Arkaingelle: Nah Watah Down Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Arkaingelle has returned with another new album (officially released on Friday 18 September). And with one of the world’s most exciting production outfits at the helm, it does not disappoint – being an instant triumph of epic proportions.
Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down, released via Zion High Productions, sees the legendary Zion I Kings take the production helm. The album sweeps across 14 tracks and interludes. And not only does is serve to showcase Zion I Kings unmistakable talents, but demonstrates Arkaingelle at the peak of his powers.
What stands out from the off with Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down is the sheer quality of the musicianship. As is often the case with Zion I Kings the same, thoroughly reliable faces are present: David “JAH David” Goldfine across bass, percussion, and pick guitar; drums mostly from Lloyd “Junior” Richards; Laurent “Tippy I” Alfred’s rhythm guitar and Andrew “Drew Keys” Stoch switching between various roles. Additional musicians also feature throughout – but again, they’re familiar names. This veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of modern Roots-derived music not only serves to make Nah Watah Down top-class, but also provides synergy across the tracks.
The album opens with the intro Glory To Word, featuring Wonderful Counselor. It’s a distinctly Afrobeats way to start the album, with Stoch’s keys running rapid, arpeggio chords and his trombone performing a traditional refrain – almost regal in its commanding presence. Setting the tone well, it offers an almost triumphant beginning to the project.
Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down’s title track moves away from the Afrobeats opening, directly heading into complex and intricate Roots; the running theme for the whole project. It’s undoubtedly driven by the rhythm section. Jonathan “Rankine Jedd” Rankine drums tread a one drop path, with some nice additional syncopation on the cymbals at the end of certain phrases. Robbie Lyn’s piano runs a bubble rhythm, free of fussiness, forcing the track forward in that Roots, stuttering vibe. He also provides the keys on an organ setting, bringing some Soul to the swell. Goldfine’s base runs a drop-beat rhythm, missing the three, then the three and four – and its syncopation increases across the bar. The combined rhythm section is very well crafted – creating a forward-moving, relentless momentum.
Then, guitars come in three forms. The track’s main line is provided by Janoy “Jellis’ Ellis – with the mid and treble on the amp up to give that distinctive, whining sound. Alfred’s rhythm guitar gives us a skank, backing up the drums and keys. Goldfine’s pick guitar, at points on semiquaver runs and others mimicking the bass, finishes off the trio – and the three combined serves to add even more depth to the track. The inclusion of a kette from Andrew “Bassie” Campbell is another nod to Roots’ ‘roots’. Goldfine’s washboard is a lovely inclusion. And Stoch’s synths finish off this detailed piece well. Arkaingelle’s vocal matches the music perfectly – barely stopping for breath, he takes the pacey arrangement and carries it through to the vocal, delivering an urgent and intense performance. Nah Watah Down ends up being a delight.
Next, and the album moves into the uplifting, Lover’s Rock-reminiscent Inna Lyfe. It’s filled with lushness and some distinctly soulful chord progressions from major to minor. Aston “Familyman” Barrett Jr is on drum duties, performing a winding one drop with some nice syncopated, dotted rhythms on the hi-hats. Goldfine’s bass is on a double time, melodically root triad-based riff, which drops the three on every bar except the fourth of each phrase. Stoch’s keys are glorious, performing a delicate bubble rhythm with wonderful decay that weaves in and out. He also doubles up his duties, providing the trombone again. This time, it sees Stoch performing a traditional response line to Arkaingelle’s main call – filled with well-placed crescendo and decrescendo. Alfred’s guitar skanks, while Goldfine’s whines and bends airily around the track. Arkaingelle delivers a reserved and measured performance – filled with subtle joy and warmth – and the whole thing is a beautiful, dreamy Lover’s Rock track with distinct overtones of Soul. Gorgeous.
Daga leaves the summery feel of Inna Lyfe and takes Nah Watah Down into ambient, lightly-touched yet pensive Dub-meets-RnB ballad territory. Barrett Jr is back on drums; again, with a one drop that’s gentle and not overbearing. But the additional syncopation on the hi-hats, rim-clicked snare and tom-toms brings intricate movement with them. The keys are once more from Stoch, this time with the focus on an organ sound. Running elongated chords which are interspersed with runs and riffs, the engineering has dampened them down to give a dream-like, astral feel to them. The most noticeable hint of Roots/Dub is Alfred’s guitar, which on occasion skanks but has been heavily reverbed and decayed to sail off into the ether. And Goldfine’s dual role here is quite brilliant. His rich, resonant bass with the amp adjusted to make it fulsome runs a drop-beat rhythm: skipping the one on the first bar, then the two and three on the second. Its dotted note riff gives the track a gentle swing as does its melodic running up and down the diatonic scale. Then, his pick guitar uses the same motif, adding additional, higher kHz depth to the track. There’s a wonderful use of what sounds like a synth horn – which sways in and out across decay and high-passing – compounding the overall otherworldly vibe, along with additional synths. Arkaingelle once more shows his intuitive skill at delivering an understated yet compelling performance. The track is gentle, unadulterated bliss.
