Skindred is a band that formed in 1998 with the mission of blending black music styles like reggae, dub and rap with punk and heavy metal, which are traditionally white dominated styles. In retrospect, this might sound like an ambitious 20th century experiment, but in actuality, metal’s re-hybridization (it originally came from slow blues, after all) was already well under way. Korn, led by that wacky scat-singing Jonathan Davis, were on their third LP. Sepultura’s Roots, Brazilian-folk influence and all, was already two years old. Rage Against the Machine and Evil Empire were both firmly established as canon. 311 had just gone platinum and the Deftones were enjoying their own summer (of being shoved into rock radio playlists).
But Skindred were not simply hitching their reggae-punk-rap-metal car to a passing train – singer Benji Webbe spent years on the front lines of the Dub War – during his time with the band Dub War, which combined punk and ragga (not to be confused with straight reggae) among other genres, and put out several releases between 1993 and their demise in 1998.
Complicating things is the fact that Skindred hail from Wales, in the United Kingdom. The intermixing of musical genres on that side of the pond follows a different timeline and set of conditions than the ones we are familiar with here. An infusion of immigrants and culture from the Caribbean (former slave colonies under the British Empire) resulted in a fascination with Jamaican rude boy culture among working class British mods in the 1960’s, which led to…
This is to say that Skindred are not just fallout from that weird moment in America when lots of young white men found both their inner Chuck D and Ras Tafari at the same time, found pens in their hands poised over giant record deals, and everybody got rich while America’s parents got frightened and confused.
But none of this really matters much – except to illustrate that although Skindred may sound a little bit like dated nü-metal on first blush, the roots of their sound go much deeper than that. They also draw on the wonderful tradition of outliers like Bad Brains and Living Colour, who occupied an ambiguous racial space in the music landscape, but transcended the dissonance by means of actual dissonance.
As one reading of the name suggests, Skindred is a project that seeks to unify cultures. As is apparent on latest full-length Volume, neither their mission nor their sound has changed drastically since their debut full-length, 2002’s Babylon. Webbe delivers his vocals in a panoply of styles – imagine a less cartoony Mike Patton with a winsome patois. His rapping, toasting, singing, barking and screaming are all well developed. His charisma does much to move the album along.
This is not to take away from the rest of the band. Guitarist Mikeydemus’ guitar tone is downtuned, bassy and rich – almost djent-like in spots. While much of the time he simply delivers the appropriate chord progression, once in a while he hits a vein – like the lurching, grimace-inducing chord progression from “Shut Ya Mouth.” Bassist Dan Pugsley provides crucial low end, and is especially prominent in the sections that approach a dubbier sound. Drummer Arya Goggin is a chameleon, switching styles, rhythms and surfaces to fit the many genres on tap. DJ/programmer Dan Sturgess may not make as many obvious contributions, but closer listens reveal his fingerprints, especially on the awesome but very short ragga piece “III.”
It soon becomes apparent that Skindred are playing to one particular strength on Volume. This is their ability to conjure huge, sugary hooks and choruses. Great confections of candy-coated melody with immaculately compressed fillings aim straight for the sweet tooth. “Under Attack” and “The Healing” are fine examples of where this works. However, songs like “Straight Jacket” don’t’ work as well, and lay the methodology bare. In these instances the use of the surrounding material as a vehicle for the chorus seems a little chintzy and formulaic.
Volume also approaches social justice, but in a vague sorta way. There are enemies and oppressors who lurk as a threatening force. “Stand Up,” “No Justice” and “Under Attack” are redolent of recent demonstrations and activism, but Skindred don’t get much more specific than that. “Saying It Now” and “Three Words,” meanwhile, are practically ragga-metal hallmark cards, stressing the preciousness of friendship, life and love.
A fair amount of metalheads will simply not like Volume. If you cannot bring yourself to earnestly enjoy P.O.D. or Soulfly, you’d probably best move along. For those with open ears, Volume is still a toss-up. At its worst, it simply sounds like alternative metal verse-CHORUS-bridge-verse-CHORUS with jerk seasoning sprinkled over it. It would be great to hear Skindred’s unique fusion in a more progressive, conceptually ambitious framework, but that ain’t happening here folks. Still, at its best, Skindred’s vibrant pastiche brings to mind hypermodern cities in which close-packed cultural cell walls have split open, allowing the fluid information bath of history and tradition to flow freely. It is a sound of urban unity and cultural fearlessness that is imperfect, yet inspiring.