Luciano: The Answer Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Luciano is one of the veterans of Reggae. So, any album release from him is going to be closely watched across the industry. Fortunately, his latest project will cement his legendary status.
Luciano The Answer, released via Oneness Records, sees Luciano tread a delicate and well-crafted tightrope between traditional Roots and more soulful flavours. Production from Oneness’s always on-point Moritz v.Korff and Benjamin Zecher, and mixing/mastering by Umberto Echo, remove the need for much to be said, except ‘class’ and ‘quality’ (as you’d expect from the label). And the album itself represents a diversification for Luciano – as the influence of Soul throughout is dominant.
This merging of styles first appears in the opening track, The Music – seeing him team up with Jesse Royal. It’s ostensibly Roots in its formation, erring on the more traditional side of the genre – but then with elements of Dub cascading in. The keys perform a deliciously old skool bubble rhythm (the left-hand dropping chords on the offbeats while the right at times tinkers around embellished riffs and additional chords). A drop-beat bass (missing the third) is more Dub in its formation, using semiquaver-led rhythms that almost mimic the main melody. The use of reverb and samples across the track is also heavily Dub-led.
But interestingly, the drums avoid a classic one drop. While the snare accents the two and four and the hi-hats fill in the breathing space on double time rhythms – the kick hits the downbeats. This persistent and almost brooding vibe brings an air of Funky Hip Hop/Soul to the track – compounded by the grandiose colla voce breaks (where the music takes the rhythmic lead and tempo from the singer). The horns are pretty fine and funky, too – but with some Dub reverb and decay added for good measure. Compositionally, the clever switching between major and minor root chords adds to this vibe – and the whole package is a smart, musical reflection of the steadfast yet cautious tale of how the system would like conscious music shut down. Royal and Luciano are also a perfect match, with the former’s lighter timbre offsetting against Luciano’s well.
Build A Better Land builds upwards and to the side of the Funky Soul influences seen on The Music – not least the strutting then sliding opening. Once more, Roots/Dub sensibilities are all present in the bass (which flips between various drop beat riffs and mimics the melody’s rhythm at times) and bubble rhythm keys. But v.Korff and Zecher have embellished the track further than this. Drums revert to a one drop, but with additional rhythmic instrumentation, bold rolls across cymbals and the snare doing rims clicks as well as open skin hits. Then, they’ve brought in elements of Funky Soul. The whining electric guitars not only skank, but also riff with added bend. An electric organ performs rapid-fire chords at times, hammering home this additional genre more. The heavily harmonised, multi-voice backing vocals with their focus on call and response are pure Soul. And, there’s a brilliant use of an 80s-style synth horn effect, which runs a countermelody to Luciano’s across the bridge. Overall, Build A Better Land is smooth and soulful with an infectious melody to boot. Delicious.
Next, and Take Me To The Place strips Luciano The Answer back to something more Dub. It’s unfussy in its arrangement, with the core instruments’ duties pleasingly arranged: more bubble rhythm keys, a drop beat bass, some skanking then riffing guitars and a one drop set of drums. There’s heavy use of Dub mechanisms, not least the pointed breaks, stripped-back sequences and the elongated reverb across the keys and synths. But what v.Korff and Zecher have done so well is to arrange the track to allow two main lines to stand out: the horns and vocals, which work together almost as one section. The punchy, Ska-like horns are actually somewhat ambiguous: the melodic arrangement, with the instruments working in harmony, is more Soul (Ska horns tend to work octaves apart but in unison). But the snappy rhythmic arrangement is pure Ska, as is the call and response pattern. It’s this which works so well with the vocal lines, too. At times it interplays with the backing vocals, offering up a rhythmic mimic, then at others offering a response to Luciano’s call – and sometimes running a countermelody. The backing vocals are pure Gospel, too – working around responses, vowel-led harmonies and straight mimic duties. Take Me To The Place is rousing, stirring and warm – a perfect song of praise.
