Norris Man Deep Conversations Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
Legendary artist Norris Man has returned with a new album; a collaboration with an up-and-coming label. And as the release shows, when an artist with decades of experience joins forces with one of the newer names to emerge onto the scene – the result is positively vibrant.
Deep Conversations, released via Train Line Records, is a masterclass in how to do modern Roots Reggae that is both sympathetic to the historical culture while maintaining a sound that still sounds fresh. Production comes from Train Line founder Real Mckoy, which is of a standard worthy of a major label. Then, Reggae/Dub legends Sam Gilly, Dean Fraser and Dave Richards have provided the musicianship. The backing vocals from Twiggy, Krysi Webb (from the collective Kuzikk Callab) and Shema McGregor (daughter of Freddie) are exceptionally strong throughout – well-delivered with an excellent level of attention to detail on style and substance; highly commended.
As a sum of its parts, Norris Man, Mckoy and the team have created a powerful record which sweeps across subgenres of Reggae: from Roots, Reggae-Soul via Lover’s Rock and Dub – while also stopping off at some more eclectic points along the way.
The album opens with Houses of Parlement: a deep-dive into traditional Roots Reggae meets Soul. The flow is sublime: a gorgeous arrangement of chord progressions; traditional musical devices such as a choppy bubble rhythm of the keys, a drop-beat bass and forward-moving drums but an overall composition that is understated which gives the vocalists a chance to take centre-stage. The engineering is particularly pleasing – as the finished tone is warm and rich. But the real joys here are multiple. The backing vocals are sublime, consisting of straight harmonisation and really well-placed call and response formations. There are several brilliant breaks, which take Houses of Parlement into Soul territory – where most of the instruments fall away leaving the keys running attractive melodies. The main vocal melodic line is well-composed and infinitely memorable across the chorus – while the soulful opening, closing and bridge juxtapose perfectly with the overall Reggae vibe. Norris Man and Anthony B are perfectly placed together – with the performances being engaging and forthright. And the lyrical content is timely and pertinent – about how corrupt politicians and the “biggest gangsters” that reside in the Houses of Parliament while meting-out policies that leave the rest of us in abject poverty surrounded by violence. Overall, Houses of Parlement is a really strong and affecting track and a superb opening for the album.
Juvenile slows the pace of Deep Conversations down somewhat and smooths the vibes out, too. It’s still overly Reggae: keys on the bubble rhythm but with additional syncopated riffs throughout; drums are on a one-drop and the bass is on a drop-beat rhythm that misses the three. But here, the production has been expanded upon. There’s a pleasing use of an electric organ that runs staccato chords at points. Norris Man’s main vocal is laced with reverb to create a haunting effect. Some well-placed synth horns bring in something throwback and Synthwave to the mix. Again, the main melodic line is infectious and well-constructed. Lilting electric guitars whine in and out at points and the additional percussion adds pleasing depth to the rhythm section. Norris Man’s performance here is more restrained and almost vulnerable: filled with dynamic light and shade, attention to detail in terms of note length and excellent use of syllable emphasis. He’s created a lyrical narrative that is pleading with the youth to realise that cultures of violence and anger are what Babylon wants them to engage with – and how they need to ‘come out of’ this. It’s a well-constructed and compelling track.
The-almost title track (in the singular) is taken from Train Line Records Night-in-Gale Riddim and is almost Lover’s Rock in nature. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of it and the entire riddim here.
Then, Deep Conversations moves into Reggae-Soul territory with I’m a Lover (from Train Line Records previously release Emblematic Riddim). There are some Reggae elements in play, here – from the keys’ bubble rhythm to the electric organ which does a half-time version. The engineering and mastering are once again to be commended – as it’s different again to previous tracks, here allowing all the instrumental lines to shine in their own way. But what Train Line and Co have done so well is to shift the musical emphasis into Soul – like the half-walking bass line that hits every beat. The lilting acoustic guitar line washes over the track as a countermelody. But then this gentle vibe is juxtaposed by a heavily wah-wah’d electric guitar low-down its register, which growls and groans at points. A well-placed G Funk whistle sings a dulcet line high-up the treble clef. Norris Man’s vocal is powerful – filled with yearning higher-up his tenor register, as he shifts dynamics with ease and also employs more drawn-out note lengths. His vocal riffs are strong (that of a Soul singer); the backing vocals again complement his main line perfectly and overall, I’m a Lover is a smooth, sensual and brooding Reggae-Soul track.
