In the understated classics series, I try to alternate between pop/rock and electronic albums. Keeping with this trend number eight is the wonderful dub-infused album Second Light by Dreadzone. Released in 1996 it was well-received critically and four of its tracks featured on John Peel’s best-of-year list that year. Little Britain received a lot of radio play, a popular choice for that flag-waving period of britpop and assorted other demons.
The strengths of Second Light as an album is the anglicana of its first half and the subversion of it in the second half. I often talk of how albums are front-loaded with the best tracks to get you immersed in them. This is probably a hangover from vinyl where you could repeatedly play one side, making it necessary to make cohesive ‘sides’ of music.
Despite having two distinct sides Second Light is a coherent album. It starts with the gentle dub rumbler Life, Love & Unity. The first sample you hear sets the tone: it’s from Monty Python & The Holy Grail. There’s a lovely wash of it and other samples (“The family that prays together, stays together”) as the track gets under way. This signifies the Englishness and cheekiness of what is to follow, while at the same time introducing a rumbling dub reggae beat. The album is filigreed with interesting samples and dialogue akin to the best work of The Orb. There aren’t many lyrical passages from the band itself, especially compared to later albums, there’s no more on the album until Zion Youth over halfway in.
Next comes a wonderful trilogy of (mostly) instrumental tracks Little Britain, A Canterbury Tale, and Captain Dread. The first and the third of these use pastoral riffs and reels to produce energetic dance music that intersects neatly with the folk heritage it seeks to appropriate. A Canterbury Tale acts as a beautiful interlude between the two more upbeat tracks. It evolves slowly in a shimmer of sunshine and gorgeous choral vocals that may or may not be sampled from a more famous classical piece. It is probably my favourite track on the album.
The main feature of Dreadzone’s music is the dub reggae sound and obviously that does not feature as much on Little Britain, A Canterbury Tale, and Captain Dread. We start to go deeper into dub in the next few tracks. The bassline of Captain Dread gives out into the burbling atmospherics of Cave Of Angels, using some unknown movie dialogue (“In the cave we must be very careful not to offend the gods”) and a vocal sample that drives us underground toward subterranean levels of bass. As such we get closer to the dub sound but maintain the connection to England, in the form of a vision question to a mystic Arthurian Albion - home of Excalibur and the Holy Grail.
Then from Zion Youth onward, anything goes. If by ‘anything’ you mean dub-centric house tunes. It has catchy vocals, actually the only other proper vocals by members of the group on the album after Life, Love & Unity. Zion Youth was also released as a single and there is a cracking Underworld remix about. It is one of the mixes in which Darren Emerson had more input; it dispenses with the reggae lilt and replaces it with some steely progressive house. There are enough references to the original to make it work brilliantly.
For me, the second best track on the album is One Way and it is almost the opposite of A Canterbury Tale. It’s still pretty laid back but is much more fluid and dispenses with vocal samples altogether. Meanwhile, a wonderful bass line lopes up along with what sound like 303s, and it builds into something that you can’t help but dance to. I fear for my neighbours each time that I have it on.
Shining Path revisits the Cave Of Angels territory, another laid back eastern-influenced track with chimes and flutes. It’s pinned together with what sounds like samples from a self-hypnosis tape. It is the track I was listening to when I took a picture of the sun while walking home from work - one of those moments where the music you are listening to and the world around you combine to produce a transcendent moment.
To close the album, Out Of Heaven surfs down on a piano riff and a gentle bassline brings everything back to earth. The bass gets more strident in the middle but the track is all downtempo. Delicate female vocals and male choirs echo around, synths burble, and slowed down disco strings strut their stuff. A disembodied voice occasionally repeats “Maybe I was lucky that way”. It’s beautiful and makes me think of what it must be like walking along the sea shore staring at the full moon on a balmy summer night.
This fantastic album proves a number of things. First, John Peel really knew his stuff. Second, if there is such a thing as a ‘difficult second album’ (I have discussed this before) then this is one of those exceptions that proves the rule. Third, it is possible to make a dance album with long tracks that doesn’t feel like a grueling experience.
To my mind, Dreadzone never again made as complete an album as this one. There have been some stand-out tracks though: Earth Angel from their next album Biological Radio and American Dread from their most recent album Eye On The Horizon spring to mind.