Sadly, the Congos' fate was already sealed two decades before this album's release. In 1977-1978 they recorded one of the most seminal sets of the roots era, Heart of the Congos, arguably Lee "Scratch" Perry's most awe-inspiring production. Unfortunately, Island label head Chris Blackwell remained oblivious to the set's power, and it took three years before the small U.K. independent Go Feet picked Heart of the Congos up for release.
By then the Congos had fallen out with Perry and moved on, only to see their new efforts fall flat in comparison to their earlier material. The group soon disintegrated, although Cedric Myton continued to work under the band name. Since that time, the Congos have been saddled with the most unpalatable of legacies, purveyors of an acknowledged masterpiece that most people have never heard, but still remain in thrall of. Then in 1997 the original trio re-formed, and, backed by a host of distinguished island sessionmen -- the Barrett Brothers, Boris Gardiner, Mikey Chung, Tyrone Downie, Rolando Alphonso, and more -- and with additional backing vocals by the Meditations, recorded Natty Dread Rise Again. The set kicks off powerfully with the evocative stepper's stealth of "Rock of Gibraltar" and the vehement "Step Aside," filled with Myton's spine-tingling falsetto harmonies. But then the album seems to drift back into the past, emerging not in the Congos' roots heyday, but in the mid-'80s, the nadir of reggae. The fault lies at the Mytons' (Cedric and frequent co-writer and backing vocalist Yvonne) door -- they oversaw the arrangements and productions, and thus must have approved the lush synths and faux strings that permeate so many of the numbers. And so Natty Dread Rise Again finds itself caught in a time warp, rising into an urban disco where the mirror ball is still spinning. Even the gorgeous title track is undone by the simpering synths, with only the rousing "Judgement Day" and more militant "Apartheid" fully spared. The two latter numbers feature smoldering solos by Alphonso, and throughout the set the musicianship is superb, but the Mytons' arrangements bring the players' work to naught. Natty may not be pushing up daisies anymore, but he's not quite arisen either, and too much of this album is merely a postscript on their early epitaph.