New Age Steppers - Stepping Into A New Age (Boxset, On-U) 2

New Age Steppers – Stepping Into A New Age (Boxset, On-U)

It was only recently that I was listening to Cut, The Slits debut album, when this comes my way, a collection of albums from collective New Age Steppers. But why should I make this connection? Well in this case it’s Ariane Daniela Forster, or Ari Up, as she was otherwise known, the band’s frontwoman who is the common link. Dub-music record producer Adrian Sherwood, along with Ari would bring together a host of musicians to form New Age Steppers, recording a series of albums that are available here. This collection also includes the posthumous album Love Forever and a collection of outtakes in the form of Avant Gardening. These later 2, served for the first time on vinyl, are an important offering from this loose studio collective, born of both reggae and the post-punk scenes of the early 80s. Sherwood was also responsible for his distinctive production style, based on the application of dub effects and dub mixing techniques, which he offered to other forms of electronic dance and popular music outside of the genre. Artists the likes of Coldcut, Depeche Mode, Pop Will Eat Itself, and Primal Scream, are among just a few of those who have had their experience enhanced by his touch.

On their debut, this collection starts with Fade Away, a number that gives the listener an insight into what they might expect from these albums. With a heavy bass-line part of the mix, this is something you will always be able to centre yourself by. Ari Up’s lyrics are full of social and political commentary: “…the rich is getting richer every day and the little that the poor man has got, will be taken away, so hear what I say, hear what I say, it will be taken away…”. The tunes here are more than late-evening listening; I see the listener bathed in a heavy mist of bass-lines, vocal echo, and rim-shots, as they immerse themselves in a zone of chilled vibes. Ari’s vocal sweetness is alarmingly perfect, just the way she sings like a bird, “…love forever..“, while tape echo and mistimed payback are heard. As the album continues, something that I will take with me are the lines on ‘Crazy Dreams And High Ideals’, “…our ideals will prevail because we refuse to be the stepping stones that pave the way for the small minority…”, just a glimpse of what would blossom into how many would take a stand, against the route which society was taking during the 1980s. After 8 tracks, ‘Private Armies’ rounds off this album and from that unmistakable bass guitar, a saxophone that seems almost lost in the arrangement, to echo within this heavy dub soup of bass and drum. Ari’s vocal can then be heard, “…if the heavy metal boys or the boys in blue don’t like the look of you, then you’d better watch out, don’t like the look of you, you’d better watch out…”. As I sit here 40 years on, this collective paranoia seems something that authority breeds and like the music seems etched in time. A great document of its age.

Described as “The quick-fire follow-up to the New Age Steppers’ self-titled debut”, Action Battlefield, is an extension to their debut, although with slightly different players. For this “loose collective”, it seems that only Adrian, Ari, and bassist George Oban are the only consistent element. Among those players is Neneh Cherry, heard here harmonising on ‘My Love’ and among the many names who became part of this recording. Cherry had lived in a Battersea squat with Ari, which around this time would have been where many of the social ideals within the vocal came from. At this point a long way off the Criminal Justice Bill, but still an emotive talking point. The gorgeous ‘My Whole World’ introduces this recording, the lyric proceeds “My whole world is dying, then I’ll be free from crying…”, as Ari proceeds into a glimpse of what seems might be her personal life. Sherwood’s dub technique high in the mix, with bass, drum, and echo vying for the listeners’ attention. Later, the aforementioned ‘My Love’, is introduced and is a different take from the heady dub we had witnessed previously. With a light and breezy guitar riff, to a hi-hat that tiptoes through the number, this is a welcome relief from the socially charged commentary. With an introduction reminiscent of the 60s police drama Dragnet, ‘Problems’ gathers as much pace as a dub number is going to muster. Ari then guides us in this journey through social issues, with the occasional echo of a reggae minor chord adding to the drama. As ‘Guiding Star’ concludes this album’s offering, it’s good to remember that this is not just an example of Ari Up’s vocal, or Sherwood’s production touch, but is an example of a whole genre.