On Your Mind switches the musical style up again. The instrumentation is stripped right back to create a sparse yet conversely more focused sound. The rhythm section is still Reggae: keys on a delicate bubble rhythm and a skanking guitar. But the bass is smoother and more fluid than Reggae (back to Soul again) and drums avoid a technical one drop, with the kick hitting the downbeats. There’s some pleasing arrangement too, including hollowed-out breaks, bridges with just keys and bass with some funk guitar riffing, too. And Fraser’s sax line is pure bliss – as he provides responses to Norris Man’s calls, higher up the register with varying, almost vocal-quality vibrato and ebbing and flowing dynamics, accompanied by a deft switching between staccato and legato. Norris Man is once more highly soulful – this time, treading a path which uses more of his vocal register with some impressive large jumps between tones and a pleasing baritone sound in his lower register. His improvisation is well-executed and there’s sufficient dynamic light and shade, too. On Your Mind is a smooth and soulful Lover’s Rock track – with Fraser’s sax being a high-point.
We’re back to Reggae with As I Rise – and here the arrangement is also back to being complex and multi-layered. As Deep Conversations is proving, the chord arrangements are particularly pleasing once again – being majority major but switching to minor in the chorus (fitting the lyrical content perfectly). The instrumental arrangement is perhaps the most authentic to Old Skool Reggae to this point: keys on a bubble rhythm, a skanking guitar, one drop drums, an electric organ on straight chords and backing vocals that switch from harmonisation to call and response. But still, Train Line has brought further elements into play. The G Funk whistle is back; there’s some lovely additional percussion including a well-placed vibraslap and the bass is more meandering, hitting all beats, more than usual for Reggae. Norris Man is excellent once more, tackling a complex melody with ease with yet more attention to detail. But as touched on earlier, the lyrical content and composition marry perfectly. Dealing with those who ‘fall for anything’ Babylon tells them, the verses in the major key deal with the personal faith and wisdom that many of us are fortunate to have – while the choruses in the minor key details people’s fall from grace under the system. It’s a clever arrangement and overall, the track works very well.
Builders of Rome once again brings further genre-mixing to the fore. There’s something distinctly soulful about the Reggae-based arrangement – in spite of the keys’ bubble rhythm and a bass on a half drop-beat rhythm. For example, the drums are more forthright and the bass runs semiquavers, giving momentum. Once more, the engineering and mastering are different – here, with a tone that’s been high-passed to create a sharp feel that accentuates the higher Hz instruments while still leaving the bass prominent. Across the additional instrumentation, the electric organ arrangement almost has choral overtones – as it runs vibrato’d chords across breves. Meanwhile, a slide whistle ‘slides’ in and out and the G Funk whistle makes a return with an attractive melody. The electric guitar also takes centre-stage at points, with a rasping and whining solo line filled with emotive bending and tremolo. There’s more inclusion of distinctly 80s Synthwave sounds – including pads and those synth horns; Norris Man is forthright and commanding with his vocal; the lyrics about those proponents of the system that are destroying us and the planet are compelling – and overall, the track is ingenious and interesting.
Dignified takes the Reggae sound and inserts some distinctly 1980s Synthwave vibes into the mix. The ‘usual suspects’ are present: keys on a bubble rhythm, the snare hitting the upbeats, hi-hats filling in the space in-between and backing vocals to boot. The bass here works around a pre-Rocksteady melodic arrangement of arpeggio (broken) chords. Also, the kick is on a double-time Four to the Floor arrangement (that is, quavers) which almost gives the vibe of Steppers. The Synthwave elements include those obligatory horns but now also strings, which stab then sway in and out nicely. One electric guitar is rasping while another skanks; Norris Man’s performance is emotive and impassioned as he sings praises to Jah while reminding us all to be humble in life – and overall, Dignified is a forward-moving, relentless track that cleverly traverses the line between rapid Steppers and straighter Reggae.
