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Reggae Greats (Island, 1984)

Steel Pulse is possibly the best -- and certainly one of the most popular -- reggae act to come out of England.  Their style is accessible to both reggae purists and mainstream listeners, allowing them to win a Grammy for best reggae album in 1986 (for Babylon the Bandit).  A typically concise Reggae Greats collection, this one groups together 10 tracks from Steel Pulse's first 3 albums.  It is a tribute to the greatness of their Handsworth Revolution album that half of the tracks come from this debut set.  Of these five, four are  the cream of the crop of this compilation.  "Soldiers," a wonderful tribute to their African heritage, featuring the inspired line, "Give I back I witch doctor."  The classic "Ku Klux Klan" skillfully combines a playful, parable-like tone with dead-serious subject matter.  "Macka Splaff" (AKA "Macka Spliff") meanwhile is pure fun throughout, a party jam that will get you "feeling high, high, high."   The group's signature tune here, though, is "Handsworth Revolution," a well-written song featuring a slightly Latin-esque rhythm and a superbly meandering structure that is simply one of the best reggae songs of all time.  With these four tracks alone, Steel Pulse shows that it can be at once playful and serious, light-hearted and conscious, and that it has genuine musical talent.  Their live instrument sound is refreshingly unique today in this age of computerized musical rhythms.  However, fulfilling their potential consistently has been Steel Pulse's major hurdle, as their second and third albums attest.  The only cut on Reggae Greats from those two album that lives up to Handsworth Revolution is "Sound System."    The rest are OK, but the standard was set so high with their debut that they, in essence, cursed themselves.

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Track Listing
1.  Sound System
2. Babylon Makes the Rules
3. Don't Give In
4. Soldiers
5. Prodigal Son
6. Ku Klux Klan
7. Macka Splaff
8. Drug Squad
9. Reggae Fever
10. Handsworth Revolution
Reggae Greats - Steel Pulse
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State of Emergency (MCA, 1988)

It seems almost inevitable that popular reggae groups (Aswad, Inner Circle, Third World, etc.) will "sell out" at some point, producing sugary pop tunes designed to cross over to the mainstream market.  Up until this album, Steel Pulse had more or less managed to stay on the right side of the boundary between crucial and crossover, though their last album on Elektra, Babylon the Bandit, signaled a possible shift to the "Dark Side."  This downward spiral is confirmed on State of Emergency, their debut on MCA.  As offensive as the synthesized pop is, it's even more disturbing that it isn't even catchy.  Much of Aswad's later material has been crossover (see Rise and Shine), but at least a good portion of it is catchy enough to stick with you.  The melodies here are flat and un-Steel Pulse-like.  Only the title track recalls the band's previous glory days, with its uptempo party feel (despite the serious lyrics) and strong, emotional melody.  "Said You Was an Angel" isn't bad, and "Hijacking" and "Reaching Out" are OK, but their pop styles (including a friggin' rap in "Hijacking") don't make them conducive to long-term enjoyment.

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Track Listing
1. State of Emergency
2. Dead End Circuit
3. Steal a Kiss
4. Hijacking
5. P.U.S.H.
6. Love This Reggae Music
7. Said You Was an Angel
8. Reaching Out
9. Melting Pot
10. Disco Drop Out
11. Reaching Out [Extended Version]
State of Emergency
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Smash Hits (Elektra, 1993)

