When Steel Pulse released their rousing 1978 debut, Handsworth Revolution, amidst a surge of contentious white nationalism in their native England, there’s no way they would have thought that they’d be wading through the same bigoted fanaticism more than four decades later. But now, in the era of Brexit and the emboldened alt-right, their seasoned outrage feels just as pertinent today as when it was aimed at combating the rising National Front. At its best, reggae sneaks thought-provoking petitions for social justice into catchy island grooves, and with Mass Manipulation, the band’s first album in 15 years, Steel Pulse remind us why they reign supreme in the perennial genre of global equality.
Mass Manipulation displays a mastery of traditional reggae sound with fetching, buoyant songs such as its funky, percussion-heavy jam of a title track and “World Gone Mad,” a resounding banger that points the blame for all of humanity’s woes inward. However, the record also boasts an unmistakably modern edge. Steel Pulse continue to usher the often static genre into the 21st century on urgent sounding tracks like “Thank the Rebels,” with its electronic backbone and vibrant dance flow cementing its turbulent thesis: “Thank the rebels for standing up like lions.” Other tunes eschew traditional genre conventions altogether, like “The Final Call,” which features a complex stew of synths, autotune, and harmonica and somehow blends them all into the band’s established voice with ease.
Beginning with album opener “Rize,” a psychedelic call to action, the record is, of course, propelled by the pressing issues nearest to home for Steel Pulse. Whether it’s “Justice in the Jena” (an upbeat, bouncy plea for racial unity), “Human Trafficking” (an enthusiastic appeal to basic decency), “Don’t Shoot” (with its long line of references to appalling incidents of police brutality), Mass Manipulation continues to gracefully ride the thin line between gentle nudging and militant protest. The demand for unity culminates into record closer “Nations of the World,” urging us all to put aside our differences and embrace an indiscriminate community. Some of the idealistic messaging can feel a bit on-the-nose at times, but it all stems from a position of undeniable sincerity.
From foggy, spiritual “Stop You Coming and Come” to anthemic, horn-fueled “Cry Cry Blood” to the persistent hum of “No Satan Side,” Mass Manipulation is powerful in both its heartfelt, anti-imperialist message and in its infectious, airy melodies. It’s all too easy to throw on the bright, funky record and sink into its hooky rhythm without truly recognizing the social heft of its demands. Songs like “Higher Love (Rasta Love),” a celebratory rendition of the Steve Winwood standard that incorporates hearty reggae touches, serve simultaneously as both a mirror to and an escape from the world’s hardships. With its bridge between the genre’s roots and its budding future amongst the contemporary musical landscape, Mass Manipulation is every bit as potent as any Steel Pulse release, if not more so.