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For proof that a Grammy doesn't always signify a band's best work, consider British reggae legends Steel Pulse. The band's 1986 LP Babylon the Bandit swelled with squishy synths, programmed drums, and bubblegum reggae-pop songs with titles like "School Boy Crush" and "Sugar Daddy." Largely devoid of sociopolitical commentary, it reeked of an overeager attempt at commercial success. Still, it somehow won Steel Pulse the trophy for Best Reggae Recording that year.
Why? Perhaps because the prize was long overdue. And in predictable, cyclical, Grammy-come-lately style, 2005 finds Steel Pulse nominated for African Holocaust, the band's first studio album in seven years. After three decades together, six Grammy nods, and the one poorly timed award back in '86, the reggae vets aren't sweating the prize, even if this album might actually deserve it.
"Each time we get nominated, we feel honored," long-time keyboardist Selwyn Brown says from his home in Birmingham, England. "But even if we don't win it, we feel really happy with this album because of the amount of work that we have put into it over the last four years or so. Every song has an important message."
Following the 1997 Rage and Fury album and years of being harassed by major labels to churn out radio-friendly singles on frivolous topics, Brown and David Hinds, the other core member of the group, vowed to work only with independent labels that support their rootsier, gutsier songs. They recently found the proper backing from Washington, D.C., imprint Ras Records.
"Now we feel we've actually come full circle," Brown says, "because what we've tried to do with this album is capture the original, old-school vibe of Steel Pulse not just lyrically but musically as well."
That old-school vibe is imprinted all over African Holocaust. Featuring dancehall superstar Capleton, "Blazing Fire" does indeed blaze, infusing the band's organ-driven World Beat sound with a ragga-style bounce. Other standouts ("There Must Be a Way;" "No More Weapons," with its throwback feel; "Tyrant;" and a rendition of Curtis Mayfield's "Darker than Blue") burn with the political consciousness and superior musicianship that first put the band on the map.
In the album's concluding trilogy of songs, the rallying title track is flanked by two remakes, both dirges for African-American convict, Black Panther, activist, and author George Jackson. But one's a wild card: "George Jackson" is an esoteric, 1971 Bob Dylan tune that he recorded not long after Jackson was shot to death by prison guards in California's Soledad prison. Dylan's lyrics proclaim that Jackson was killed because he was "just too real."
When "Uncle George" was released on Steel Pulse's second album, Tribute to the Martyrs in 1978, the song identified Jackson as a man who "bared the scars of injustice." At the time, the group was unaware Dylan had penned a song about the same revolutionary. But after friends hipped them to "George Jackson," they decided to recast Dylan's protest song alongside their own on the new album. Their version of Dylan's tune has a rollicking, folksy rhythm reminiscent of Big Youth's live version of "Every Nigger Is a Star."
"We've always been appreciative of people like Bob Dylan," Brown says. "He's always had his ear close to the ground as far as people that are going through injustices, whether it's George Jackson or boxer Hurricane Carter."
While African Holocaust trumpets political and human rights issues -- from the demand for economic reparations for African descendants to laments for the environment -- its main purpose is to document the lives of activists and political prisoners for a younger, less informed generation. The album cover depicts silk-screened photos of important figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to recent martyr James Byrd Jr. superimposed over a red, gold, and green backdrop. The visages are defaced with what looks like black magic marker through their eyes, signifying their insignificance to the power structure.
"They are important to us," Brown points out, "but as far as the powers that be are concerned, those people don't matter. Most of them have been assassinated or tortured or silenced in some way. They all symbolize our fight against injustice, especially in the black community."
Possibly the band's most unified recording to date, African Holocaust shows musicians still improving after decades together. Retaining a warm, aboriginal sound while incorporating modern influences like rock and dancehall, it's the obvious choice of Steel Pulse recordings to take that coveted, gold-plated Grammophone.
"We've always prided ourselves on being a band that has our ears opened to other kinds of music," Brown says, "while still staying true to our roots."