Review by Jo-Ann Greene
Lee Perry is generally acknowledged as a production genius, but on occasion that genius can be destructive, and while there's no disputing his talent, sometimes the results can be less than aurally satisfying. This is especially true when it comes to albums, where Perry's efforts were often erratic. On Heart of the Congos he was brilliant, and across the record's original ten tracks Perry created a masterpiece of music. Many critics consider this 1977 album one of the best roots records of all time, and at the very least, it was Perry's apex -- only Junior Byles' Beat Down Babylon is an equal contender. Which is why it's all the more shocking that the record was turned down by Island, and even back in Jamaica it received only a limited release. It took nearly two decades for Heart of the Congos to reappear, finally reissued with a clutch of period bonus tracks by Blood and Fire. The Congos themselves seem the least-likely contenders to record an exceptional album with Perry. The duo of Cedric Myton and Roy "Ashanti" Johnson had a unique sound, revolving around the former man's crystalline falsetto, which was set off by the latter's rich tenor. The pair composed deeply cultural songs, but both men's vocals had a gentle quality that would wither under a typical deep roots arrangement. Still, Perry had proved his worth working with the soft, husky tones of Byles, but few expected him to be able to repeat this feat. In fact, if anything, the producer was even more sympathetic to the Congos' styling and exhibited a musical self-restraint that astonished even his hardcore fans. Every track on the original album is worthy of classic status, and all presented the group and their songs in the best possible light. To this end, Perry was aided by a phenomenal group of sessionmen and guest backing vocalists which included Gregory Isaacs, a pair of Heptones, and the mighty Meditations. But beyond the Congos' superb songs and performance, the superb musicianship, and the exceptional vocal talents, it's Perry's arrangements that brought these numbers to life. Each one was carefully tailored, taking into consideration the mood of the piece and the vocalist. The tribal beats of "Congoman," for example, are just the song's launch pad; its the way the vocals and harmonies weave in and out that makes the piece extraordinary. The 12" and "Chanting" versions give further evidence of Perry's genius. "Ark of the Covenant" is stuffed to the brim with instrumentation, with the vocals soaring overhead, and brings the album to a religious fervor. In contrast, "Solid Foundation" is stripped back, a showpiece for Myton's marvelous falsetto. There's the stirring roots of "Open the Gates" and "Sodom and Gomorrow," while rocksteady echoes across the deeply affecting "Children Crying" and "La La Bam Bam." Every track offers something new: a unique sound, an unforgettable melody and rhythm, an unexpected arrangement. As much work went into the remastering as the recording, and the album sounds as good as it must have at the time it was recorded. Revel in the moment.
In 1962, Jamaican independence speeded the process of urbanizing the island nation's social fabric and music. Fifteen years later, producer Lee Perry reinjected pastoral sounds and a rural spirit into Jamaican music via Heart of The Congos . It was just one of many chances Perry took at his Black Ark studio, where he combated his financial limitations with a spirit of invention and, sometimes, an impatience and/or lack of quality control.
Heart of The Congos is arguably the only Black Ark album on which only the positive results of Perry's methodology are manifest. Collaborating with The Congos-- one of that era's greatest harmony groups-- Perry dodges cow patties and muddy, dubby pools as Cedric Myton's falsetto and Roydel Johnson's rich tenor contemplate spiritual awakening, cultural pride and human weakness. Perry practices a sort of addition by subtraction-- refraining from some of his often superfluous ambient noises or sometimes overly whimsical sounds effects-- as the vocalists keep on knocking, burning, fishing and crying. The important thing is that they keep on keeping on-- until they "reach a higher ground." --Scott Plagenhoef