Steel Pulse
Mass Manipulation

The good news for Steel Pulse fans is that the trailblazing British reggae band’s first new album in 15 years, Mass Manipulation, fits more than comfortably alongside classic LPs like their 1978 debut, Handsworth Revolution, 1982’s True Democracy and 1984’s Earth Crisis.

Available May 17 from Rootfire Cooperative and the band’s own imprint, Wiseman Doctrine, Mass Manipulation is a marathon collection of 17 tracks—recorded on three continents over a multi-year stretch—that checks off all of Steel Pulse’s time-honored signatures while remaining thoroughly engaged with the current moment, both creatively and politically. Hard-grooving roots riddims bolster David Hinds’ hooky, melody-soaked songwriting, in which even the deepest cuts sound like singles. His voice, somehow at once soul-singer smooth and protest-singer powerful, is in fine form, and should earn him comparisons yet again to his hero and peer Bob Marley. Hinds’ lyrics, which trenchantly explore an array of social-justice and political-corruption issues, create a brilliant duality against the expertly crafted delights of the vocal and instrumental arrangements. Along the way, new sonics and strategies crop up—among them the conscious rapping of the frontman’s son, Baruch Hinds—but the mission is timeless: You’re learning while you’re dancing, and thinking hard about human tragedy in the midst of musical joy.

The bad news, then, is that the sad state of world affairs can continue to provide Hinds with no shortage of political and spiritual atrocities to reflect on. In the late ‘70s, global anxieties over immigration and other issues fueled the violent, bigoted far-right in the U.K., inspiring Steel Pulse to make history by joining the burgeoning punk revolution in a series of Rock Against Racism concerts. In 2019, as the same problems resurge, Steel Pulse’s music needs to keep pushing back on record and on the road. “Unfortunately, our message still resonates because nothing has changed over the last 40-odd years the band has been writing music,” Hinds says. The faces in power might change, he explains, but the willingness of governments and administrations to oppress and instill fear in the people persists. “This is why I think what we’re saying is relevant and potent,” he goes on. “We’re saying that it’s time to act upon all this negativity. I want people to know that they can make a difference.”

More than just a roundup of great tracks, Mass Manipulation is best absorbed as a continuous experience. Its thoughtful programming and interlacing themes give it dimensions of cinema and literature—a rarity in any genre, much less reggae, where singles rule. In fact, Hinds’ only real forebear here is Marley, who adopted a similar strategy on masterworks like Survival and Uprising, molding spiritual and political themes into a seamless narrative.

Self-empowerment has always been essential to Steel Pulse’s movement, and Mass Manipulation, the band’s 12th studio album, kicks off with “Rize,” a highly danceable call to arms. Hinds plucks influences from around the world on another album highlight, “Stop You Coming and Come,” an invitation to those in the African diaspora to return to the motherland and make it anew. “Thank the Rebels” is a signature Steel Pulse burner, while “Justice in Jena” and “Human Trafficking” offer insight on the weightiest of issues—the former a spirited treatise on contemporary civil rights; the latter a deft lyrical bridge between historical slavery and contemporary problems of prostitution and child labor.

The album’s first single, “Cry Cry Blood,” is, as Rolling Stone put it, “a meditative rocker with deftly placed horns, guitars and strings bubbling up above the song’s thumping groove.” “Don’t Shoot (I Got My Hands Up)” is a pointed reaction to the plague of killings of unarmed people of color by police, and Mass Manipulation includes in its liner notes a list of 54 victims “so far,” Hinds is quick to point out. The title track finds the singer railing against the corporate control that has pervaded every facet of our lives. On the radio-ready lament “World Gone Mad,” Hinds throws his hands up at the seemingly all-consuming dysfunction.

As ever, Hinds tackles notions of spirituality, both on a universal scale and as they relate more specifically to his Rastafarian faith, and songs like “No Satan Side,” “N.A.T.T.Y. (Natural and True to Yourself)” and “The Final Call” are smart examinations of the growing and healing that can occur within the individual rather than in the streets. Another such track is also an absolute party-starter—a cover of Steve Winwood’s ubiquitous ‘80s hit “Higher Love,” recast here in parentheses as “Rasta Love” and communicating pure, undiluted optimism. The album’s closer, “Nations of the World,” is a similarly joyful message of hope for all humanity. “Black and White Oppressors” began as an exploration of Rastafarian concepts but became a statement against dictatorial mindsets of all stripes.

Mass Manipulation is often a sobering experience lyrically, though in conversation Hinds is resolutely buoyant and bright, about both the culture at large and Steel Pulse’s future. He turns to the #MeToo movement as a surefire sign of social progress—”women are saying something collectively,” he reflects. “Take note of what they’re saying.”

And after decades of exploitation at the hands of major labels, he’s pleased to be releasing music via a new business model that unites Steel Pulse’s imprint, Wiseman Doctrine, with Rootfire Cooperative, a forward-looking nonprofit label that allows artists to retain ownership of their music. Steel Pulse’s association with the likes of Universal, Elektra and Island Records no doubt facilitated some indelible LPs that garnered high visibility; after all, Steel Pulse was the first non-Jamaican act to win the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album, for their 1985 release Babylon the Bandit.

But major-label frustrations of all kinds were present pretty much from the start. Hinds and company wondered where their earnings were going, and found little transparency. There were also clashes over content: One major, for example, flat-out denied Steel Pulse the option of including lyric sheets with their albums—a staunch insult to a purposeful songwriter like Hinds, and a disservice to the band’s global spread of fans, many of whom have learned English in part by listening to their Steel Pulse records. Over the last decade and a half, Steel Pulse has released various singles on their own—among them the buzzed-about “Paint It Black,” an homage to Barack Obama—without seeking the futility of a major-label deal.

These days, in the studio and on tour, it’s the “youngsters,” to borrow Hinds’ term, that Steel Pulse veterans like the singer and backing vocalist/keyboardist Selwyn Brown look to for inspiration. “For the music to stay alive through the years,” Hinds explains, “I’ve realized that it’s necessary to inject new blood into what we’re doing.” That includes his son, the rising rapper whom Hinds nudged toward more politically insightful lyricism, and David “Cirious” Elecciri, a gifted singer and multi-instrumentalist Hinds considers invaluable to the new album’s existence, and who stands as a co-producer alongside Hinds and keyboardist Sidney Mills.

Elecciri grew up on Steel Pulse’s music, as have generations of fans and musicians of all nationalities—like No Doubt drummer Adrian Young, who plays on two of the new album’s tracks. That reggae-fied world is a far cry from the Birmingham, England, where Steel Pulse formed in the mid-’70s, when they had to work doubly hard to prove that reggae produced outside of Jamaica should be taken just as seriously. Reflecting on how the musical language he helped to define has transcended its cultural origins, Hinds sounds like a proud pop. “It’s a beautiful sight to my eyes,” he says, “and a beautiful sound to my ears.”

Still, he hopes for more consciousness in the younger acts, and keeps listening for those rising bands who will continue to fight the necessary fights at Steel Pulse’s level of songcraft and positivity. “I haven’t heard anybody out there,” he says, “who [incorporates] political action into their songs in a way that I’ve imagined.”

For more information, please contact Chris Schimpf, Zoe Sonnenberg or Krista Williams at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.