After their immortal debut album Handsworth Revolution, there was little place for Steel Pulse to go but down.  The level to which they dove, however, on their next two Island albums may have disappointed some fans (like me).  In switching labels to Elektra, though, something apparently sparked within the band, and great music once again sprang forth.  Smash Hits is a testament to Steel Pulse's spectacular resurgence while signed to Elektra.  Taken from their 3 albums with the label, these songs have a somewhat lighter, more playful feel than the Island tunes, which, along with great production and strong melodies, makes them accessible to a mainstream audience.  Still, reggae purists will not be chanting "sellout," for they will be too busy grooving; these tracks stay true to the genre without a doubt.  "Roller Skates," for instance, is the proverbial JAM, a bouncy, rollicking tune that could rock reggae neophyte and reggae stalwart alike.  In fact, the first 6 songs are pure energy, pure gold.  Even the seventh, "Worth His Weight in Gold," was popular, but I think that it pales in comparison to the previous tracks.  The remainder of the tunes are also not quite as strong as these first 6, save for "Blues Dance Raid" and "Leggo Beast," but all are certainly listenable.  One can only hope that Steel Pulse will once again rise from the ashes to appease our palates.

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Track Listing
1. Ravers
2. Roller Skates
3. Chant a Psalm
4. Steppin' Out
5. Your House
6. Not King James Version
7. Worth His Weight in Gold (Rally Round)
8. Dub Marcus Say (Rally Dub)
9. Earth Crisis
10. Blues Dance Raid
11. Save Black Music
12. Bodyguard
13. Leggo Beast
14. Babylon the Bandit
15. Tightrope
16. Roller Skates [Dub]
Smash Hits
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Sound System: The Island Anthology (Island, 1997)

Since Steel Pulse released only three albums on the Island label -- Handsworth Revolution, Tribute to the Martyrs, and Caught You (Reggae Fever) -- it's both convenient and a great idea to have them collected on one double CD set.   Listening to the sheer brilliance of Handsworth Revolution, it's no wonder that it made such a big splash right off the bat.  The intoxicating energy, freewheeling flow, righteous lyrics, emotional vocals, and full-band sound of "Soldiers," "Ku Klux Klan," "Macka Splaff," and the title track, along with the strong "Prodigal Son" and "Bad Man" combine to form a bonafide classic.  This is why the sudden and drastic drop in quality on the next two albums was so disillusioning.  Putting both Tribute and Caught You together still wouldn't match the greatness of the debut album.  It's not that the band's sound changed much; the songs simply weren't that good.  Mediocre songwriting creates a domino effect.  If you don't like the song, it's easy to pick on the music, the singing, the harmonies, the musicianship, etc.  Where their songs had previously had an appealing meandering structure, now they seemed messy and  unfocussed with little melody.  The banality of it all made the tracks start to sound alike and blend together too much.  On Tribute, only "Sound System" meets the standard set by Handsworth, while "Unseen Guest" is OK.  Caught You meanwhile has nothing coming close to Handsworth, but "Reggae Fever," "Higher Than High," and "Nyahbinghi Voyage" are decent.   Sound System also includes a few nice cuts not available on the individual albums: "Bun Dem," "Nyah Love" (which isn't so hot), and a live version of "Macka Splaff."  But neither these tracks nor Tribute and Caught You make Sound System worth the money.  Your best bet is to buy Handsworth Revolution (and maybe Reggae Greats) and then move on to Steel Pulse's Elektra material.

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Track Listing
CD 1:
1. Handsworth Revolution
2. Bad Man
3. Soldiers
4. Sound Check
5. Prodigal Son
6. Ku Klux Klan
7. Prediction
8. Macka Splaff
9. Bun Dem
10. Nyah Love [Live]
11. Unseen Guest
12. Sound System
13. Jah Pickney -- R.A.R.
14. Tribute to the Martyrs

CD2:
1. Babylon Makes the Rules/Devil's Disciples
2. Uncle George
3. Biko's Kindred Lament
4. Blasphemy
5. Macka Splaff [Live]
6. Drug Squad
7. Harassment
8. Reggae Fever
9. Shining
10. Heart of Stone
11. Rumors
12. Caught You Dancing
13. Burning Flame
14. Higher Than High
15. Nyahbinghi Voyage
16. Don't Give In

Sound System
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Rage and Fury (Mesa, 1997)

