Milestone Album: Black Roots – The Frontline [1983 / Kick Records]

Black Roots have been prominent representatives of British roots reggae and its distinct sound. As reggae migrated to UK, its sound adapted to the British context. ‘The Frontline’ is an album full of heavy basslines, militant riddims, rich instrumentation and passionate delivery, offering some of the most notable anthems of the genre.

Reggae music, for the broad public, is Jamaican music that received international attention as personified by Bob Marley. Less people know that reggae music has not only spread all over the world, but has also sparkled the emergence of generations of musicians within and outside Jamaica. Talking about reggae music, the second most important centre besides Jamaica is definitely England.

The community of Caribbean immigrants has spawned some of the most uncompromised reggae acts in England like Matumbi, Steel Pulse, Misty In Roots and Aswad that inspired also international audiences. England has been a melting pot of musical styles and in the second half of 1970s became a breeding ground for rebellious music, namely ska, reggae, punk and dub. With the mix of punk and reggae, as heard by bands like ‘The Clash’, reggae was expanded also to white audiences.

What set apart British reggae bands like Steel Pulse from their Jamaican peers was a ‘harder-edge’ roots sound that was delivered with full instrumentation from the band itself as a ‘single unit’ (in contrast with Jamaican studio backing bands). Therefore, those bands are noted for their full, sophisticated sound, instrumental richness and strictly conscious/political messages. The ‘harder-edge’ sound has persisted in English reggae, ska (ska punk etc.) and dub (UK dub soundsystems). It can be perhaps attributed to the social conditions of minority groups, the modern metropolitan lifestyle and the gloomier weather.

‘Black Roots’ were formed during these turbulent times of protest in 1979, in St. Paul’s area of Bristol, England. In just a short 11-year life span as the original 8-member outfit, they put out quite a few remarkable albums. The first two, ‘Black Roots’ (1982) and ‘The Frontline’ (1983) are the most representative of the fully-instrumented British reggae sound and probably the best outputs of the band together with the BBC session album ‘In Session (1985). I decided to present their sophomore release here as it contains a couple of astonishing reggae anthems that fully encapsulate their ‘organic’ roots sound and their lyrical content of ‘militant pacifism’.

Produced by Black Roots themselves and Denny Vidal it was released by Kick records. It contains their famous song ‘Frontline’, which was commissioned by BBC to be displayed as the musical theme of a comedy series.  The series featured the relationship of two black brothers, one being a policeman while the other being a street dreadlock guy. The Frontline is a prime example of the essence of Black Roots, with a militant concrete bassline, rich instrumentation and passionate delivery.

The standout track here is ‘Blackheart Man’ that is one of the finest reggae anthems written by British reggae musicians. It is deep roots music in its pure form, with hardline heavy bass and guitar riff, chunky rhythm section and probably the most passionate and memorable vocals ever recorded by the Black Roots. ‘Blackheart Man’ incorporates a hypnotic slow vibe of soulful conscious music that defies the pressure of time, as one wishes that the incessant beat never stops. The extended version of the song displays the traditional format of original version + dub version attached at the end of the track to render it a 9:30 reggae opus.

Black Roots – Blackheart Man:

The rest of the songs are all good albeit not reaching the heights of the aforementioned numbers.  The best of them is ‘Far over’ which breaks the hardcore vibes of the ‘Frontline’ with its cheerful tones. It is a classic reggae tune with the typical ‘Africa yearning’ theme.

After this album, Black Roots continued to solidify the UK support with constant tours, releases and appearances on the radio and TV. They also toured various European countries with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Dennis Bovell and Eek A Mouse. Their sound was digressed later towards more digital sound with less of their characteristic edge; nevertheless their works were at least ‘solid’.

I believe that songs like ‘Blackheart Man’ should be a reference point for any new roots reggae music. Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge the quality of new music as it in produced in mass quantities; the way we appreciate it is anyway subjective and relative bound to our different backgrounds. In that case, landmark songs of the past can be a lighthouse for the present and future.

There are a lot of music journalists out there who label new artists as reggae, roots reggae or deep roots reggae, but even deep roots music of today sounds less original, sharp and edgy compared to ‘Blackheart Man’.

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