Akae Beka’s new album Portals is yet another brilliant collaboration between Vaughn Benjamin and Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred of I-Grade Records. It is an album with a sound and vibe much different than Akae Beka’s 2015 debut album, which was produced by the Fifth Son crew out of New Mexico, and one which underscores Vaughn Benjamin’s legendary status as the finest roots chanter of the modern era.
Portals kicks off proper with “Heavy Low,” a signature atmospheric I-Grade production which features Benjamin rhyming rhythmically over a dubbed out deep roots riddim. I absolutely love the vibe of this riddim and the manner in which Tippy-I blends Benjamin’s layered vocals with the guitars and dub effects as the tune comes to a close. Benjamin flows effortlessly in this familiar realm – vintage I-Grade with Tippy-I at the controls, a collaboration that goes back nearly two decades. Killer, killer tune. “Ideals of the Emperor” comes heavy with the horns and vocal effects. One of the hardest tracks in the set.
Fans will be delighted to hear “Like Rhyme” included in this set. Akae Beka has opened plenty shows with this tune and it is one of the finest to appear on the album. Benjamin is in top form, chanting stream of consciousness over a dense I-Grade production featuring blistering horns. “People go through similar things same time, experience tell the story, experience tell the story, if you don’t mind, cause life to flow like rhyme.”
Guitarist Padraic Coursey is stellar on Portals. His brilliant guitar work is interwoven almost intrinsically with Benjamin’s commanding vocal. Its very difficult for any single musician to shine when Benjamin’s vocal and lyrical content commands such attention from the listener, however, Coursey accomplishes it and his performance only lifts that of everyone else on the track. His guitar work is an essential element to the sound created on the album, which is unlike any sound I’ve heard in roots reggae. Benjamin and I-Grade have never shied away from pushing the envelope on imaginative new sounds. Portals proves that roots reggae is not only alive and well but that there are still yet new frontiers that have yet to be explored.
Like previous Akae Beka/MIDNITE releases, Portals is completely devoid of one element usually considered essential to reggae recordings – backing female vocals. It is a tradition that dates back to Marley’s use of the I-Three to bring a softer element to his recordings. It is just another example of Akae Beka’s unique recording style, one of the many things that separates him from other contemporary reggae acts.
Portals is a modern roots masterpiece. It is a testament to the supreme talents of both Vaughn Benjamin and Laurent “Tippy-I” Alfred, whose works together achieves a greatness which exceeds the sum of their individual parts. Alfred knows exactly where Benjamin likes to be within the mix and he gets him there each and every time. It is a more introspective Vaughn Benjamin we hear on Portals. He is an artist not afraid to test new boundaries and he is not willing to stand on the sideline and let the band create new sounds without being fully committed. He goes all in himself. I enjoy every track on this album. There are always high expectations when Benjamin and I-Grade come together for a project and this is one of their best collaborations to date.