Steel Pulse has been supposedly washed up only to come back before, but I'm afraid they may be hard-pressed to make much of a comeback now.  Some people -- diehard Steel Pulse fans, no doubt -- have hailed Rage and Fury as such a comeback, a return to their roots.  But, as with Aswad's mis-titled Roots Revival, don't believe the hype.  There are a couple of tunes that hearken back to the group's glory days of the late '70s or mid-'80s -- "Settle the Score" and "Emotional Prisoner," for example -- but most of Rage and Fury is too poppy -- as in the sentimental tripe "House of Love" or the remake of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" -- or too corny -- like the cliched choruses of "I Spy" and "Black and Proud."  The writing on songs like these are nothing short of amateurish.  Steel Pulse's attempts at sounding "hip" and up to date -- including DJs chatting on "Role Model" and "I Spy" -- to a rap by Spearhead on the cover of Billy Paul's "Am I Black Enough for You" (AKA "Black Enough?") to a jungle version of "Ku Klux Klan" -- all fail.   The straightforward non-jungle reworking of "Ku Klux Klan" is OK, but decidedly inferior to the original and thus pointless.  Luckily, Steel Pulse hasn't completely lost their ability to captivate, as a few of their light, dancey tracks -- "Blame on Me," "Peace Party," and "Spiritualize It" -- are nice and almost draw you into Rage and Fury, but only the biggest Steel Pulse fans will deem this a keeper.

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Track Listing
1. Emotional Prisoner
2. Role Model
3. I Spy (No Stranger to Danger)
4. Settle the Score
5. Brown Eyed Girl
6. The Real Terrorist
7. Black and Proud
8. Ku Klux Klan
9. House of Love
10. Blame on Me
11. Black Enough?
12. Peace Party
13. Spiritualize It
14. KKK in the Jungle
Rage and Fury
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Living Legacy (Tuff Gong, 1999)

I've never really gotten into live albums, having rarely heard a live version of a song that sounds better than the original (Gregory Isaacs' "Border" being an exception), but for those fans of live music, Living Legacy may be a treat, since Steel Pulse hasn't released as much of it as other reggae groups.  Mixing material from their start in the '70s to their latest '90s stuff (recorded from 3 separate concerts), this album provides a range of music, but few of their best songs are adequately represented.  "Sound System," "Prodigal Son," and "Ku Klux Klan" are the best here, while greats like "Handsworth Revolution," "Macka Splaff," "Not King James Version," and "Soldiers" are relegated to snippets in a 14-minute medley.  The other songs from the '70s and '80s -- like "Bodyguard" and "Reggae Fever" -- are decent, while the newer, lesser-known tunes like "Islands Unite" and "In a Me Life" are OK, but nothing stellar.

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Track Listing
1. Nyahbinghi Voyage
2. Bodyguard
3. Islands Unite
4. Sound System
5. Reggae Fever
6. Medley Medley
7. Prodigal Son
8. Ku Klux Klan (Sleight Return)
9. Black Enough
10. In a Me Life
11. Back to My Roots
12. Bootstraps
Living Legacy
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African Holocaust (RAS, 2004)

It's no big secret that some Steel Pulse fans became disillusioned by the increasingly crossover pop direction the band took in the late '80s and throughout the '90s, culminating in the "return to roots" that wasn't, 1997's Rage and Fury.  Seven years have passed without a studio album, and some might've been wondering if the band was down for the count.  Well, just like Rocky III, they pull themselves off the mat and come out swinging (it remains to be seen if they end up fighting Mr. T).  African Holocaust is the real return to roots that Rage and Fury purported to be.  Sure, there are still some flourishes that seem to aim at a wider audience -- the dancehall beats of "Blazing Fire" and the title track, and the rock guitar garnish on "Door of No Return" -- but overall, African Holocaust regains Steel Pulse's anti-establishment bite in large part by presenting tunes that are well-written and reggae-focused so that listeners actually listen to the lyrics instead of hitting fast-forward.  Now, I don't want to imply that this is hardcore roots; there is certainly a slick veneer peppered by bubbly harmonies, but Steel Pulse fans should be used to that by now.  A song like "Ku Klux Klan," for instance, featured a bouncy sound yet had a deadly serious message.  Of course, nothing on this album is as great as "Ku Klux Klan," but "Global Warning" is a funky, spunky jam, and "Door of No Return" is a magnetic ode to resilience, with ample support from tunes like "Tyrant," "Born fi Rebel," "There Must Be a Way," "No More Weapons," and the title cut.  A couple of remakes are included -- Curtis Mayfield's "Darker Than Blue" and Bob Dylan's "George Jackson" -- but neither are as evocative as the originals penned by David Hines, who's taken even more of a leadership role in the group since all of the original members, save Selwyn Brown, have left.  While not an outright classic, African Holocaust is definitely head and shoulders above anything I've heard from Steel Pulse in over a decade.

