Sunday, 20 April 2014

Album of the Week #20

Artist: Talisman
Album: Dole Age
Year: 2011
Label: Bristol Archive Records

A theme I touched upon in my review of Phaeleh's Fallen Light some weeks ago, The Bristol Sound is one that didn't come about as if by magic. By the time Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky were making trip-hop-shaped waves around the globe, it was after years of the city finding, redefining and finetuning its own sound. But one common theme is the bass-heavy nature of a lot of its output - starting with the prolific Bristol reggae scene of the late 70s and early 80s. The band at the forefront of that was Talisman.

Bristol has long been a heavily multicultural place, something which has had both positive and negative consequences for the city. This melting pot of different cultures has often spawned a vast amount of new and original music, from Mark Stewart's post-punk pioneers The Pop Group through to house purveyor Eats Everything via Massive Attack. But it has also had a negative side. Racial tensions have too often reared their ugly head in the city - none more so than during the St. Pauls Riot of 1980. It was the culmination of a deterioration in race relations throughout the 1970s and a watershed moment for the city. Yet Talisman have become inextricably linked with this point in Bristol's multicultural history.

Against this backdrop of racial tensions and urban riots, Talisman were a reggae group who managed to (briefly) unite the broken local communities in Bristol. Brendan Whitmore, a white Irishman, played the saxophone in Talisman alongside a revolving collective of Caribbean musicians, regularly playing gigs to the heavily black and Caribbean-populated area of St. Pauls. But instead of heightening the racial tensions in the area, the music brought the community together. Whitmore was accepted and appreciated, seen as a skilled saxophone player in a top reggae band rather than a white man in a black neighbourhood.

Since releasing a series of singles, EPs and an album in the late 70s and early 80s, it seemed until recently that this microcosm of Bristol's musical history had been lost forever. But in 2011, Bristol Archive Records gathered together the best of the songs they recorded between 1977 and 1981 in the Dole Age compilation. The songs are melodic and blissful yet lyrically striking - as you might expect considering the cultural backdrop in which they were written. Talisman's USP, however, has to be the dub style breakdown that they shoehorned into most, if not all songs. It is a nod to Bristol's bass sound and to the band's own love for dub, symbolic of the unique sound attributed to many artists that have broken out of the city.

The compilation is a mixture of 7" versions of studio tracks together with several live recordings during the band's pomp. Run Come Girl is a harmonica-led reggae classic, whilst Free Speech and Dole Age address the social issues of the time in the only way that Talisman know: through classic reggae music. The live recordings thrust the instrumental dub breakdowns into the spotlight further, with the colossal Words of Wisdom flirting with the 15-minute barrier and Ah Wah U Seh clocking in at just under 9 minutes long.

These features mark Talisman out from many other reggae bands and make them a continued shining light for UK reggae music. But most importantly, Talisman are a constant reminder of the social and political barriers that can be broken down by music. They united a fractured community by creating wonderful music, and that's something that should be remembered for a long time, particularly in these times of austerity.

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