1983 saw the release of ‘Foundation Steppers’, with “Eskimo Fox” stepping aside for Style Scott on drums. It would seem a whole cast was brought in to work on harmonies, with around 7 vocalists adding these throughout the album. A lovely stroke is included as Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’, is covered. First performed by American singer Ethel Waters at The Cotton Club, these artists give their dub-take on the song. You’ll get where I’m coming from if I introduce the track, “I don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather, since my man and I ain’t together…”; there’s something sublime in this reworking of the number. Glorious horns are added to many of the songs here, with Jamaican trombone player Vin Gordon, being among those credited. This set is turning out to be a who’s who in the musical offering, a pool of talent that just keeps on giving. ‘Misplaced Love’ is another tune that is worth further investigation, its synth chords worth the cover price in themselves, but as the late Bim Sherman provides vocal, his palate of coffee tones are another reason. An album where Ari seems to take a less upfront placing, I’m seeing her at the back of the studio, soaking up the vibes offered by such a cast. As if I thought dub couldn’t get even heavier, I think this album has trumped the previous offering in this context.

Having bathed in the previous 3 albums from ’81-’83, I sense that it is the following album we are here to listen to. ‘Love Forever’ is the posthumous release from New Age Steppers and quite unlike anything we have heard before. Released originally in 2012, this now sees its first outing on vinyl, which I guess is the way both musicians and fans alike would want to hear it. First is ‘Love Me Nights’, with vocals on this album provided by both Ari Up and Adrian’s daughter, reggae singer Denise Sherwood, and attributing vocals to one or another might be slightly difficult. Just to say the whole approach appears to possess a fresher, less tobacco-soaked vibe. ‘Love Me Nights’ appears to be a dark tale of love, as you might assume when the vocal proceeds, “What’s the use, where’s the way, when you love me at night, hate me by day…”. It is this darker hue that gives this number a real interest, that like a narcotic will leave to wanting more, so I hit repeat. Ari’s untimely passing in 2012 meant that this project was likewise brought to an untimely close, but listening to this last album by the collective, it seems that a lot more was to come. A fresh vibe is at play, and  from lyric to instrumentation, this album has a lot more to offer. To close, a rather odd musical excursion is taken in ‘Death of the Trees’, without vocal this proceeds with piano strokes reminiscent of my childhood spent in the company with Oliver Postgate children’s television (I must seek out a youTube episode of Bagpuss), but then these keystrokes take a darker turn, as both composition and tone lend themselves to a Hammer Horror production, still with the mice taking a turn around the mouse organ.

To round-off, this offering concludes with the new LP ‘Avant Gardening’, a collection of “rare dubs, version excursions, and unreleased tracks…”, as the title’s description offers. This is like finding those scraps once thought unworthy of offering to the table, re-imagining them and then bringing them back as a dish worthy of a Michelin Star, or maybe just snacking in front of the TV. It contains elements you might be familiar with, such as heavy bass runs and vocal snapshots, and delightful lyrics, like those from ‘Send For Me’. Ari sings “…If you ever leave me – no, just a telephone call – Brrr-ing, send for me, put a message in a bottle baby, send for me…”, and just like sugar, just a little bit more. Through instrumentals ‘Izalize’, to ‘Unclear’, to the vocal number ‘Singing Love’, although perhaps not worthy of individual release, as part of this collection are very worthwhile. Being a collector of any scrap from an artists arsenal, I can see and hear exactly where you would put these. The wailing in ‘I Scream (Rim Shot)’ some might consider a step too far, but again if the artist felt it worthy, who am I to disagree, I’ll just sit back and listen. Great echo has been applied and the same goes for that on the title track ‘Avant Gardening’, as just over 4 minutes of similar metallic echo is applied to both piano and screams alike. Some might think sublime, but in the right frame of mind, worthy of its place. The album concludes with 3 versions of songs previously heard, alternate takes of numbers bringing this album to a close. This is a collection of 5 albums from legendary label On-U. Collecting together and reissuing these on vinyl, from Ari Up and Adrian Sherwood’s New Age Steppers, if you were looking for a mix of dub, reggae, and post-punk vibes, then look no further. 

Stepping Into The New Age is released on 19th March through On-U.

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