The Wailing Souls

The Wailing Souls at Channel One: Sevens, Twelves and Versions

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Pressure Sounds is geared towards recovering Jamaican roots rarities and Wailing Souls at Channel One fits that bill. There is a lot of high-quality music here, but it's better for collectors and completists nosing around the fringes for Wailing Souls' alternates and oddities than initiates looking to get core essentials.

Only ten of the 16 tracks actually feature the Souls, here featuring the four-man incarnation, including ex-Black Uhuru singer Garth Dennis, so a liking for the Revolutionaries dub versions that appears back-to-backed with several vocal tracks doesn't hurt. It's not that hard, since this is the Revolutionaries in their militant rockers prime, and roots reggae just doesn't get much more prime than that. The Souls rank as a classic vocal group, but their harmonies are fairly understated and in a certain sense, are overshadowed by many backing tracks here. More mysterious at first is why Dillinger's "Natty BSc" is included but turns out it's a riddim thing. The song and its dub boast the same track as the preceding "Things and Time," where the Souls lock down into an infectious groove with loping bassline and horns countering the cutting lead vocal. It's excellent, the first single they cut for Channel One, a huge hit, an adaptation of the earlier song "Back Out With It" the group re-recorded as "Back Out" using the new rhythm track that's also included here along with its accompanying dub version. Got all that?

It means five of the 16 tracks work off the same track -- good thing it's a good one and that Jamaican music-making can be so dub-elastic. The Souls' harmonies dominate "Back Out" more than the horns that drive "Things and Time," but the Dillinger track is sparer and more riddim-section driven with skank guitar and organ dubwised in and out. It dispenses with horns, whereas the Revolutionaries' dub version resurrects them for opening fanfares before going totally skeletal. Just in case you were wondering.

Elsewhere, "War" is serious militant rocking, with plenty of dubbed-out organ, huge echoing snare shots, and deejay Ranking Trevor fitting perfectly in the 12" mix. The "Jah Jah Give Us Life to Live" 12" serves up breaking lead vocals over whooping basslines (sorta like if "Dock of the Bay" was Montego Bay) and unusual, arresting piano trills plus a very spare, atmospheric dub section anchored by bass and echoed-out percussion clatter. "Fire a Mus Mus Tail" is a nice mid-tempo reggae, based on Jamaican folk proverb and "Back Biter aka Back Slider" hits very solid groove time. "Lawless Society" has an almost underwater snare sound (a syndrum test? Mid-'70s sonica electronica barrage? Who knows?) but the dub may be more interesting with its horn and bass anchor and loose percussion. "Very Well" closes very strong with ragged horns, staccato Morse-code organ fills, and full harmonies on an African repatriation theme.

At Channel One is a decidedly odd duck. The Wailing Souls don't imprint their personality on the music that strongly, but there are many very strong performances here. The liner notes span the group's entire career but largely skate over the track specifics and general Jamaican context for these tracks, rare for a Pressure Sounds release. Maybe the best guideline would be that it's probably an essential disc if you have any good reason to believe this specialized take on the Wailing Souls might be, but not if you have your doubts.

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