Here's a surprise in a number of ways! I remember Dub War from their early days on Earache, at a time when that label was far better known for championing the nascent grindcore movement, but the band went away a long time ago, with three quarters of the band moving forward as Skindred. Since they ceased to be, the musical landscape has changed massively and, in many respects, has finally caught up with what they were doing a few decades ago. But they're back, surprisingly so, and with a new album that's their first of new music in twenty-six years.
The core line-up is three quarters of the original one, but oddly not the same three quarters who formed Skindred. Here are versatile lead singer Benji Webbe who sounds like he's at least a dozen different voices here, guitarist Jeff Rose and bassist Richie Glover. Missing this time around is the drummer, Martin Ford, who usually went by Ginge, and he's replaced primarily by Mikee Gregory, who plays on seven of the thirteen tracks, but also a half dozen others on the remaining six. And it would be hard work indeed to conjure up a different set of drummers!
Roy Mayorga is diverse all on his own, given that he's known for Stone Sour, Hellyeah and Ministry, but there's Jamie Miller of Bad Religion and Mike Bordin from Faith No More. And, if that wasn't diverse enough for you, there's also Tanner Wayne from In Flames, Spike Smith from Birmingham death metal band Memoriam and Dave Chavarri of Ill Niño and Soulfly. They each bring something different to the table and it's fascinating to hear how different and yet how consistent the tracks are with such wildly diverse talents bringing the beat.
This is diversity is perhaps epitomised by the sole vocal guest, who takes over the second song for its second half. He's the late Ranking Roger, of British ska legends, the Beat, and he reimagines a famous cover song, War ina Babylon, originally by Max Romeo and the Upsetters, who were Lee 'Scratch' Perry's backing band. Here, the song is heavied up, of course, with a rock beat on overtly reggae vocals, especially during that second half.
If that sounds like a song about troubled times, you'd be right and that's what the album initially plans to be. The opening song, Blackkk Man, is a political one written in the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police officers. It's told in the rap metal style of Rage Against the Machine with Benji Webbe more than up to spitting acerbic bars at us. It's also surprisingly catchy, which is one more reason why it was released as the first single (excluding the couple which saw release in 2016 as the original build-up to this release).
What's more, the title of the album and the cover art speak to the Chartist Movement, a working class protest movement in the mid-nineteenth century, and especially to the Newport Rising, the armed uprising of ten thousand Chartists who marched on Dub War's home town of Newport and demanded the release of some of their compatriots. The cover art is part of a mural created by a commissioned artist, Kenneth Budd, that was visible for thirty-five years under John Frost Square until it was demolished by the council in 2013, against public sentiment.
And, quite frankly, if the rest of the album was made up of protest songs and righteous anger, the return of Dub War would be more widely heralded. However, after the opening couple of tracks, it shifts into a more celebratory tone. Vibes in the Place mixes the rap metal vocals with the reggae vocals and adds an urgent metal take on dancefloor energy infusers with a DJ using repetition for emphasis. And, as we progress, this becomes unmistakably a celebratory party instead of an angry riot. This approach doesn't make the album any worse, but it removes some if its urgency.
To highlight that, my favourite song here, if it isn't Blackkk Man, is Mary Shelley, which was known as Making a Monster when it was released as a single in 2016. It's a sort of Halloween reggae song that starts out with Benji Webbe sounding like Ozzy and settles into a bizarre cross between Faith No More, the Misfits and whichever reggae outfit would be most appropriate to mention. I have a distinct lack of expertise there to bring to bear. I just know that I like it a lot and it's the Halloween dub reggae metal party song that you didn't know you needed.
And, at the other end of the extreme, my least favourite song here is Stay Together, a cover that's hard to justify, because it's of Al Green's Let's Stay Together and it feels acutely out of place on an album whose best angle is the sheer range of its musical direction. Yes, I'm pointing out that Westgate under Fire is at its best when it's mixing genres like cocktails and yet this one is beyond the pale. I think that's mostly because it doesn't try to mix anything at all. It's a cover that is happy to just be a cover, a little heavier than the original, sure, but otherwise rather like it, and so it sounds pedestrian amongst its peers.
The bottom line is that it's great to see Dub War putting out new music and it's a pretty welcome return, doing what they do best in a modern musical environment where they don't seem quite so out of time as they used to. Let's hope that it finds listeners who never knew them and are open to hearing them now. Maybe it's a little longer than it needed to be, but it's no less welcome for that.