Graded on a Curve: African Head Charge, The On-U Sound
Records Collection

Co-founded at the start of the ‘80s by percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah and UK producer Adrian Sherwood, African Head Charge constitutes a particularly successful chapter in the story of On-U Sound. The project’s early work, four albums combining post-punk-derived experimentation with dub and African ingredients, shapes up the latest installment in On-U Sound’s deserved retail retelling. They’re available now on vinyl and digital separately and as a bundle directly from the label.

Gradually returning a vital hunk of ’80s musical history to print, the ongoing string of On-U Sound reissues and compilations provides lovers of way-out dub, edgy post-punk, and specifically recent converts to the achievements of Adrian Sherwood with numerous reasons for celebration. Revealing striking consistency amongst steady growth, the emergence of African Head Charge’s ’81-’85 output deepens the scenario considerably as it illuminates an especially fertile collaboration.

Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, or Bonjo for short, had studied in the Rasta drumming camp of Jamaican bandleader Count Ossie. After time spent on the UK scene he joined the Sherwood-produced group Creation Rebel and like many of his bandmates ended up in the credits of numerous On-U Sound releases including those by New Age Steppers, Dub Syndicate, Singers and Players, and Mark Stewart. However, African Head Charge stands as Bonjo’s deepest contribution to the label.

Indeed, what essentially started as a joint Sherwood-Bonjo effort (with assistance from Style Scott, Crocodile, Deadly Headley, Crucial Tony, Bruce Smith, Steve Beresford, Mus’come a.k.a. Charlie “Eskimo” Fox, Doctor Pablo, Public Image Limited’s Jah Wobble, Sugarhill Gang/Tackhead member Skip McDonald and others) slowly became an actual band led by the percussionist; the four records reviewed here represent African Head Charge’s collaborative, studio-based period.

African Head Charge debuted in ’81 with My Life in a Hole in the Ground, its title referencing the David Byrne-Brian Eno team-up My Life in the Bush of Ghosts from the same year and moreover Eno’s stated “vision of a psychedelic Africa.” My Life in the Bush of Ghosts took its name straight from the surreally-tinged classic novel of 1954 by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola, though Byrne and Eno were more familiar with his ’52 book The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Having not read the latter text circa ’81, the pair still felt it fit their concept of a sonically outbound Africa extremely well.

African Head Charge’s adjusted moniker was no less meaningful. The hole in the ground reportedly refers to London’s Berry Street Studios, the facility located down a flight of stairs off the street of its name. Rather than simply striving for the regurgitation of influence, My Life in a Hole in the Ground reacts and extends Eno’s psychedelic hopes into an urban environment reflecting the ground level post-punk ingenuity of the era.

The thick dub bedrock of opener “Elastic Dance” mingles a springy synthetic approximation of a Jew’s harp with stereo-panning and an abundance of echo as “Family Doctoring” maintains the Jamaican aura through the slightly Asian hue of Doctor Pablo’s melodica. During “Stebeni’s Theme” the post-punk sensibility really blossoms, its playground-style chant suggesting the Slits playing in a neon electric rainforest discotheque.

“The Race Pt One” features more pogo-stick ambiance and Crucial Tony’s brittle guitar. Approaching track’s end a mess of loose drum spillage segues nicely into the off-kilter martial rhythm, huge bass, and trumpet splatter of side one’s closer “Crocodile Shoes.” The flip begins with a standout as currents of saxophone skronk permeate an industrial-dub merger in “Stone Charge”.

“Far Away Chant” rolls into a more trad locale courtesy of King Cry Cry’s vocals; some will recognize the song from its accompaniment to an unforgettable scene in David Lynch’s apex of feverish neo-noir sleaze Wild at Heart. Altogether a solid showing, My Life in a Hole in the Ground locates its most accessible regions in the brisk instrumental “Primal One Drop” and wraps up with the prescient techno pound and studio-warped horns of “Hole in the Roof,” the only weakness lying in its brevity.

Sophomore effort Environmental Studies arrived a year later and brought with it an inclination to stretch out, two entries including opener “Crocodile Hand Luggage” breaking six minutes. Across the album a subtle employment of loops, found sounds, and field recordings (and an abandonment of vocals) reinforces the titular significance of natural surroundings.

