ANYONE FAMILIAR with the sussed militancy of Aswad’s early ‘Three Babylon’ period would never have expected them to take an easy option and ‘go commercial’. But ever since the runaway chart success of ‘Don’t Turn Around’ they’ve been floundering in a musical cul-de-sac, making dull, calculated fodder for CD enthusiasts and the furry dice brigade. So it was with pleasure that I realised they could still return to their reggae roots and put all that shameless opportunism behind them.
What prompted this reappraisal? Well, Too Wicked is a strong return to form that breaks new ground. They haven’t completely ditched their new-found pop audience — there are still too many love songs for comfort — but made the grooves heavier on a platter that screams ‘state of the art’. This is ’90s reggae with a heart, and anyone sick of slack or talent-starved dancehall pretenders will find comfortable solace here.
It’s that reliance on simple, well-sung motifs that gets me every time. Not to mention the crispness of digitally processed rhythms and the whoosh of sundry dub-style effects. Recording the LP in Jamaica and enlisting the capabilities of Steely & Cleevie amongst others was definitely a step forward. It could have been a case of too many cooks making as much noise as possible, but thankfully they’ve retained their uniquely Black British stance and not succumbed to culture shock, filling the songs out with little samples and drop-ins that acknowledge the current dance revolution.
Shabba Ranks makes two guest appearances, his ebullient toasting adding another dimension to the bruising opener ‘Fire’ and the gently ebbing ‘Just Can’t Take It’ where he berates some woman for nagging him but doesn’t slip into sexist abuse. And both ‘Gotta Find A Way’ and ‘Old Fire Stick’ are strong contenders for the two most complete, effective and melodic songs Aswad have yet written. Only a few throwaway numbers at the start of Side Two (there are, after all, ten well-crafted songs here) come close to blandness, and even these keep you interested with squiggly effects buried in the mix.
Despite the disappointing lack of direct political statements — maybe one expects too much — Too Wicked is something to treasure. (7)
© Dele Fadele, New Musical Express, 22 September 1990