Light Tha Torch was one of the more exciting releases in recent months, featuring the always impressive Kabaka Pyramid and the sensational Pressure. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of it here.
The interlude Babywrong Inna Fyah features Bongo Nanny & Bongo Isaac – with Goldfine’s binghi drums being totally Nyabinghi and Stoch’s trombone lazily complimenting them well.
Following on from this is Waan Pay Fah, which tacks a somewhat Revival path with its merging of Roots with something a bit Funky Hip Hop. Rankine’s drums are not a traditional one drop: the kick hits multiple beats plus the offs after the downs. Hi-hats tinker, but his snare is pared back in its dynamic on the two and four, drawing the focus away from it and losing that overly one drop drive. Goldfine’s bass is on a drop-beat rhythm; his guitar whines and bends and Alfred runs a bubble rhythm on the keys plus a skank on the guitar. Then, Stoch’s synth strings are pure Funky Hip Hop, doing up-then-down glissandos, plus a theremin-like synth (or is it a G-whistle?) is there too – all a bit Revival. And his trombone is back again, this time doing the briefest of Funky riffs. Campbell’s kette is included in all its Motherland glory, full of rapid syncopation and straight-then-dotted rhythms. Arkaingelle builds on the funky vibe, with some gorgeous, Prince-like screams up into his falsetto register and a focus on shorter notes, avoiding unnecessary elongation. Pure class and pure funky.
Guh Suh is old skool Roots at its best – shining with smart arrangements and detailed sparks of Jazz-meets-Revival ingenuity. Many traditional Roots devices are in play. Rankine is back on the drums, with a poised one drop. Lyn’s piano line at the start runs a well-arranged solo intro, but then breaks into a traditional bubble rhythm – where the bass clef runs the chords, the treble clef accompanies it but also does some delicate riffing higher up its register at points. He then circles back towards the end of the track with a wonderful, Jazzy improv section. Lyn’s keys also drop vibrato-laden chords in at points. Goldfine bass is on a drop-beat rhythm again, but this time melodically working around the diatonic scale (in keeping with the post-Rocksteady period). More trombone from Stoch, doing tongued then drawn-out responses to Arkaingelle’s calls along with a Jazzy, blue note-driven bridge which is full of growling. Synths add a touch of the Revival to things; the backing vocals are almost Doo-Wop; Arkaingelle swings his performance with precise note clipping, a forthright vocal and enunciation – and everything shouts classic, classy yet 2020 Roots at you: sympathetic to an earlier time in the genre while still being fresh. Nice.
Next, and Dat I Am is yet more fusing of styles and genres – with the focus being on Roots, but again with a Revival feel; much like Waan Pay Fah. The now-familiar musicians perform their various roles perfectly. Additionally, drums from Lloyd “Junior” Richards are back to that Hip Hop feel, driven by the kick’s obsession with the downbeats. Damian Marley’s pianist Sean “Young Pow” Diedrick comes on board, with keys that take a bubble rhythm as their base, but build on it to include a doubling-up of the rhythm at points along with some additional, RnB touches in the runs and riffs, plus a breaking out into a smoother accompaniment to Arkaingelle on the bridge. But it’s the synths and engineering which really compound Dat I Am’s sound. On the latter, the track is heavy with reverb – with its use at points very targeted to fit with the BPM and at others extremely elongated and heavy. Valls’ synths are classy too. The string arrangement is particularly well executed, providing glossy flourishes at points and bringing more Revival-esque Funky Hip Hop vibes to the track. They also drag slightly behind the beat, creating even more smoothness. Arkaingelle shows his more Soulful side across Dat I Am, working with the RnB/Soul chord progressions and also focusing more on his lower register, which is crisp and resonant. Overall, Dat I Am is thoughtful and smoky.
August Majesty moves Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down directly to a Dub-Revival vibe. Its rhythm section is rudimentary in terms of its role, driving the Dub feel of the track. The rhythmic reverb on Alfred’s guitar skank is heavy and imposing; again, all very Dub-by. Then, synths from Valls are interesting – pointing to Dub/Revival with the spaceship-like sounds. Strings also feature as does what sounds like a very high-passed horn. But on August Majesty it’s the vocal engineering which is particularly engaging. Heavy on the reverb, at points the backing line adopts the guitars rhythmic reverb, shooting it off into the distance. The use of a vocoder (or similar) gives that 90s Funky Hip Hop vibe (a la Blackstreet). And Arkaingelle’s main line takes his reserved and sensitive, almost chant-like at points, performance and adds yet more delicate reverb to give the gentlest of echoes. The end result is a track that washes over and around you, immersing itself on you. Haunting.