Iba Mahr joins proceedings on The Victory. It’s a more orchestrated Roots cut than what’s come before it – and like Build A Better Land, with a stirring Funky Soul opening before settling into rich, intricate Roots. The complex bass is the driving force, pushing the momentum of the track forward. It works around a rapid-fire rhythm across diatonic melodies, with a pick technique used to give it a rawer feel than on previous tracks. The electric guitars throughout are off in a world of their own, with complex runs and riffs across different octaves – but they complement the overall vibe perfectly. v.Korff and Zecher have embellished the drum line further than a straight one drop, with additional use of tom-toms, plenty of cymbal rolls mid-bar and dotted hi-hat rhythms. The additional use of block and a vibraslap add further to this musically complex picture. Horns finish it all off beautifully; not overused, but included at just the right places to add flourish. And Luciano and Mahr’s vocals complement all this – both working across detailed rhythmic patterns, playing to the instrumental arrangement well, and with some lovely improvisation and back-and-forth runs. Glorious.
I Wonder sees Luciano go full-on thoughtful Soul, albeit with Roots devices still in play. The latter genre is predominantly represented by the keys bubble rhythm, which is rapid due to the pacey BPM of the track. But it focuses on the lower half of the treble clef and its bass counterpart – which immediately removes some of the Roots vibe and replaces it with something deeper and richer. Drums perform a fairly regimental one drop with cymbals flourishes for musical accents, and the bass loses the first beat of the bar also. Electric guitars riff at times, complimenting the vocal line. But the pace of the track and the arrangement of the other instrumentation make I Wonder feel more Soul than Roots. An electric organ serves a dual purpose – hitting the two and fours with vibrato-heavy, stretched out chords on the chorus, then doing the same again on the verses but rhythmically staccato, along with some funky riffs. A brilliant string arrangement is also dominant during the verses, coming in towards the end of every other bar on semiquaver riffs, which extend into the start of the next. It’s this, when merged with the other elements, which make I Wonder such a smart and progressive composition from v.Korff and Zecher. Because the strings rolling across the start of the bar, coupled with the use of the lower register in the majority of instruments, gives depth of timbre and a lushness to the track – and the whole thing feels Soul, not Roots, despite what technically is present. Ingenious – and a distant melodica, only audible occasionally, paves the way for the next track.
The album’s title track opens with a melodica solo (an excellent piece of musical continuity from the previous track), directing you towards what’s to come. It’s a poignant historical nod, too – as The Answer actually veers towards the sound that’s come out of the Revival movement in recent years. The use of a synth theremin across the track is particularly pleasing, bringing some astral ambience to the fold – as do some well-placed synths. The drums again avoid a one drop, with the kick hitting the first beat, then the ‘two-and’, before also the three and four. This more Hip Hop feel, accompanied by a heavier use of hi-hats compared to the snare (the former being rhythmically intricate as opposed to repetitive at times), again cements the modern feel. Some nicely elongated reverb makes the keys bubble rhythm wind off into the distance at points, as the decay flows in and out in peaks and troughs. This is also added on the guitars – and the whole track is Revival, personified. Again not only does it show the versatility and musical ingenuity of v.Korff and Zecher, but also Luciano – whose voice fits perfectly into the current movement.
Next, and both Jah Army and Use Jah Words (featuring the exceptional Runkus) take The Answer back to more traditional Roots. The latter is particularly well-arranged (across the Oneness Riddim) with an exceptionally purposeful horn section doing a proper response to the two vocalists’ calls. Dub is a key influencer here, as well – again with deftly positioned breaks and reverb. And Runkus is a joy to hear, effortlessly gliding across complex rhythms while maintaining an impressive level of enunciation and intonation.
