Originally formed in 1977 as Revelation Rockers, Talisman was one of the iconic players in Bristol, England’s little-known but very rich reggae scene. Although they achieved significant success in the UK and snagged opening-act slots for such important acts as the Clash, the Rolling Stones, and Burning Spear, Talisman never managed to get a contract with a major record label and their recorded output between 1977 and 1984 amounted to only two singles. Dole Age compiles the A and B sides from both of those singles (the deluxe LP version boasts extended 12″ mixes of those tracks) and adds seven live tracks from the period. While the quality of this material is consistently high and the release should be snapped up by fans of UK reggae, it’s fairly easy to see why Talisman had trouble keeping the interest of major labels: their sound is accomplished but at times a bit featureless, occupying a fuzzy area somewhere between the dry severity of early Steel Pulse and the smooth roots-pop of middle-period Aswad. That said, there are some great songs here: the swinging “Wicked Dem” recalls the sound of UB40 at around the same time, while “Free Speech” bustles along nicely in a Two Tone mode and the live “Calamity” boasts both sharp hooks and an elephantine rockers groove.
Talisman were clearly at their best in a live setting, and were particularly good at incorporating dubwise effects onstage, as is nicely demonstrated by the excellent “Nothing Change.” This is very good stuff, but probably mainly of interest to specialist listeners.
Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978-1983
By the late 1970s, multiple waves of Jamaican immigrants had come to England and congregated in such industrial centers as London and Birmingham, bringing their music with them and helping to create vibrant reggae scenes in those cities that are amply documented. Less so is the smaller but equally vital scene that grew up in the small town of Bristol, and which is now being given its due by the Bristol Reggae Archives label.
Apart from reissuing albums and compilation by such locally iconic bands as Talisman and Black Roots, the label has also put out a two-part compilation of recordings by lesser-known acts like Joshua Moses, the Radicals, Buggs Durrant, and Restriction. This first volume thoroughly establishes the importance and startling quality of Bristol’s reggae scene during this period: not only are the featured tracks of consistently high quality, but they also vary substantially in style. Although the darker, more serious “roots” school predominates (and is exemplified beautifully by excellent tracks like Joshua Moses’s “Africa Is Our Land” and Black Roots’ “Tribal War”), there are also smoother and more modern entries by the Radicals (“Nights of Passion”) and Buggs Durrant (“Baby Come Back Home”). And with “Mr. Guy,” the sweet-voiced Sharon Bengamin anticipates the lovers rock style that would take London reggae by storm in the 1980s‹her take on the sound is a bit scrappier and more rough-edged (and the sound quality on this vinyl transfer is marginal), but all the elements are in place. Iffy sound quality is a sporadic problem, but it’s not serious enough to diminish the significant pleasures of this excellent collection.
Bristol Reggae Explosion Vol. 2: The 80s Bristol Archive ARC228CD
Following the positive critical and commercial reception of Bristol Reggae Explosion 1978-1983, the Bristol Archive label followed up with a second volume, this one focusing on the early- to mid-1980s and including more extended mixes and dub versions. This volume is the result of pretty serious crate-digging and musical detective work on the part of label
staff: Cool Runnings’ “Robin Hoods of the Ghetto” was apparently originally released in a pressing of only 200 copies, for example, and Bunny Marrett’s “Times Are Getting Harder” was hardly less scarce; Alfred McIntosh’s spare and spacey “Wicked Dub” was never issued commercially at all. While there is nothing on this album that could fairly be categorized as filler, compared to the first volume there is more that will appeal primarily to specialist listeners than to the casual reggae fan. “Times Are Getting Harder,” for example, is quite frankly not that great a song‹those with a serious interest in the history of UK reggae will definitely want to hear it, but few will be likely to put it on a playlist of favorite tracks from the period; and McIntosh’s other dub contribution, “Ah It (Dub)” is also rather lackluster. On the other hand, there are brilliant tracks by Black Roots (“The Father”), Joshua Moses (the minor-key “Rise Up”), and Zion Band (the very Steel Pulse-y “Twelve Tribes”). Anyone with a serious interest in learning more about UK reggae will want to own both this collection and its predecessor.
Reggae Singles Anthology
Granted, there was a lot of competition in England during the early 1980s, and granted also that Bristol, the band’s turf, was pretty far removed from the central reggae scenes in London and Birmingham. But still, on the strength of this outstanding compilation, it’s hard to understand why Black Roots didn’t become a major international reggae act. They hit the peak of their powers at the same time that Steel Pulse and Aswad were making a big splash, but despite some high-profile opening slots with major touring bands, Black Roots’ impact was primarily regional. The Bristol Archive label continues its project of bringing classic recordings of the period back to light with this excellent collection of the band’s singles, EP tracks and remixes, including some later songs recorded in collaboration with England’s preeminent modern-roots producer, the Mad Professor. Highlights are hard to identify here, because the quality of playing, singing, and writing are all consistently quite high, but a few tracks do stand out: “The Father” brilliantly combines an earworm melody with a gorgeous descending bassline, to lovely effect; “Chanting for Freedom” is filled with rich harmonies that will make your hair stand on end (and is offered in an excellent showcase version, with the dub version appended); and they do a very nice version of the old Jacob Miller hit “Susie Wong.” The only disappointments are minor: an underwhelming two-chord vamp titled “Juvenile Delinquent,” and a rather tired update of a vintage roots-era rhythm titled “The Frontline.” Otherwise, this is a brilliant compilation from a criminally underappreciated band.