I'm not a stranger to reggae music; my whole life has had the reggae / ska genre bracket sitting on a dusty record shelf waiting for summer to come. Trojan Records' Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip was the first reggae artist to infuse me with the genre. Ever since listening to Symarip and Burning Spear's Marcus Garvey, I’ve been on search for more. Toot's & The Maytals, UB40, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Black Uhuru became the old guard of reggae tunes for the summer months, and now with By The Rivers I can add yet another album, though this time it won't settle for dust.
By The Rivers formed out of M48's dissolution in Leicester three years ago. Lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Nile Barrow and drummer Jordan Birtles swapped indie rock for reggae in what will be remembered as a dramatic and energising first gig at Leicester's unique pub / venue for new music, The Donkey. Backed by keys, bass, lead guitar and brass, By The Rivers took Leicester by storm. Festival appearances, demo EP releases and a slot on The Specials' tour has separated By The Rivers from their exponential cult status as M48 to Leicester's biggest export since Kasabian. Signing to newly formed Kompyla Records may just be the crucial decision By The Rivers have had to make. On the verge of Summer 2013, By The Rivers' self-titled debut album is ready for launch - the Leicester lads have now become the likely lads.
By The Rivers opens with a fan favourite, "Vulture". The depiction of the vulture can be seen on the album cover. This track has its roots firmly in By The Rivers political anarchism along with the latter and fatter "Take Control". Both of these tracks boast angered lyricism and forceful vocals rather than barrow's typical soft loving vocal. The fifth track "Take Control" was also one of By The Rivers' singles, the pre-release if you must. At five minutes 11 seconds it's the longest track on the album, it's also the strongest. Opening with a dub-like session of percussion and reverberated guitars, the atmosphere builds for what is a lightning bolt song of political austerity and anti-establishment. Backed by the ever present brass, Barrow/Birtles conform to deliver a fantastic vocal. Barrow sings: "Who needs Labour and Tories? When we have our own mind. Always the same old story, it's time to let the people decide." He sings of political control amidst the London (turned England) riots of 2011. I say England because: 'Scottish youth did not riot partly because Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees.' Many factors influenced the riots, and those factors also influenced the writing of this track.
Sometimes the political fighting and messages come to a holt, and that’s exactly what this album is about. By The Rivers cover a broad aspect of topics on their debut, more often than so it's love or politics, it begs a question as to which theme is better in an algorithmic song. "This Love" is the catchy third track with lovely brass instrumentation. At times the brass accompaniment can seem too much, and I'll highlight that later. Barrow sings: "This love, taking control of me," in a soft voice. The structure is light with a dusk imagery being omitted, especially with the saxophone solo towards the end. This is followed by "You Got It Wrong", another love track with captivating brass instrumentation. Barrow sings with Birtles in unison creating a splendid male melody on the verse. There's a nod to Chaka Demus & Pliers "Tease Me" towards the end, an insight into By The Rivers' influence and formation.
The slow and repetitious "Make Your Own Road" makes an appearance as track two. In my opinion this is the wrong decision, By The Rivers would sound almost impeccable without this inclusion. The repetitious vocal refrain of the track title and stark bass fail to blend in with the dub style percussion and what is a lead guitar that leaves the room and never returns. This track also features the least effective brass instrumentation. As soon as the track starts, the brass and organ enter and reflect an unimaginative structure. This track is noticeably slower and different in style to the album, this just doesn’t seem to fit.
Instead of plastering their debut album with brass, By The Rivers include some clean reggae tracks such as "Hit n Run", another politically infused track with guitars and keys at the heart of recording. It's a breath of fresh air and works as a gap between the first batch of tracks and the closing four tracks, all of which are stunning. "Rise Up" adds a flavour of Jamaican spice to the youth angst. This track features the best lyrics on the album, Barrow sings: "Let's talk about the modern society, no love for the person you chose to be, don’t be telling me you don’t live that way, no relationship was built in a day." He goes on to sing: "No matter about your race or culture, no one man is in control. Don’t be government by political torture, let them male their own hole." They manage to blend their politics with fun on By The Rivers, as seen with the following track "Run Home". This is arguably their best instrumental and structure; however the sheer power of "Take Control" already has that covered. "Run Home" is a joy to hear. Birtles sings on the chorus as opposed to Barrow, opening up a hole for Barrow to sing melody with Birtles on the verse, as he does. There's a spectacular lead guitar break acting as the bridge, drenched in reverb and absent of bass. This is By The Rivers chirpy, happy track with excellent vocals that lean towards ska.
"Don't Say You Love Me" has been released prior and it rightfully belongs on By The Rivers. A song about love with Barrow singing: "Your minds just too young to love." It's noticeably cute with soulful features such as the revolving bass and course rhythm. This is one of the many tracks that could be welcomed by millions of fans worldwide; it has a single attitude and can easily enter the mainstream. By The Rivers are influenced by a range of sources, but none more so than the old reggae legends and the second wave of ska made famous through Coventry's 2-Tone Records. Having Neville Staple on board has helped By The Rivers build their audience after The Specials invited them along to their UK tour in 2011. By The Rivers have built confidence and stature before even entering the studio to record their debut album. It then so smoothly ends with "Rocksteady". This is the track By The Rivers tend to use when closing their sets; it's not hard to see why. Listen to the danceable beat and jive rhythm guitar and you will feel the movement in your feet. The brass fill in all the gaps as the little dashes of keys soften the bass blow. It's a terrific end to their debut album, a track that's designed to be at the very end, at the top where it belongs.
As I’ve witnessed first-hand, By The Rivers are not the band focussed heavily on their ideals and influences, they are the newcomers wanting to change the way reggae influences music and people. Sure, they fly the reggaeton flag over Leicester with visions of Kingston in sight, but there’s more to it than replicating reggae music. By The Rivers are that thrilling summer band with a shrill of originality and even more so a facade of joy. By The Rivers is the first album that has earned both of my parents' approval - a huge feat in itself. You can't hear the past generation of UB40 in By The Rivers sound, but you can feel and compare the ideologies of the West Midlands reggae troop in By The Rivers lyricism. They haven’t half-arsed their debut album, including every aspect of their sounds right from the spring of 2010. It's not an easy accomplishment to tour with such big names without having an album out, but now By The Rivers have something they can use, sell, and work on. It gives them a blank page as they complete the first chapter in their journey. To be continued...