Subajah: Lion Album Review by Mr Topple for Pauzeradio.com.
London-based Subajah has honed his craft for many years – and the results show on his brand-new album, as this talented artist provides us with a consummate release.
Lion, released via Dashen Records, sees Subajah deliver nine tracks and a dub across a very well-engineered and mastered album – the latter being done by Noah Priddle. Across the release, quality and skilled musicians join him – however, undeniably there are no big-name producers in sight; all the better, you’d be right in thinking, because Subajah having his own hand at the tiller means Lion is a well-thought-out and complete piece of work.
The album opens with the title track. It’s a rich and brooding affair, underpinned by the swaying rhythm section, scored in Roots’ traditions: Cyrus Monkites’s keys running a choppy bubble rhythm, Barry Dread’s bass on a drop-beat riff that skips the two, and Carlaloo One Drop’s drums performing a one drop – but with the kick dampened to be barely noticeable, making the track lighter than usual.
However, it’s the additional instrumentation which really cements the forthright sound. The horn arrangement, featuring Henry “Buttons” Matic’s trombone, Patrixx Matic’s trumpet, and Sarah Tobias’s sax, is crucial to the overall feel. It sways from forthright, staccato punches to elongated notes that are laced with crescendo and decrescendo. Additionally, James Shepards’ lead guitar line is rasping and wailing – evoking something Rock-Soul as well as a feeling of unsettledness.
Harmonie Dèja’s backing vocals are excellently arranged – swerving from straight harmonisation to call and response. There’s some pleasing additional percussion, including a güiro. Then, Subajah’s vocal finishes this off. He showcases his ability to perform like a Soul singer, here – bringing dynamic light and shade across a delivery which flips between his clear, controlled tenor and a delicate yet dynamic falsetto. Lyrically, Lion describes his determination to be a ‘lion’ in the face of Babylon’s mendacity – and overall, the track is a strong opener to the project.
Next, and EQ sees the pace wound back slightly, but still with some of Lion’s musical intricacies in place. The rhythm section is once again on a Roots vibe – albeit this time with the keys performing more of an embellished bubble rhythm, with some nice riffs on the fourth beat of some bars. Tenjas’ guitar is on a Rock-Soul vibe, but here more restrained in terms of its dynamics and timbre (less rasping, more mellow) – giving a slightly melancholier vibe.
Overall, this is the extent of the arrangement: unfussy, pointed, and restrained – which is a perfect backdrop for Subajah’s performance, here. Vocally, he delivers an urgent refrain, focusing less on rhythmic intricacy and more on melodic interest – expertly winding up and down his extensive tenor range, performing some impressive tonal leaps in the process. EQ is less about dynamic light and shade and more about melodic embellishment, which he pulls off perfectly – delivering a vocal which is as impassioned as the lyrics are.
EQ (its lyrical namesake being ‘equal rights’) deals with how those of a conscious nature deal with Babylon and the system (“the place on fire; evacuate”) plus its proponents (“loyal to evil, they never ever cheat on them”). It’s a rallying cry to “free up the sufferers and the activists” and destroy the system that is suppressing us all. Subajah gives a moving sermon – “sufferation is still feeding the elite” – and overall, EQ is affecting and engaging.
Happiness Remembers is a tone shift from its predecessors – moving straight into something heavily Soul-influenced, which could be classed as Lovers Rock from the 90s: that breezy, easy-on-the-ear sound with distinct tropical vibes. Once again, Reggae fundamentals are present – but the sound is smoothed out; for example, the keys’ bubble rhythm is less choppy and there’s an increase in the embellishment of its line, which tinkers gently almost out of earshot. Tobias’s sax is particularly pleasing, here taking centre stage at points, almost like an additional vocal line. There’s a glorious Dub-themed bridge – complete with reverb, a stripped-back musical arrangement, and some nice engineering.
Subajah shows he can turn his hand to any style, delivering a soulful and sensual performance across a pleasing melody. Lyrically, the ‘lost love’ theme is not unusual, but he gives it a revamp here – and the result is a pleasing deviation from what’s come before it.
System Overload quickly shifts Lion back to conscious, unsettling territory – this time, with some keen attention to instrumental detail. The rhythm section is dominated by the bass – which fails to drop a beat, instead winding around a complex melody that creates a sense of movement when juxtaposed with the choppy yet incessant keys, and the somewhat meandering drums – which, while still focusing on a one drop, see the hi-hats performing a persistent, double time rhythm, while the snare and cymbals occasionally break out into something more fluid.
However, System Overload draws itself into you using synths – evoking something dystopian, and almost Synthwave in inspiration. The rasping, shrill, and piercing synth horns are highly evocative – running strung-out lines in the background at times, but with an ominous feeling. Similarly, there’s great use of an electric organ which contrasts the horns, plus a haunting almost theremin synth too. Shepards’ guitar once again plays a crucial role – complementing the horns stark influence perfectly, and there’s another great Dub bridge as well as strong backing vocals from Supa Dona.
Subajah delivers an equally haunting vocal, here. His delivery is very staccato at points, focusing on rhythmic dynamism over melodic complexities. However, those impressive tonal jumps are still there – and dynamically, he varies his performance, coupling this with some urgent vibrato, too. Naturally, the lyrical line fits this perfectly, as he laments the state of the world and how it impacts all of us – misleading us in the process – especially those who are conscious. It’s stirring stuff, and impressive.
