Skindred – ‘Smile’

By Katherine Allvey

Skindred have spent twenty five years kicking down boundaries, and they won’t be stopping any time soon. Benji Webbe’s dreadlocked flair and distinctive Caribbean vocal style has always set Skindred apart from their weaker and more orthodox contemporaries, and the barriers between metal, dub, jungle and punk mean nothing to Newport’s finest. The good news is that in their five years between albums, they’ve lost none of their skill in firing out beats that smack you like cannonballs. The bad news? There’s some pot holes on their latest album, ‘Smile’, which are unlikely to appease their fans, regardless of which aspect of Skindred’s music they prefer. 

Opening ‘Smile’ with ‘Our Religion’ feels like a statement, drawing a line to say “we’ve still got it”, and indeed, they can still make smart, slamming music which feels like the most righteous parts of multiculturalism put through a blender. ‘Black Stars’ is a spooky, clap-heavy number that doesn’t skimp on social commentary, and the mighty ‘Unstoppable’ is an affirmation of the power of independence and a shiny spine over a primitive, essential beat. ‘Gimme That Boom’ is an absolute stomper that would send a wave of fear through any security guard at the edges of the pit; as soon as Webbe finishes that commanding title to open the track, you just know limbs will start flying. Even ‘State Of The Union’, which is light on the metal but heavy on the electronic pop is an enjoyable vocal exhibition piece. If you’re looking for a good time (of the head-banging variety), give the version of Skindred that made these tracks in particular a call. 

There’s a Jekyll and Hyde character to this record. It could be due to an acknowledgement of Webbe’s roots, or an experiment in a new sound, or just plain old wanting to have fun, but there’s more than a few songs that aren’t very Skindred at all. Yes, ‘Set Fazers’ contains guitar that snarls like an overexcited pitbull, but the band’s attempt to bring in Afrobeat rhythms makes this song come across like a Diplo B-Side. ‘Life That’s Free’ is like a remix of itself. Throwing Jungle beats under metal guitar might be an amusing musical variant to find on YouTube, but Skindred should be better than that; dipping and weaving within genres on the same song smacks of uncertainty. Then, there’s ‘L.O.V.E (Smile Please)’, AKA the song that will give new Skindred fans a very misleading impression about what they sound like. Jolly pop-reggae featuring Muppets in the video would not have been in anyone’s predictions for inclusion on their new album. If it’s supposed to be a joke, it’s one that’s provoking tumbleweeds of confusion. If it’s a serious new direction, then we all collectively need to have a quiet word with the band and check they’re ok. 

This would have been a tremendous album if Skindred had used their newly polished sound to give the people what they want. There’s more than a few top-tier songs on here that belong on the band’s greatest hits list, but those diamonds are in the middle of a lot of confusing lukewarm pond water. With a UK tour lined up to coincide with the release of ‘Smile’ and carrying on into the autumn, the big hitting songs on this album will likely play very well and become setlist staples. With any luck, some of the more ‘inventive’ tracks will be gently left as footnotes to an otherwise glowing renaissance.

KATE ALLVEY

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