Aswad is one of Britain’s best and most popular reggae bands. The trio’s work is characterized by consistently excellent musicianship (Aswad’s adjunct horn section is superlative) and a sound that is modern yet authentic. (Although it’s become less so as the group has become increasingly oriented to the pop mainstream.) Their easygoing groove may resemble UB40’s, but Aswad is thoroughly unique; after fifteen years, their continued growth and versatility are remarkable. Along with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell, Aswad represents the flowering of British reggae. Their recording history, however, is disjointed and reflects shifts in personnel, musical direction and labels.
The debut album (with “Back to Africa”) is of mixed quality, but showcases the band’s stylistic variety, featuring lovers rock, dub and Marley-inspired roots. Hulet, released two years later, is much better — assured and capable — but indecision about direction is clearly audible. Shortly after this release, bassist George Oban left; Tony Gad (Robinson), who had played keyboards in the group, took over on bass. A stint with British CBS yielded two albums, New Chapter and Not Satisfied, both (particularly the latter) rich with fine songs and performances. A New Chapter of Dub, while decent enough, is for fans only.
Rebel Souls has a genial consistency and includes significant covers of Toots Hibbert’s “54-46 (Was My Number)” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me.” Wisely, Aswad were linking themselves to tradition as they geared up for the future.
The group’s full yet rootsy sound continued on To the Top; strong and full of punch, the album is one of their best, with top-notch writing, singing and playing throughout. With the band operating at peak power, the record is probably their most representative studio effort.
Distant Thunder marks a distinct change in direction. Feeling perhaps that they had pushed their old sound to its limit, the band experiments here with funk and soul, as well as keyboards. The lightweight, crossover-geared approach was bound to alienate some fans but, while several of the new songs sound tentative, others (like the pop-soul single “Don’t Turn Around”) are engaging and credible, featuring the same musical craftsmanship that has always characterized Aswad’s work.
To some extent, Aswad’s strongest releases have been their singles. No proper greatest hits package existed prior to 1989, but two albums had partially filled that gap. Showcase — remixes of their most popular non-LP numbers, including “Rainbow Culture,” “Warrior Charge” and “Babylon” (the title theme of a film which starred Aswad’s Brinsley Forde) — is excellent, and a fine place for novices to start. In addition, Live and Direct (London, 1983) contains some of Aswad’s best-loved songs and gives a hint of the band’s live power. “Rockers Medley” stands out, but the whole LP is great.
The Renaissance compilation, issued by a UK label marketed through TV advertising, attempts to cram in 20 selections from the group’s long history, but unceremoniously edits the numbers down, making this a must to avoid.
Crucial Tracks (Best of Aswad) has six fewer cuts than Renaissance but preserves the songs’ full running times. The compilation includes some single sides, including “Gimme the Dub,” the B-side of 1988’s “Give a Little Love.”
Too Wicked finds the group in an even more serious crossover bid, pushing towards funk, pop, soul and even dancehall, with beatbox drumming, hi-tech samples and house grooves all reeking of commercial aspirations. The best track is “Fire,” on which Aswad is joined by Shabba Ranks, 1990’s ruler of the dancehall DJs. While “Just Can’t Take It” maintains Aswad’s socio-political awareness, the record could have done nicely without an Eagles cover (“Best of My Love”).