Luciano breaks from the more brooding sound with Nuh Play Ting, a thoroughly old skool affair, working around just the root chord and the minor seventh. It has a real Sound System feel about it, at points, with its stripped-back arrangement, sharp horns, bare backing vocals and old skool bass – which holds a repetitive rhythm focusing around the triad of the root chord. This works exceptionally well, given the juxtaposition of this almost carefree, Dancehall vibe with the subject matter: a desperate cry from Luciano about gun violence that is ravaging Jamaica and the rest of the world. It’s intelligent music at its peak, a commendable piece of composition from v.Korff and Zecher and lyrically from Luciano.
Ah We Dis is another move into more Revival territory; perhaps bolder than The Answer’s title track as the instrumentation is highly complex. The bass is the centrepiece with its incessant riff across the diatonic scale being unsettling and piercing; melodically clever as it gets into your head. There’s also an excellent interplay between it and the tinny, scratching synth horns – where the bass does the opening phrase, and they then respond with it, both using a melodic motif that features across the track. The bass’s opening phrase is another melodic and rhythmic motif, too, that’s replicated by a wah-wah’d electric guitar in its lower register and at times the synth horns. This compositional trick serves to make Ah We Dis a veritable earworm, getting into your head and refusing to leave. The forthright, Hip Hop-feeling drums cement this – and you’re left with the song punching around in your head long after the track finished. Inspired.
Luciano The Answer closes with Stronger. It’s a fitting end to the project for various reasons. Firstly, it features the incredible Jahcoustix, one of the most exciting talents to emerge in recent years – and sums up the ‘traditional meets modern’ nature of the album. His interplay across the track with Luciano is joyous; their voices almost being made for one another. Then, you have interspersed elements of all the genres and styles that came before Stronger on The Answer: Roots across the rudimental musical devices; Soul with the bending and whining Funky guitars and the brilliant backing vocals (which almost nod to the Buddah/Motown heyday – check the “choo-choo”), and Dub with the breaks and reverb. But moreover, Stronger is a fitting thematic end. Upbeat, both lyrically and metronomically, it finishes off The Answer on a positive, uplifting note – and one which lingers in the memory.
The talent of v.Korff and Zecher is undisputable. It would be remiss not to also mention the exceptionally strong horn section, present on most of the tracks: Hannes “Al Caphorn” Herrmann, Stefan Heller and Sidney Aaron Lutara. Nikki Burt provides many of the backing vocals, and is a gifted artist in her own right. But this is of course Luciano’s vehicle, and not only is he in the driving seat, but he’s sat firmly in pole position too.
It’s almost as if his voice has got better with age. Across The Answer, Luciano delivers strong, Soul-led performances. His tone is rich and rounded, with just enough gravel so as not to sound too technically focused. His range is still broad – covering a full tenor and dipping up into a falsetto at points. And the vibrato is glorious: controlled, measured and with varying degrees of intensity depending on the point in the track he’s at. But it’s his ability to interpret lyrics which truly makes him stand out. From the searing and scalding Nuh Play Ting, to the almost melancholy and despondent I Wonder – Luciano approaches them all as if it’s the first time he’s performed them. He’s a talented lyricist, too – being able to mix some brutal political and social messages with some more positive reflections on life and spirituality.
If there was a standout track overall, it would have to be I Wonder. Not only is it a genius composition from v.Korff and Zecher, but Luciano’s lyrics are perhaps at their strongest. Lamenting how, even though ‘we’ were created in God’s image, it has all gone so awry for our species. As he sings, “I wonder why, man has disturbed the master’s plan. And I wonder when we’ll learn to live as one”. A pertinent set of thoughts during these troubled times.
Luciano The Answer is sheer class. Expertly composed, arranged and produced by v.Korff and Zecher, it continues Oneness’s reign as one of the most inventive and talented labels in the business. But moreover, it shows that Luciano is still at the peak of his powers. Thoroughly accessible while still being intricate, Luciano The Answer is the perfect blend of ‘old-meets-new’, bringing this legendary artist right into the 2020’s – and cementing his position at the pinnacle of Roots for years to come. Quality, quality, quality.
Luciano The Answer Review by Mr Topple (26th July 2020).