choice of words here very interesting as well since I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the words “horror” and “zone” used together. I’ve heard the term “horror show” used before to describe atrocious events. If you’ve watched Superman you’ve heard of the “phantom zone” which is reserved for the most evil of all super villains, and of course there is the notorious term “twilight zone” which entered our common lexicon from the 1960’s TV show. The horror zone sounds like a grim combination of all of the above, and I think is a clever turn of phrase.
Following the title track is a potentially misspelled song called “Cigarrett”. I’m not sure if this is how it is commonly spelled in Jamaica or anywhere else for that matter. This is something I would like to know, but not enough to expend any real energy. I will simply have to deal with the minor aggravation it provides me whenever I see the title. The track itself makes for a catchy warning against the dangers of smoking. It may seem a bit weird to write a song on this topic considering this is common knowledge in 2018, but tobacco still kills millions of people every year so maybe it’s not so strange when you really think about it. It’s also not odd when you consider the most devout Rastas are vegans, and many do not touch alcohol or smoke tobacco. They are firm in their belief that your health is your wealth. One thing is for sure, this song would certainly make a cooler and more effective PSA for kids than anything I ever saw while growing up.
The last original track on the album is actually the first one mentioned in this post (with the claymation video), which is a nice uplifting track and fitting end for the album. Despite the overall tone of doom and gloom, there is still hope, and ending with this track ensures you leave with positive vibes.
Luckily, if you are like me, and eight fantastic tracks aren’t enough for you, there are dub versions of every single track on the album! Most of them are actually quite good, and a couple were even produce by Perry himself. In fact, the dub treatments on this album could justify an entirely separate review in their own right, but I’ve already been working on this post for too long 🙂 This album really is a rare treat, and I highly recommend every reggae fan out there to listen to this masterpiece as it doesn’t get much better than this.