Bongo Isaac is back again, this time with Bongo Cutty across the interlude Purify. It’s more Nyabinghi led goodness, with a glorious trumpet line from Patrixx “Aba Ariginal” Matixx.
The track Thrones of Judgement sees Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down enter brooding, unsettling Funky Soul-Roots territory. Rankine’s drums drive this sound, with the focus on dotted rhythms on the hi-hats driving the wind. Andrew “Moon” Bain’s guitar has a slightly different timbre to its sister lines across the rest of the album. The focus on the upper kHz of the amp feels less, giving more of a rounded, bluesy vibe to its riffing and bending. Matixx is back with a smart and pointed trumpet line, which leans more towards something traditionally call and response Afrobeats (working around harmonised lines, as opposed to Ska’s octave-apart arrangement). The triplet semiquaver runs are really impressive, showing his technical skill. And Alfred turns his hand to the organ, treading a particularly pleasing series of chords, which are heavy on the vibrato. But this is laid-back and musing Funky Soul-Roots, with Arkaingelle swinging with intent across the track. But he also includes purposeful pauses for breath, enhancing the feeling of thoughtfulness, along with good use of varying dynamics, being gentle on the chorus but forthright on the verses. Stellar in its arrangement and extremely well-performed by all.
The album closes with Substance; finishing Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down on a juxtaposed cautious yet somewhat positive note. The musical arrangement is overly Roots: a one drop from Richards’ drums; drop-beat bass (missing the two) from Goldfine; Alfred delivering bubble rhythm keys and a skanking guitar; Stoch running gentle, high treble clef piano riffs and Matixx with a glorious, full trumpet line. There’s well placed reverb, and the overall construction is intricate, with breaks and instrumental layering that elevate it well above its rudimentary component parts. But this more stripped-back arrangement is perfect, here. As it allows Arkaingelle’s vocal to take centre stage. He is perhaps at his most impressive on this track, delivering a considered performance that peaks and troughs throughout – through anger and regret to humble self-confidence. It’s an utterly fitting closing and showcases both Zion I Kings’ power of composition and arrangement, but also their sympathetic work when the vocalist needs to take centre stage; as Arkaingelle does.
The album finishes proper with a Dub version of Waan Pay Fah, featuring Bongo Nanny and Wonderful Counselor.
It would be remiss not to discuss what a talented vocalist Arkaingelle is. But it almost seems unnecessary, as time and several albums later have shown him to be such. Here, what stands out is his interpretative skills and the self-control in his performances. He feels like a man who, while comfortable in both his spirituality and artistry, is also deep within his own thoughts at present. There’s not one point during Nah Watah Down where he forces his performance unnecessarily. Everything feels purposeful, and intentionally low-key – except where the lyrics demand a more forthright approach. Not only is this a sign of an artist who has reached a significant point in their journey – but also one who knows that the lyrics need to be delivered in a way that urgently conveys the message to the listener.
Lyrically, it’s clear why Arkaingelle has given us substance and style together. Overall, the album focuses on notions of spirituality, faith and oppression juxtaposed with Babylon’s nefarious agenda. From the title track’s message of standing firm in one’s beliefs in the face of the system’s pressure; Inna Lyfe’s proclamations of thanks for life and message of hope; Waan Pay Fah’s narrative about Babylon’s suppression of cannabis and August Majesty’s song of praise to Jah. But it is perhaps Substance which is the most compelling. Arkaingelle is at his most vulnerable, here – as he discusses the challenges of maintaining one’s faith and path in life against a system that is determined to both suppress and oppress you. It’s a complex piece of musical poetry; the line “Gimme back me gold and me diamond; how dare you say the poorest nation is the African” being particularly moving. The song is a testament to both Zion I Kings and Arkaingelle, and is emotive, unnerving but paradoxically uplifting all at once.
Substance’s genius sums up Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down in its entirety. The delicate yet effective hand of Zion I Kings provides a solid grounding. Then, the musicians whose qualities are infinite bring a complex yet dazzling layer of class to every composition and arrangement. The first-rate engineering and mastering have created a finished product of major label quality. And Arkaingelle’s prodigal performance and poetic lyrics complete Nah Watah Down. It is a triumph in every sense; instantly a classic and a project that will stay with the listener long after it’s release date. Stunning.
Arkaingelle Nah Watah Down review by Mr Topple (17th September 2020).