For open-minded listeners without enough time to pick through old vinyl or without access to a cool vintage music store, Anthology Recordings is a welcome addition to the digital music market. Calling itself “the world’s first all-digital reissue label,” Anthology’s mission statement pledges to address the lack of hard-to-find, influential music that has been neglected by the major online retailers.
Originally released by Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label in 1986, African Head Charge’s fourth album, Off the Beaten Track, caught these musicians at was arguably their creative peak as a studio band, merging eclectic sonic layering within their spacey psychedelic dub. By this point six years into its evolution as a group, percussionist and founder Bonjo I (nee Bonjo Iyanbinghi Noah) had assembled a wide range of musical compatriots who performed under such colorful monikers as Sunny Akpan, Prisoner, Junior Moses and Crocodile.
Over their foundational sound — a loopily distorted bass-and-drum Jamaican dub — African Head Charge collects a divergent multicultural assortment of sounds, cribbing brief melodies from whistles, horns, bells, Indian strings, ethnic chants and vocal samples (check out Albert Einstein kickin’ it old-school on “Lecture and Mentality”). But despite remastered tracks and digital fine-tuning, Off the Beaten Track may be a challenging listen for people not finely schooled in the nuances of the 1980s cut-up dub scene. The music doesn’t drive enough to be justifiably considered rock: the drum-and-bass too shifty and overwhelmed by ambience to satisfy dub traditionalists; the rhythmic breaks too abstract and free-form to grab reggae nostalgists; and the blend of those three principal genres not developed or cohesive enough to fully satisfy listeners looking for something more eclectic.
Twenty years after its release, the album sounds more like outdated intellectual studio tweaking than enduring emotional earnestness. Time is generally kinder to soul than (now irrelevant) technological experimentation. Ultimately, the cause of celebration here is less about Off the Beaten Track on its own than what Anthropology is seeking to bring about. Obscure reissues, after all, aren’t obscure because of their mainstream accessibility. The label will undoubtedly release as many albums that may be justifiably meaningless in the current day as it does timeless records unfairly forgotten or damned to insignificance by record-label disputes.
***Concert video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7jG83IFGK8