For over forty years. Sly and Robbie have been reggae’s go-to rhythm section. They’ve also established a reputation as a talented and innovative production team, producing reggae royalty like Prince Jammy, Peter Tosh, Linval Thompson, Bunny Wailer, Black Uhuru and The Revolutionaires. However, it’s not just reggae artists who Sly and Robbie have produced. Far from it.

Sly and Robbie have produced the great and good or music. This includes everyone from Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Serge Gainsbourg, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger and The Fugess. These are just a few of the artists Sly and Robbie have produced during the last forty years. This is just the tip of a musical iceberg. It’s estimated that Sly and Robbie have played on and produced several thousand recordings. This includes the albums Sly and Robbie have recorded during their solo career. 

The latest addition to Sly and Robbie’s discography is Underwater Dub, which was released on 28th April 2014, on Groove Attack. Underwater Dub is the followup to 2012s Blackwood Dub. Just like Blackwood Dub, Underwater Dub was recorded at Harry J’s recording studio, in Jamaica. Producing Underwater Dub was Alberto “Burur” Blackwood of Slam Records and Groove Attack. Alberto couldn’t have picked a better studio for Sly and Robbie.

Harry J’s is one of the most prestigious studios and is like a second home for Sly and Robbie. They’ve recorded at Harry J’s many times since the mid-seventies, when Sly and Robbie established their forty year partnership.

Back in the mid-seventies, drummer Sly Dunbar was the drummer for Skin, Flesh and Bones. Robbie Shakespear was the bassist for the legendary band The Aggrovators. When they met, it was a musical meeting of minds. They both shared a love of Stax, Motown, Philly Soul, country music and classic reggae. Their favourite reggae labels were Channel One and Treasure Isle. Sly and Robbie also shared the same theories about music, and how music should be made. This was the start of a partnership that would last forty years and 200,000 recordings. Their latest recording was Underwater Dub.

At Harry J’s recording studio, Sly and Robbie recorded ten tracks they’d written with producer Alberto “Burur” Blackwood. Accompanying the legendary rhythm section of Sly on syn drums and percussion and Robbie on bass and guitar were guitarists Mikey Chung, Radcliffe “Dougie” Bryan, Daryl Thompson and Dalton Browne. They were joined by keyboardists Robbie Lyn, Frankie Waul and Steven “Leaky” Marsden, while Uziah “Sticky” Thompson added percussion. Horns came courtesy of saxophonist Tony Green, trumpeter Hopeton Williams and trombonist Everald Gayle. These musicians played on the ten tracks that became Underwater Dub, the much anticipated followup to Blackwood Dub, which I’ll tell you about.

Opening Underwater Dub is Dictionary. From the get-go Sly and Robbie join forces. Sly’s syn drums crack and Robbie’s bass probes. They’re joined by the melodic sound of a Hammond  organ. Soon, the the dubby arrangement is panned. It assails and surrounds you. Later, guitars chime, drum crack and Robbie’s thunderous bass tests the tolerance of your speakers. Especially when echo and reverb are added. Then when the arrangement is stripped bare, Sly and Robbie showcase their rhythmic talents. They’re joined by percussion, which flits in and out of the mix. The mix veers between slow, moody and broody to melodic, as Sly and Robbie, dub’s innovators, return determined to reinvent dub.

From the opening bars, Forward March has a dubby sci-fi sound. This is is 21st Century dub. One thing remains the same, Sly and Robbie. They lock into the tightest of dubtastic grooves, while the futuristic sci-fi sound is ever-present. It’s accentuated when effects are added. This includes filters and reverb. Despite this, you can still hear Sly and Robbie in the distance, as they deliver a 21st futuristic Century dub masterclass. 

French Woman has a bright, upbeat and melodic sound. Crystalline guitars, percussion and bubbling synths join reggae’s greatest rhythm section. Soon, Sly and Robbie unleash a myriad of effects. Again, the arrangement is panned. It swirls around your head, hidden behind filters. Reverb and echo are added. Guitars resonate into the distance, while Sly’s drums and Robbie bass are shrouded by filters. This adds to the dubby, lysergic and innovative sound.  Sly and Robbie continue their dub revolution.

A reveille sound as Spray Belly gets underway. This is the signal for Sly and Robbie to gallop centre-stage. Accompanied by keyboards, guitars and percussion the arrangement explodes into life. Then the effects are added. Filters are used effectively. Sly and Robbie tease you, letting you hear more or less of the pounding, galloping arrangement. This results in a slice of vintage dub courtesy of Sly and Robbie.

As Great Wall reveals its secrets, Sly and Robbie’s rhythms are joined by blazing horns, bubbling synths, percussion and chiming, crystalline guitars. It’s a heady brew. Before long, producer Alberto “Burur” Blackwood reaches for his trusty effects. Filters, reverb and echo are added. He uses the effects effectively, especially when highlighting parts of the arrangement. This includes Robbie’s pulsating bass. It never misses a beat and is a reminder of why Robbie’s one of reggae’s greatest bass players. Then there’s the braying horns, reverb adds space, allowing them to disappear dubbily into the distance.

