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Midnite | Kings Bell

album review by John Powell

Midnite | Kings Bell

Midnite is like that established downtown pub: Its menu hasn't changed since it opened, the staff is a little bitter (no substitutions, no matter what), and it seems to always be open.

But it's familiar and quality. Super high quality. And it reminds you of the good ole’ days.

So what can be said about the group’s album that’s coming out a decade into a career of roots (I mean Roots) reggae music? 16 tracks of one drops, back beats, percussion, breakdowns, and chanting down Babylon is certainly a full album, rich with sound. Beautifully produced by Andrew Bassie Cambell, Kings Bell is that hearty meal you need on a cold day, and isn’t that flashy new tapas bar that opened across the street.

Vaughn Benjamin’s vocals remain as slightly reverb’d and chanting as they always have. On the opener, “Exalt the Crown”, soulful horns lead in alongside soothing bass and slick drums. “What they want is breaking down,” he sings, shooing industry. Right away the sound is stellar. The mixing is ideal. Some would find it overproduced, but it’s arguably produced just enough. The rhythm guitars, which in modern reggae recordings have a nasty habit of being louder than the bass n’ drums, are restrained, whereas the bass fills the lower ends of speakers. It’s beautiful, and Vaughn, never one for melody, manages to develop something catchy in the chorus.

He rarely travels beyond Rasta ruminations. “Earth is Lords” has him near-singing over light piano and heavy percussion. His lyrics come thick and fast, sometimes intelligible, like he has more to say than time on the track, so he hurries through them. The same happens on “Black Mamba”, with a soulful arrangement layered over reggae skanking. It’s one of the most engaging tracks on the album.

A change-up for Midnite is “Mongst I&I”, with acoustic vibrations, complex drumming, and an overall feel reminiscent of latter Burning Spear. While Midnite thrive on minor chords, on instrumentation that feels like punches, “Mongst I&I” is revelatory, spread out in the speakers. It’s an awakening song.

“Peak Tension Time” has a similar upbeat groove, sort of Steel Pulse. The truth is, like any Jamaican roots artists since the genre blossomed, there’s a strong love of post-production, of dubbing out in the right areas, of accurately sewing percussion, drums, heavy bass, lead and rhythm guitars, keys, and vocals- and every song on Kings Bell, whether atmospheric (“Kings Bell”) or ska-based weaponry (“Torpedo”), it sounds really steady.

At this point in his career, Vaughn Benjamin is heralded as a master of his art, someone that weaves words like a complex stitching, who has powerful thoughts and means to message them, but while the band, made up of various players with many recurrences, is smoking- totally tight and on fire with reggae grooves- the lyrics of each song could seemingly be arbitrarily placed with any instrumental backing. You could easily swap vocal tracks with band tracks on most of these songs and it would barely be noticeable.

Vaughn feels so caught up in his lyrical punctuating that the music just kind of simmers underneath him. This is a shame, really, as the arrangements are super rootsy, at times diggin dubby (“Peak Tension Time”) and at others ska-piquing fun. Each song is a glossy, damn good song, but there’s no change up, and in a world where reggae music has the power of pushing genre boundaries, keeping it old school is both a righteous pursuit and getting a little old. The lyrics on “What About Sudan” and “Exalt the Crown” don’t sound much different from anything appearing on 2007’s Rule The Time.

There is nothing groundbreaking on Kings Bell, but it is a great sounding reggae album, and if you’re hungry for new music that retains that old school reggae thought, then Midnite delivers. No specials on today’s menu, but at least they’re using the same delicious recipes.

Bottom line: A full album with irie grooves and conscious lyrics. Super heavy drums and a head-bobbing good time.

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