The singles that Bob Marley and the Wailers cut for Lee Perry's Upsetter label in the late '60s and early '70s are among some of the most historically significant in reggae. They mark Marley's break with the ska and rock-steady styles of the mid-'60s and the beginning of his mature reggae sound. Of course, historical significance doesn't always translate into musical enjoyment, but in this case it definitely does. The band, which had formed the core of Perry's mighty Upsetters studio group, gives up slow, churning grooves that move with a tremendous, ponderous energy, like an elephant charging. Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer sing harmonies that are rarely smooth and never exactly pleasant, but always somehow beautiful.
This six-disc box set includes every track known to have been recorded by the Wailers for the Upsetter label, and the resulting program may be a bit daunting for all but the most dedicated fans. The song list includes such immortal material as "Small Axe," "Put It On," "African Herbsman," and "Soul Rebel" (not to mention relative obscurities like "Riding High" and "Who Colt the Game"), but when dub versions, alternate takes, alternate mixes, and deejay versions are taken into account, there are as many as five versions each of many of these songs on the program; it's also worth noting that at this point in Perry's development as a producer, his "dub versions" were little more than unadorned instrumental tracks. For Marley completists and reggae scholars, however, this box is a treasure trove, and anyone can appreciate the impeccable sound quality, not to mention the sheer musical solidity of these performances. It would be an exaggeration to say that every reggae fan must own this box, but anyone with a serious interest in reggae history should certainly consider it.