Lee “Scratch” Perry – Must Be Free – Megawave

A dub/reggae pioneer far from his prime.

Lee “Scratch” Perry – Must Be Free – Megawave MEGW0452, 58:45 [9/23/16] ***:

(Lee “Scratch” Perry – vocals; Spacewave (AKA John Palmer) – production; The Groovematist (AKA Mechial White) – production (track 2); Karienne Scott – backing vocals (track 2); IAmPhloboi (AKA Kenneth Bankhead) –production (track 12); Subatomic Sound System (AKA John Emch) – production (bonus track))

There are two statements on the back of the digipak for Lee “Scratch” Perry’s latest outing, the hour-long Must Be Free. One statement is true and one statement is misleading. There is a “Parental Advisory. Explicit Content” notice. That is factual, as some of the lyrics contain words or spoken lines meant for mature listeners. The other sentence reads, “File Under Reggae/Dub.” That’s deceptive. The 80-year-old Rainford Hugh Perry (otherwise known as Lee “Scratch” Perry) is one of the pioneers of dub music. Starting in the late ‘60s, Perry implemented sound effects and remixing to generate new instrumental or vocal versions of existing reggae music. But the 13 tracks (plus a bonus cut) on Must Be Free are most often electrontica, while some elements come from the dubstep dance genre (despite the name, dubstep has a superficial relationship to dub/reggae) and IDM (i.e., Intelligent Dance Music). This means those searching for something akin to Perry’s classic dub/reggae excursions should steer clear of this sometimes meandering mess of digitized beats.

The problem may be twofold. One concern is because Perry gave the production reins to outside producers such as Spacewave (AKA John Palmer); The Groovematist (real name: Mechial White); IAmPhloboi (the music moniker for Kenneth Bankhead) and Subatomic Sound System (John Emch’s one-man music project). A further issue is Perry’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics, which are generally hard to follow and eccentric. Some cuts are cluttered with repetitive and repetitious beats and grooves, such as “Isabel,” where a ringing bell and overdubbed vocals lead nowhere. The lengthy “Rat Race” submerges Perry under an overdone dubstep rhythm (with that genre’s prominent sub-bass frequencies), and also includes noisy effects which add to the hallucinatory disorder. The material takes another slant with “Jungle Tongue,” which melds lounge-jazz slices with monotonous beats, while Perry intones about computer chips, drops a few lyrical hints to Bob Marley and Jethro Tull, and slips in some oddball vocal effects.

The better tunes mix in acoustic instruments which augment the electronic beats. Such a strategy doesn’t necessarily save “No Evil,” but at least the song seems more humanized than the overtly digital construction found on most tunes. Good luck trying to decipher Perry’s overlapping vocalizations throughout “No Evil,” which include juxtaposed words or non sequiturs. Horns supplement “No Sorrow,” but cannot help salve the fact the beat goes into a cul de sac and never develops into anything expansive. Another example of going too far is the aptly-titled “Too Much Is Too Much,” where there is a self-aggrandizing perception of production commotion, signifying it would have been better to do less rather than more. The album’s best songs are the title track and the bonus closer. They have the nearest thing to musical unity, they are both far from Perry’s best, but offer a more persuasive allure than other tunes. The five-minute “House of Sin” remix which concludes Must Be Free is the only track which evokes Perry’s classic dub/reggae experiments, with an actual reggae rhythm, his favored use of echo, reverb and a sound similar to his 1970s studio creations. Caveat emptor: Must Be Free is a long way from Perry’s definitive output, so take a moment to preview tracks online before purchasing this effort.

TrackList: Psycho Dread; Rat Race; House of Sin; Isabel; Jungle Tongue; No Evil; No Sorrow; On Nigeria; Strip Off; Too Much Is Too Much; Therapist; Must Be Free; bonus track: House of Sin (remix)

—Doug Simpson

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