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Album Review

Mark Stewart's Edit, on Crippled Dick/Hot Wax, is his first album of new material in 12 years. It seems astonishing that Bristol's post-punk, dub-funk, godfather could disappear for so long, but, as he explains to the camera in a clip from On-Off, a documentary about him: "I just hang out with my friends, most of whom are builders; it's general hooliganism until I get interested again." There isn't a hint of irony in it, either. After fronting the Pop Group during the 1980s, Stewart hooked up with dub producer and On-U Sound label boss Adrian Sherwood. He formed his own group, the Maffia, with Sherwood and the Sugarhill Records rhythm section: guitarist Skip McDonald, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Keith LeBlanc. Together they crafted an iconoclastic brand of sonic terrorism that is equal parts fractured funk, warped dub, warbled dystopian poetry, electro, and modernist techno, speaker shattering hip-hop, and metal.

On first listen, Edit doesn't sound that different from its immediate predecessors, but that's the warped beauty of it — it is. The Maffia has been expanded to include cut chemists and other guests. It's the most live sounding record he's ever made. With his trademark embrace of new technologies and styles — in this case, electroclash — Stewart has begun crafting his songs into tighter, more recognizable structures, with less erratic, more transitional rhythmic changes — though the mix is denser than ever. Just over 41 minutes, Edit's 11 songs bang their human-versus-machine conflict with ass shaking, mind-melting intensity. Check the hypnotic, spine-cracking bassline in "Rise Again" that never moves, even as enormous, crackling drums, percussion loops, a female backing chanted with Stewart's strange key vocal up front, turn this funk number into a socialist gospel tune. On "Puppet Master," a sampled announcer ushers in a horn loop, drum wipes, and drop-dead dub-static bass. Stewart enters moaning: "There's low life/in high places/scandals behind closed doors..." before he's answered by a back-masked calliope, and a TV persona: "I will become master of the universe." Tablas, LeBlanc's cymbal fills, flailing congas, turntablist invention, and Sherwood's spazzed-out effects swamp the mix as guitar and bass repeat the vamp. The real prize here is "Strange Cargo." Beginning with samples of African drumming and chants, a disembodied natty dread radio announcer, and McDonald's snaky reggae guitar, Stewart's lyrics about human trafficking are chillingly poetic. An utterly ethereal backing chorus follows each line into the heart of the rhythm. All the instruments and voices — save for a bewildered yet accusatory Stewart, who feels uncomfortably present — sound displaced, like ghosts coming through time. "Secret Suburbia" is another ace, with Denise Sherwood and Samia Farah on duet and backing vocals. An enormous Maffia acid-funk vamp is the backbone of the track with distorted guitar and drums in the driver's seat. Sherwood's jaw-tighteningly taut mix, combined with Stewart's broken, bent faux soulman rant, makes this a scathing socio-political indictment you can dance to. There's also a startling cover of the Yardbirds' "Mister You're a Better Man Than I" with the Slits' Ari Up. "Almost Human" is Stewart's first broken love song, but it's hardly sophomoric, it's righteously pissed off and grief-stricken.

Edit is a better recording than either Control Data or Metatron and ranks with Learning to Cope with Cowardice in quality. It reveals Stewart's constant ability to reinvent himself without sacrificing any of his compositional ingenuity or biting lyrical integrity.


Genre: Electronic

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

An enduring figure on the edgy frontiers of the British music scene, Mark Stewart first came to prominence as a member of the punk/dub noisemaking squad the Pop Group, and has been storming musical boundaries and making powerful, confrontational music ever since. Stewart was born and raised in Bristol, England and attended Bristol Grammar School; one of his school friends was Nick Sheppard, who later went on to join the Cortinas and the Cut the Crap-era Clash. Emboldened by punk but not impressed...
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