Then, Love is Still Around once again rolls the album back to something Lovers Rock – with its swaying, delicate rhythm section, notably accompanied by a gorgeous electric organ from First Eye and some pleasing guitar work from Shepards. Of pleasure are the chord progressions, here – perfectly switching between major and minor across the bridges to create that heart string-pulling sound and generating interest. Dèja shows her skill yet again on backing vocals, and Subajah is once again on point, with some nice vocal work and attractive and relatable lyrics. The whole thing shows this artist is equally at home in Lovers Rock as he is Roots.
Survival featuring Ijah is a regal, Old Skool Roots cut – with a dominant and imposing rhythm section, underscored by a bass which works way down its register, creating an ominous and imposing sound like rumbling thunder. Drums are also dominant – notably the kick, which comes into its own for the first time on Lion.
However, the horns are again the centrepiece – here evoking that monarchical, majestic, but forthright sound synonymous with Roots and the African horn trumpets’ symbol of kingly power. Their arrangement is unfussy but pointed, much like the organ in the background as well as Subajah’s guitar line – which waits patiently until the end to break out into something forthright.
Vocally, Ijah is gruff and stern – which juxtaposes with Subajah’s more rounded vocal perfectly. The two play off against each other well, and the contrasts in their voices suit. “God is a banker” sums up Survival’s lyrical perfectly – with Subajah and Ijah lamenting the state of the world for those of us at the bottom: the daily grind of simply ‘getting by’, which leads to a dog-eat-dog mentality – all while those at the top laugh at our subjugation and division. A brilliant track, which sounds like a classic of the genre already.
Dèja comes out from backing vocal duties to take co-centre stage with Subajah on Rock Easy – a choppy, swaying, yet still mellow Lovers Rock duet. The arrangement is pleasing and interesting – scored with keen attention to detail on keeping the sound light, airy, and forward-moving, while the two singers’ melodies are equally well-constructed.
Dèja has a very accomplished voice, which we already knew from her backing work – but here it comes to the fore. She has a decent vocal range, easily working up and down a mid-soprano, and taking on the complex rhythms and melodies. Her control is good – showing she can employ crescendo and decrescendo to good effect, while also possessing an attractive vibrato. Her voice pairs perfectly with Subajah’s – and the Lovers’ lyrics coupled with the musical and vocal backdrop makes for an attractive experience.
Crisis takes Lion back to its conscious Roots. The rhythm section here is particularly choppy, reflecting the urgency of the narrative – with the keys particularly involved on top of their standard bubble rhythm. The guitar work is particularly important – with a wah-wah’d skanking rhythm guitar being on a double-time riff, almost giving the impression of panicked voices in the background. There’s some brilliant kete work from Nyasimba – pattering like thunder, again creating evocative feelings.
Subajah’s vocal across Crisis feels particularly impassioned. He is dynamically forthright throughout most of the track – except for the occasional use of pianissimo when entering his falsetto range. Otherwise, he’s projecting to the point of almost going into an enraged spoken word at one point, with very good punctuation of syllables to accentuate the lyrics.
The narrative is strong as well, as Subajah discusses the eternal crises that engulf society – which, ultimately, is one single crisis; that of Babylon’s control and power over the rest of us in the interests of the few: “them not really care about us, the poorest still fight many battles”, as Subajah says. Stirring and pertinent.
The album partially concludes with Cornerstone – the first track to veer from an overly Roots/Soul influence, and it’s all the better for it. Here, Subajah has delivered something which draws influence from multiple sources, notably Nyabinghi and traditional African music. Central to this are Nyasimba’s kete – offering a consistent beat throughout, as well as some additional rhythmic patterns, which compound the Nyabinghi feel.
Acoustic guitars then bring in something more traditional African, as they lilt and wind through the track. However, Subajah excels himself with the additional stylistic touches – like the piano line, which feels like it would be at home in Jazz as it tinkers around in an almost improv fashion, throwing in blue notes here and there as well. But melodically, it also draws influence from Africa – because when it’s high up its register the arrangement feels like a fluttering kora.
The inclusion of a cello brings something grand and cinematic to Cornerstone – and these combined with the Nyabinghi and African elements, and the superbly constructed major to minor chord progressions, make the track moving, humbling, regal, yet delicate; a summation of the subject matter, as Subajah sings praises to Jah.
It’s undeniable that, if you’re not a Roots purest, then Cornerstone is musically perhaps the strongest track of the entire album. Consequently, Subajah arguably gives his best vocal performance, too – as his heartfelt love and passion leaps out at you via his exquisite vocal performance. He shows just how skilled he is at restrained performance here – particularly notable across the purposeful chorus, and the slow, melodic riff across the one-syllable ‘way’ – not easy to execute, but Subajah does it pitch perfectly.
It’s hard to overstate just how brilliant Cornerstone is: moving, thought-provoking, highly engaging, and the highlight of the album.
Lion concludes properly with Lioness – a dub which places Tobias’s sax at the forefront. She is highly skilled, using her instrument like a human voice. Tobias’s use of dynamics is powerful, her riffing and running-inspired, and the sheer quality of the improvisation here is undeniable. It’s refreshing to hear an instrumentalist being given centre stage on a dub – and Lioness is of particularly high quality.
Overall, Lion is a strong, expertly constructed, and engaging affair. The conscious tracks are thought-provoking and musically evocative; the Lovers Rock cuts are pleasing and enjoyable, and the finale of Cornerstone and Lioness are welcome inclusions – particularly the former which is utterly spellbinding. Subajah has created a solid and inspired body of work – one that showcases his skill brilliantly.
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Subajah – Lion Review by Mr Topple / Pauzeradio PR Services (11th February 2024).