Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Let Us Remember: The Congos's "Ark of the Covenant"

In "The Upsetter," the 2008 documentary about Lee "Scratch" Perry, Perry blames the group The Congos and all their many rastafarian friends for tainting his Black Ark studio with rampant drug use, endless mooching, and racism (he claims that God was punishing him for believing in the rasta idea of white people as devils), forcing him to burn it down in a spiritual act of cleansing.

Hearing Perry talk about his time with the Congos without hearing the album that resulted, The Heart of the Congos, you might assume their collaboration was a mess, an ugly testament to an ugly time. But The Heart of the Congos is one of the greatest reggae albums ever made. Combining Perry's Black Ark sound, with its protean bass sound and cave-like echo, and the Congos's deeply spiritual roots reggae sound, the album sounds as vital as ever, forever being what you hand to Bob Marley fans and say "This is the real stuff."

One of the single biggest influence on reggae vocalists since the 1960s has been Curtis Mayfield, and when you hear "Ark of the Covenant," you'll know why. Nothing sounds better over a huge low end than a keening falsetto, and here it's supplied by Congo Cedric Myton. Perry provides the perfect ambience for the group's harmonies, creating echo effects that sound like wind blowing through palms and hi-hats that hiss like smoke released from craters. When the group stops singing at around 2:26, you get nothing less than a clinic on Black Ark dub, with rock-like snares and gurgling, underwater reverb.

Speaking of Black Ark dub....Not to sound like a jerk, but pretty much every next level musical trick you've ever heard was done by Lee Perry first, thirty or forty years ago. From Timbaland using a crying baby as a musical instrument to M.I.A.'s bird squawk percussion on "Bird Flu" to almost anything Animal Collective has done over the past few years, Perry thought of it first, and as opposed to holding this over newer artists as a taunt, I think this fact should encourage fans of those artists to seek out something or everything by the man (plus then you don't look like an idiot when you're talking about how brilliant and original your favorite artist and how "no one else would have thought of that.")

Soulful, sad, a litle creepy, and heavy in every sense of the word, "Ark of the Covenant" and The Heart of the Congos needs to be remembered.