Stormy has a dark, dramatic arrangement, where dub meets rocky guitars. Sly and Robbie unleash hypnotic, mesmeric rhythms. At the heart of the arrangement is a haunting sound. It’s equally hypnotic. So much so, that you’re captivated. Having said that, you’re still aware of the machine gun, rocky guitars, percussion and handclap. They flit in and out of the haunting, mesmeric arrangement to what’s one of Underwater Dub’s best tracks.

A robotic warning sounds as the futuristic arrangement to War Zone unfolds. This is Sly and Robbie’s signal to enter this dub War Zone. It’s a mass of shimmering, crystalline guitars and bubbling synths. Sly and Robbie  lay down some of their finest rhythms. Robbie’s pulsating, pounding bass is joined by Sly’s drums. They’re crisp, cracking and pounding, resonating and reverberating like the chiming guitars. Effects are used much more sparingly on a track that’s a glorious fusion of dub’s past, present and future.

Daphne has a much more laid back, melodic sound. Sly and Robbie roll back the years and deliver another dub masterclass. Sly’s drums provide the heartbeat. Robbie plays a starring role, his pulsating bass line at the heart of the track’s sound and success. His fingers flit up and down the fretboard. Echo is added to the drums, while synths bubble and guitars shimmer. They’re joined by percussion and handclaps. Here, the effects aren’t overused. No. Instead, they’re used sparingly and effectively. This results in a slice of musical sunshine.

Dramatic. That describes the introduction to Melissa. Feedback squeals, drums pound and Robbie’s bass rumbles, dominating the arrangement. Effects are unleashed, but not overused. Playing an important role is percussion. it adds a hypnotic sound. It’s mesmeric and joined by bursts of shimmering, dubby guitars. Keyboards and feedback drifts in and out. `However, it’s Sly and Robbie’s rhythms that are at the heart of this track’s success. It’s classic dub with a 21st century twist.

Thumb Drive, a ten minute Magnus Opus closes Underwater Dub. Straight away, the arrangement has a melodic, soulful sound. This comes courtesy of keyboards, bubbling, buzzing synths, crystalline guitars, percussion and rhythms Sly and Robbie style. Sometimes, the arrangement is masked by filters, so you can only hear a tantalising taste of the music. Other times, the arrangement assails and surrounds you. It’s transformed by effects. Then later, Sly and Robbie change direction. They seem to relish the opportunity to experiment, incorporating elements of funk, jazz and electronica. Whilst all this is happening, heavy duty effects are unleashed. Reverb, echo and filters transforms the music, which takes on a futuristic, sci-fi sound. The result is  dub Sly and Robbie style. By this I mean innovative, ambitious and groundbreaking.

Underwater Dub is  very different from many of the projects Sly and Robbie have been involved with. Producer Alberto “Burur” Blackwood is actually Sly and Robbie’s in-house engineer. However, back in 2011, Alberto invited his bosses to record a new dub album. They accepted Alberto’s commission. The result was Blackwood Dub. It was released to critical acclaim in 2012. So, it made sense to record a followup. The only problem was fitting what became Underwater Dub into Sly and Robbie’s schedule. As the go-to rhythm section and production team for many of music’s top artists, they don’t have much down time. When they did, they headed to the familiar surroundings of Harry J’s recording studios. That’s where Sly and Robbie laid down one of the most ambitious, innovative and exciting albums of their careers, Underwater Dub.

Underwater Dub is like nothing else Sly and Robbie have recorded. They’ve drawn inspiration from Afrobeat, drum ’n’ bass, electronica, hip hop, R&B, rock and soul. All these influences shine through on Underwater Dub, which is best described as an album of adventurous soundscapes. 

Sly and Robbie collaborated with some top musicians on Underwater Dub. Their rhythms were augmented by everything from bubbling synths, dusty Hammond organs, African percussion and rocky guitars. The result was an adventure in sound Sly and Robbie style. By this I mean the music is innovative and ambitious. It’s as if Sly and Robbie are determined to rewrite dub’s rules.

That’s no bad thing. After all, if music doesn’t evolve, it risks becoming irrelevant. Sly and Robbie realised this back in the eighties, and started using synths on dub albums. This didn’t please traditionalists. They felt there was no room for synths or technology. For dub, thinking like this spelt disaster. Unless dub evolved, it risked becoming a relic of the past. Thankfully, not every producer agreed with the traditionalists. Technology was incorporated into recording studios and dub evolved. Now, however, Sly and Robbie are determined to reinvent dub.

They’ve incorporated numerous musical genres during the ten tracks on Underwater Dub. This includes Afrobeat, drum ’n’ bass, electronica, hip hop, R&B, rock and soul. It’s a glorious melange of influences. They shine through during the musical adventure that’s Underwater Dub. The result is compelling and captivating music. Underwater Dub is also innovative, inventive and influential. Mind you, that’s what we’ve come to expect from the hardest working men in dub, Sly and Robbie, whose critically acclaimed new album Underwater Dub is out now on Groove Attack.




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