It's been 25 years since Augustus Pablo released what most reggae lovers consider his masterpiece, East of the River Nile. Now the good folks at Shanachie are using the anniversary as a reason to reissue the album -- with much-improved sound and a half-dozen killer bonus tracks. Still, one has to wonder whether last year's smash debut by Gorillaz had anything to do with the decision to reissue Nile. The Gorillaz disc is undoubtedly the most successful album ever to feature the melodica, an instrument that's become synonymous with Pablo, who died in 1999.
Of course, the impetus for the rerelease of Nile is irrelevant. What matters is that the album's contents have never sounded better, and the new bonus tracks maintain the incredibly high standard of the 12 original tracks.
By the time East of the River Nile was released in 1977, Pablo had racked up nearly a decade of experience as a session keyboardist, producer and solo artist. Along with King Tubby and Lee Perry, Pablo was an early architect of the dizzying subgenre of dub reggae. This early form of remixing blended sound effects, echo, phasing and radical cut-up methods, resulting in a disorienting stew of sound that placed the emphasis on rhythm rather than vocals.
It's Pablo's work in this area that has led so many to refer to Nile as a dub album. It isn't, but fans of dub will find much to like here. Like most dub music, Nile is almost entirely instrumental and features more than its share of shifting rhythm patterns and reverb. But strictly speaking, Nile is just an instrumental reggae album. The knob-twiddling is kept to a minimum, leaving Pablo's haunting melodica lines plenty of room to establish a melancholic mood. His keyboard work impresses as well, avoiding the slick sheen that would later mar so much roots reggae.
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With an album this consistently brilliant, it's hard to pick highlights, but the title track is an obvious one. Unlike anything that came before it, it's is a timeless drum-and-bass workout that will leave first-time listeners clamoring for more Pablo. With any luck, Shanachie's reissue series will accommodate that demand.