Resonators @ Trinity Centre, Bristol, 28/11/14
Like any form of dance-oriented music, reggae can suffer from a certain amount of structural conservatism. The conventions and formulas that govern it and make it an identifiable genre can become self-restricting, rendering it rigid and cliche-ridden. Indeed, many devout heads still look to the mid-1970s as the unsurpassed heyday of roots reggae, and tracks that deviate too far from this 40-year-old template are likely to have their authenticity called into question. At the same time, many artists have continued to explore the sound and see where it will go. Arguably, this is due in large part to the amorphous nature of dub, reggae’s constantly mutating trickster offspring, which refuses to stay still, and is often to be found leaking into other forms of music, altering its DNA and producing strange hybrids along the way.
In the current UK scene, Brighton’s Resonators are doing a remarkable job of making reggae music for the 21st century, very much rooted in its rich history yet remaining fresh and sonically interesting. Their gig at the Trinity Centre, one of Bristol’s premier reggae venues, is an opportunity to witness this evolution of sound first hand, alongside established reggae/dub stalwarts such as Henry and Louis, Stryda (of Dubkasm), Solo Banton, Lionpulse Soundsystem and young up-and-coming selectors Bliss Zion and Sasha Steppa.
How have Resonators managed to carve out a sound for themselves that is simultaneously rooted in a clear sonic and cultural identity and yet is undeniably theirs? Firstly, by having two female vocalists, Faye Houston and Kassia Zernon aka Bunty – marvellously adorned, as ever, in multi-coloured clothing and day-glow grape-shaped earrings – the band have dissolved the gender hierarchy that has historically tended to predominate in reggae. With the notable exception of female-led sub-genre Lover’s Rock in the mid-1980s, reggae is largely male-dominated, and in it’s dancehall variant, sometimes aggressively so. However, if looked at from within context of the experimental fervour and cross-cultural pollination that began to take place across punk and reggae from the late 1970s onwards (see my post Babylon’s Burning, below), Resonators could be seen to form part of a playful lineage that includes female-led bands such as The Slits and The Selector.
Secondly, the band’s signature sound is set apart by their use of unusual harmonies. Contrasting vocal timbres are used to great effect on tracks such as ‘Borderline’, and one of the stand out tracks from the evening – the superb anti-militarist ballad ‘Soldier’ (alluding to the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine). A number of their tracks also feature unusual chord progressions, such as on the track ‘B.A.S.I.C’, which jolt the listener, but in a way that alerts her to the band’s originality.
However, the pivotal element from their set is their use of live dubbing. The hidden and often neglected member of any band is the sound engineer, who in this instance creates a whole extra dimension to each of the tracks by expertly manipulating effects, including the use of expansive reverbs on the snare and delays on vocals and horns. The end result, on a track such as ‘Wandering’, is to witness it morph from a mournful, slightly haunting song into a cavernous bass monstrosity, a whirlpool of sound that sends singers and crowd alike into dervish-like spinning and dancing; evidence that even if you are fully familiar with the band’s repertoire, you can never be sure what you will hear on the night.