Shine Your Light is the lead track from Deep Conversations – and it’s easy to see why Train Line and Norris Man picked this. It sits predominantly in Roots Reggae but with distinct Song of Praise/Gospel vibes littered throughout. You can read Pauzeradio’s full review of the track here.
Then, These are the Reasons switches things up yet again – as Reggae is dropped entirely from play, replaced with something more Alt RnB (what used to be called Neo Soul) in terms of the mashing-up of genres. The engineering and mastering here are particularly pleasing – with a rich tone that hones in on both the guitar and synth elements while also giving prominence to the backing vocals (coupled with some atmospheric reverb). Hip Hop features heavily on the drum arrangement with the dominant hi-hat and snare across dotted rhythms. Soul is repped by the lilting, low-register acoustic guitar line which pleasingly opens the track with arpeggio chords and settles into these as it moves forward. Backing vocals are distinctly Gospel in terms of the heavy harmonies and call and response arrangement. But that Synthwave feel is back again with those iconic synth horn and string lines and the use of some major-minor chord progressions and key changes. Norris Man takes this Smorgasbord of styles in his stride – fitting into it perfectly with a soulful performance that shows passion, impressive vocal riffs and runs and lyrics that plead with us to show unity in the face of Babylon’s nefariousness – while showing us why we need to do this to. For a Reggae album, non-Reggae These are the Reasons is a very impressive track and due to its bold composition and arrangement, is perhaps one of Deep Conversations’ stand-out moments.
Time is Wasted is an almost anti-Lover’s Rock track with a forward-moving BPM and the minor key creating an ominous, unsettling tone. It’s one of the more Reggae-orientated tracks on the album. The keys’ bubble rhythm is prominent, from which they rarely stray (not even to syncopate the end of bars). There’s a strong one-drop from the drums, which an electric organ replicates a guitar skank across chords. But the bass is very fluid, running a dotted note-led riff which avoids the pre-Rocksteady arpeggio chords trick – opting for a melody that winds up and down its register. There’s a very attractive electric guitar line which winds in and out at points, then its acoustic cousin runs a lilting melody out of the left input. The backing vocals are forthright: punctuated call and response in pattern and very effective. Norris Man is bitter and dejected – bringing a softer tone and dynamic in at points before breaking out into a more forte tone. But what’s lovely about Time Is Wasted is its soulful, non-Reggae opening which is a joy. Another strong track, showcasing Norris Man’s expressive abilities really well.
Deep Conversations closes with Wicked Man World, which first almost makes the album feel like its gone full circle. Because here, like Houses of Parlement, the focus is on Roots Reggae but with a healthy and pleasing dose of Soul – not least the grandiose opening which sets the tone perfectly. There’s no need to discuss the Reggae elements, as the rudimentary parts are all in play. What stands out here are several things. First, the chord progressions are once again emotive and engaging. These are complemented by the main melody, which winds up and down melodically and rhythmically and is intricate but forward-moving – creating something memorable. The track also closes with that purposeful and elegant Soul-style arrangement again – once more evoking emotion. The backing vocals here are really quite brilliant – filled with anger and punctuation, tight harmonies and rhythmic patterns that match Norris Man’s performance perfectly. And what a performance that is. He’s furious and unrelenting throughout – constantly forthright and forward-moving, using a higher level of dynamic to hammer-home the angry messages aimed at Babylon’s proponents while keeping the enunciation clean and melody on-point. He delivers great improvisation and some forthright, near screaming, sections. Overall, Wicked Man World is the perfect conclusion to the album and sums up its expansive and quality-driven content perfectly.
Overall, Deep Conversations is a powerhouse work from Norris Man, Train Line and the team. What really stands out is the quality of the compositions and production/engineering – because the majority of the tracks are extremely strong and deserve airplay. The arrangements are inventive and pleasing; the production rich and detailed; Norris Man is at the peak of his musical and lyrical powers and overall, Deep Conversations is a highly accomplished release that cements Train Line Records as a force to be reckoned with – and provides another sterling release in Norris Man’s catalogue.
For more information read the press release for this album here.
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Norris Man Deep Conversations Album Review by Mr Topple / Pauzeradio PR Services (20th May 2022).