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Track Listing
1. Global Warning
2. Blazing Fire
3. There Must Be a Way
4. Make Us a Nation
5. Dem a Wolf
6. No More Weapons
7. Tyrant
8. Door of No Return
9. Born fi Rebel
10. Darker Than Blue
11. George Jackson
12. African Holocaust
13. Uncle George
African Holocaust
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True Democracy (Rhino, 2005 [orig. released 1982])

When Steel Pulse left the legendary Island label after their third album, Caught You (released in the US as Reggae Fever), it would've been easy for them to fade into oblivion.  That album was a critical and commercial disappointment, failing to capture either the rebel spirit of their debut, Handsworth Revolution, or the crossover American market that they coveted.  They quickly regrouped, however, and jumped to Elektra, where they proceeded to release one their most acclaimed albums, True Democracy.  It balances an accessible, pop-leaning roots sound -- a bit like The Police's more reggae-fied early works -- with cultural messages and comes up with an irresistible package, a landmark in the group's 30-year career.  The melodies are distinct and catchy, and the music is a non-stop propulsive joy.  You could turn this album on in a club and not stop moving until the very last notes of the very last song fade away.  And, with the Rhino re-release, we get four extra tracks -- two extended versions and two dubs -- that weren't previously available.  

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Track Listing
1. Chant a Psalm 
2. Ravers 
3. Find It...Quick 
4. A Who Responsible? 
5. Worth His Weight in Gold (Rally Round) 
6. Leggo Beast 
7. Blues Dance Raid 
8. Your House 
9. Man No Sober 
10. Dub Marcus Say 
11. Ravers [12" Version]
12. Leggo Beast [12" Version]
13. Your House [Dub Version]
14. A Who Responsible [Dub Version]
True Democracy
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Earth Crisis (Rhino, 2005  [orig. released 1984])

More of the same undeniable appeal from Steel Pulse on this their second of three Elektra albums, Earth Crisis dropping only slightly in overall quality from True Democracy.  This album does, however, contain "Roller Skates," one of the most immediately engaging songs ever recorded.  I dare you to listen to it and not tap your toes, nod your head, or shake your money maker.  It may actually be too catchy, as you may not be able to unearth it from inside your head for days on end.  "Steppin' Out" and "Bodyguard" are similarly appealing, carrying the same upbeat pop roots sound as their other two Elektra albums.  As with the True Democracy Rhino re-release, you get two additional dubs and two extended versions that heighten the value of this set.  Granted, most of the best songs from these two albums are on the Smash Hits collection, but certainly not all of them -- plus, Steel Pulse fans will relish the extended cuts (some up to 7 minutes long) and dubs.

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Track Listing
1. Steppin' Out 
2. Tightrope 
3. Throne of Gold 
4. Roller Skates 
5. Earth Crisis 
6. Bodyguard 
7. Grab Education 
8. Wild Goose Chase 
9. Steppin' Out [Dub Version]
10. Steppin' Out [Extended Version] 
11. Roller Skates [Remix Version] 
12. Roller Skates [Dub Version] 
Earth Crisis
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