The Congos was the reggae vocal trio of Cedric Myton, Ryodel Johnson, and Watty Burnett, and Heart of the Congos was their debut album, recorded and produced by the legendary Lee "Scratch" Perry at his Black Ark studio. The album is justifiably considered a classic of the genre, built on the gorgeous multi-layered vocal harmonies of the singers and some of Perry's very best production work. Perry was known for an energetic, eclectic sound (especially on his albums with his studio band the Upsetters) but on Heart of the Congos he sympathetically tailors his production to the much more low-key and spiritual vibes of the Congos. The production is still rich and remarkably detailed — one need only listen to the albums the Congos later made without Perry to hear how much depth he brought to these songs — but it never overwhelms the group's lovely vocals.
The first track, "Fisherman," immediately establishes the signature sound of this disc. The music slowly churns and skates along, with drums occasionally rolling and cresting like waves, while Cedric Myton's pure, high falsetto (the most distinctive sound of the group) glides above the guitar. Perry augments the stripped-down groove with chiming bells and percussive accents, along with an occasional piercing sound effect, but the emphasis remains on the vocals. The contrast between Myton's falsetto and the more moderate tenor of Johnson is the essential sound of the Congos, with Burnett's husky baritone periodically joining in for an even more dramatic contrast. Burnett was brought into the Congos by Perry for this session, and when his deep tones unexpectedly enter for a verse towards the end of this first song, the effect is startling, a sudden drop from Myton's high, soaring tones to this rich low-register drone.
On the second track, "Congoman," Perry's production is even more basic: a simple and repetitive drum figure provides a constant percussive base for the harmonies that the vocalists weave through and around this foundation. The music has hints of African chanting and tribal rhythms in both the vocals and the drums, and the effect is haunting and melancholy, suggesting dense jungles and mysterious darkness. The opening seconds of the song provide a perfect example of Perry's production genius: that simple beat kicks in immediately, and it will scarcely change over the course of the track's 6+ minutes, but a mere 20 seconds in the beat suddenly drops out and the vocals, sounding eerie and distant, introduce the song's lyrical and melodic theme before a dubby wash ushers the beat back in. Such little touches, like this slight variation from the song's solid foundation, are the mark of Perry's clever, detail-oriented production style.
There's a lot of variety on this album, even while it sticks close to the general territory of soulful, spiritual reggae with tastefully subtle production. "Children Crying" backs Johnson's lead vocals with a rich stew of backing vocals, a steady groove, and an odd moaning echo that sounds like a cow's cry. "The Wrong Thing" rides in on a wave of tinkling cymbals, with Myton vocalizing a few playful, wordless beeps right at the start. "Solid Foundation" (the final song on the original album, though the reissues have added at least 2 bonus tracks) is perhaps the best showcase for Myton's falsetto, with his clean high tones answered and overlapped with a chorus of backing vocals. The vocal interplay is very complex: the lead and the backing vocals engage in call-and-response sessions that bleed together until they're layered rather than answering one another.
Although I've picked out a few highlights so far, I could easily keep praising each song individually. The first two songs provide one of the best possible one-two opening salvos, but even more remarkable is that the album doesn't taper off after that. Heart of the Congos is the rare album where every song is a carefully polished gem in itself — the bouncy, deceptively cheery "La La Bam-Bam" (with its lyrics about Biblical betrayals) is probably the only song here that I don't absolutely adore, and even that's a pretty solid song.
Rather than continue to gush, though, one issue I'd like to raise is the album's lyrical content. The lyrics are almost exclusively spiritual and religious, expressions of the musicians' Christian-derived Rastafari faith. One aspect of the album that has often intrigued me is the fire-and-brimstone exultation of eternal punishment for the unfaithful, as expressed especially on the back-to-back songs "Can't Come In" and "Sodom and Gomorrow." Both songs are rooted in exclusionary religious fervor; there's a sense running through both songs that the faithful should celebrate the consignment of the unfaithful to eternal fire. It's the kind of regressive religious idea that has always troubled me, in any context, and it especially produces a lot of cognitive dissonance when it's coupled to an absolutely beautiful song like "Can't Come In," a song that despite its lyrical content I find strangely moving simply for the quality of the voices alone. I'm not saying this is a big problem or anything, by any means. I love this album, and the lyrics are the least significant component of this music in my opinion. It's just something I've often thought of regarding this album, and I wonder if anyone else had any thoughts about some of the lyrical themes.
Heart of the Congos is, to my taste, one of the greatest of all reggae albums. Lee Perry produced a handful of other classic front-to-back albums (by artists like Max Romeo, Junior Byles, the Heptones and Junior Murvin) but as good as those are, I'd argue that this recording's mix of subdued but distinctive production with the unparalleled voices of the Congos constitutes a peak of the genre. The album was not heralded in its time, unfortunately. Perry was in the midst of a dispute with Island Records that prevented a wide release, and the lackluster limited release the album did receive prompted the Congos to break with Perry for subsequent albums. It's a shame, because on their own the Congos never managed to make another statement as sparkling and powerful as this one, and it took many years for Heart of the Congos to be recognized as the masterpiece it is.
I hope some people love this album as much as I do, and I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts. I know some people have a negative perception of reggae, so if there's anyone like that here, did Heart of the Congos change your mind or merely confirm your distaste for the genre? Was anyone inspired to check out more reggae based on this? Or are there some other reggae fans here who probably already know and love this disc? Anyone is welcome to join the discussion, I look forward to hearing from you all!