Lee "Scratch" Perry
Panic in Babylon
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Purchasing an album by Lee "Scratch" Perry always has been a bit of a crap shoot. Over the years, his work has been so pirated, bootlegged, and counterfeited that it frequently has been a challenge — even for the most vigilant of his fans — to be sure of what they’re buying. Only Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley have been as poorly served and misrepresented by unscrupulous record labels. While the best of Perry’s work is unparalleled in the reggae and psychedelic music genres, there’s so much unlistenable or half-finished product on the market that often only the most ardent members of his audience are willing to take a risk on a new release bearing his name. Still, it’s not entirely fair to blame the bootleggers. With the exception of a few stellar collaborations with Adrian Sherwood that were issued more than a decade ago, many of Perry’s latter day albums have been spectacular duds for which no one but he can take the blame. Like many prolific artists, he has released a plethora of albums with one or two killer tracks around which are scattered a dozen or so questionable songs that are full of half-realized ideas that would have been better left on the cutting room floor.
What a wonderful surprise it is, then, to listen to Perry’s latest release Panic in Babylon. While some tracks undeniably are better than others, there is not a single lame song on the album. A sense of joy and creativity is infused into every single tune, spanning genres from dub to roots-reggae, while crossing over into trance and dance hall. Beautifully layered with effects and samples that emerge each time it is heard, Panic in Babylon finds Perry, at age 71, once again exploring new sonic frontiers, and the outing manages to sound, at once, both contemporary and classic. Impeccably recorded and mixed, the endeavor places his wacky stream-of-consciousness lyrics at the forefront, and these are buoyed by rhythms that defy logic and traditional musical sense. Perry has long been a believer in extraterrestrials, and, while listening to Panic in Babylon, his contention that aliens help him to compose his music doesn’t seem far fetched. Indeed, much of the material doesn’t seem to originate from anywhere in our known universe.
Simultaneously challenging and soothing, Panic in Babylon is a release that discerning music fans everywhere ought to enjoy. Comparisons are difficult. Perry is a reggae icon to be sure, but such a description is limited and doesn’t do justice to the entirety of his vision. In terms of sheer musical creativity and inventiveness, Perry’s output, when he’s doing his best work, easily stands alongside the works of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Miles Davis. Panic in Babylon is an essential disc, and it is the unexpected gem that all of Perry’s fans knew he had left in him, though they also had given up hope that he actually would succeed in birthing it.
Panic in Babylon is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box