There is perhaps no more revered figure active in reggae today than Winston Rodney, AKA Burning Spear. With the passing of Dennis Brown in 1999, there are precious few reggae artists who have persevered since the formative years of the genre and fewer still who continue to release material on an ongoing basis. Burning Spear is the preeminent reggae survivor, supplying fans with classic roots reggae over the past five decades with amazingly little variance in quality.
Not as accessible in sound as the Memphis soul of Toots Hibbert, the upbeat pop of Jimmy Cliff, or Bob Marley’s iconic canon, Burning Spear’s work is an acquired taste. His material is almost exclusively cultural and/or religious, staid, and just plain heavy in a way that may send the casual listener running for the comforting arms of Shaggy or Big Mountain.
His solemnity stems not only from his subject matter, but also from a vocal style that is often more akin to chanting than singing. His melodies are thus not terribly distinct or catchy and tend to drone at times with their repetition. One could relate his style to hard jazz — loosely structured, hard to listen to, but for fans, very much appreciated and respected.
Before Rodney hit it big internationally with his ’70s Island recordings, he cut his teeth on Jamaica’s answer to Motown, the Studio One label. Creation Rebel gathers most of the amazing singles he released as Burning Spear on Studio One between 1969 and 1974. Almost all of them were included on 1973’s Studio One Presents Burning Spear and 1974’s Rockin’ Time, although about half of the tracks on Creation Rebel are stereo mixes previously unavailable on CD. While the sound quality is much better on this release than on those early sets, it’s understandably still a bit fuzzy and not at the level of the polished Island stuff.
This, however, is the only complaint — and a minor one at that — that you could lodge against this set. These songs form at atmospheric showcase for what, in 1969, was quite a groundbreaking sound. Along with the Abyssinians’ work, these Burning Spear tunes helped usher in the cultural, righteous, Rastafarian roots reggae style that groups like Culture and the Wailers would later ride to success.
It’s evident listening to this album that the raw power we’ve come to know from Burning Spear’s work has always been present. It’s perhaps even more apparent in these early tracks, whose creaky rock steady/early reggae sound and production values lend to the feel of an old blues album. Rodney’s droning pace and repetitive vocal structure only adds to the bluesy, hypnotic air.
Since Burning Spear began as a trio, there’s more of a classic roots harmony sound on these tracks than on Rodney’s more recent solo work. In particular, check out “This Race”, “What a Happy Day”, and two of the best songs on this compilation, “This Population” and “New Civilization”. Amazingly, neither of these latter two has been available on CD, a fact that alone almost makes Creation Rebel worth the price.
But wait, there’s more! You also get gems like Rodney’s debut single “Door Peeper” (later remade as “Door Peep” for the Man in the Hills album), “Swell Headed”, “Call on You”, “He Prayed”, “Rocking Time”, and the marvelous title track.
Certainly, Burning Spear has a gritty sound that won’t always appeal to reggae newcomers, but for those who like their roots unassuming, unfiltered, uncompromising, and “rebellious from creation”, Creation Rebel is practically perfect.