As the sound of water immediately arises “Crocodile Hand Luggage” underlines African Head Charge’s dub-centric focus. “Dinosaur’s Lament” does integrate melodic undercurrents into the equation, and groove hounds will surely find the steamy horn-laden funk of “Beriberi” to be of primary interest as the spacious “Snakeskin Tracksuit” offers rhythmic elements highlighting the continent of the project’s name.

Side two tightens up the program, “High Protein Snack” flaunting cyclical horn patterns, driving percussion and tidbits of abstraction as it’s followed by the lethargically druggy “In a Trap.” By comparison “Breeding Space” is peppier if no less bent. “Primitive” gathers hand drums, spacey effects, and what seems to be a loop of a voice manipulated beyond recognition; ending abruptly, it gives way to the funky and minimal closer “Latin Temperament.”

1983’s Drastic Season increases African Head Charge’s travels toward the climates of electronica. Easily ten years ahead of its time, sensitivity and good taste are defining characteristics and the associations with post-rock are spot on; while dub persists as a major influence it’s reflected not as a straightforward extension but rather as a further mutation of the reggae source.

Individual running-times continue to enlarge, with six of Drastic Season’s eight cuts topping the five-minute mark. By contrast, none of My Life in a Hole in the Ground’s nine tracks reached that length. “Timbuktu Express” begins by reasserting a commitment to rhythm; prior to an upsurge in momentum the glistening keyboard strands briefly bring Terry Riley to mind.

Like its predecessor, Drastic Season eschews vocals for a multifaceted instrumental template. A few of the selections flow together to productive result, and “I Want Water” starts in Africanized dub territory and incrementally transforms into a weave of enhanced percussive croak, infrequent tech outbursts and threads of a music-store keyboard in Morricone mode.

If rhythm is imperative to African Head Charge the expansive repetition of “Bazaar” is the nearest this disc comes to the dance floor, “African Hedge Hog” presenting too ruggedly oddball a landscape for body moving as “Depth Charge” pushes dub to the brink. “Fruit Market” and “Snake in the Hole,” which goes bonkers with militaristic explosiveness, get cozier with dub’s recognizably eccentric psych qualities. “Many Generations” reinvestigates the layered motif of “I Want Water” to deliver a satisfying conclusion.

Off the Beaten Track rounds out the second half of this phase very well and is additionally full of bold early sampling maneuvers, a facet ultimately distinct from Drastic Season’s lack of detectable aural borrowings. As Byrne and Eno’s original inspiration is noted for breaking ground in sampling, African Head Charge’s ’85 platter does complete a creative circle of sorts.

Commencing with the title number, the strongest moment is placed right up front; carefully crafted and spiked with a tasty gypsy violin loop, its progression produces a heightened intensity that’s defeated the odds and aged quite well. And if the rest of the slab doesn’t attain this plateau, it doesn’t really miss by much; “Some Bizarre” is hearty Wobble-assisted art-funk, “Belinda” fortifies its industrial-strength thud with African rhythms, and “Language & Mentality” blends dub with a recording of a speech by Albert Einstein.

Side two’s opener “Throw it Away” dishes out a concisely danceable proposition as “Conspiring” serves up a drum clinic. From there “Release the Doctor” inhabits the dub zone as “Down Under Again” broadens the global base by adding didgeridoo to the recipe; doing so risked exposing a deficiency in substance, but as Off the Beaten Track’s utilizes a wide array of sonic additives the indigenous horn is a positive.

The Eastern Euro folk horn sample in original closer “Over the Sky” bookends well with the gypsy fiddle as bonus cut “Good Things” culminates African Head Charge’s initial run of activity through a dense but methodical fabric of samples and live instrumentation. Drastic Season is the pick if limiting oneself to a single LP, but there’s enough evolution on display across this spectrum that post-punk and electronic aficionados should be pleased with the entire bunch.

My Life in a Hole in the Ground;

Environmental Studies;

Drastic Season;

Off the Beaten Track;

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