At 75 years of age, Lee “Scratch” Perry should be declared a living cultural treasure and receive the protection and reverence usually reserved artists only after they are long dead. The only other musician of his age that comes close to matching Scratch’s output and longevity is Willie Nelson.
Long considered one of the most innovative producers in popular music, Perry is perhaps best known for helping Bob Marley launch his career in the late ‘60s. He was also responsible for many stylistic breakthroughs in recording and is often credited with inventing dub music and pioneering the field of sound sampling. Over the past four decades, he has produced and played on literally thousands of records — each marked by Perry’s highly individualistic approach, characterized by his refusal to be held back by the technological limitations imposed by the primitive Jamaican recording studios of the day. Since he famously torched his Black Ark recording studio in a fit of pique in the ‘80s, Perry has changed his focus from production to performance and today is primarily known as a singer and songwriter whose surrealistic stream-of-consciousness rants have earned him flocks of admirers who wouldn’t usually give reggae music the time of day.
Perhaps Lee Perry — like Willie Nelson — has never heard of retirement as Rise Again, his long anticipated collaboration with Bill Laswell, the respected New York producer, is his sixth album of new material to be released in little more than three years. Such a prolific pace of releases might suggest that the material on Rise Again; would be subpar, bottom of the barrel songs left over from other sessions, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, Rise Again is the Lee Perry record that his fans have been waiting for, and much of the credit for this rests with Bill Laswell. Laswell, of course, is no stranger to dub as his catalogue of reggae-inspired releases attests, but for this outing he has wisely opted to tone down his own trademark sonic manipulations and has instead constructed a set of soundtracks that pay tribute to the style of music Perry produced in his late ‘70s heyday. Beautiful swooping horns, understated guitar and crunching drum and bass rise and fall from the speakers as the septuagenarian singer offers up some of his most inspired lyrics in years. Songs like “Higher Level” and “Wake the Dead” are every bit the equal of the best solo work he’s recorded and evidence a care and attention to song craft that has not always been present in his recent work. The dub-heavy “ET” and “Butterfly” are masterworks of the form, and more dancehall influenced numbers like “African Revolution” and “House of God” demonstrate how far ahead of his time Perry was when he began creating music so many years ago.
There’s not really a bum track on the whole record, so it’s difficult to pick a favorite, but for fans of both Perry and Laswell, “Orthodox” would surely be a contender. On that song, Laswell creates a soundtrack that expresses his love for Coptic music by bringing the famed Ethiopian singer Gigi Shibabaw onboard to duet with Perry on this soaring tribute to African theocracy. Other musical guests include P Funk’s Bernie Worrell on keyboards, the legendary Sly Dunbar on drums as well as TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on vocals. Each of these studio veterans play and sing their hearts out to help make this the best new reggae record of the year so far. Rise Again is an indispensible recording from one of the world’s most important living artists.