Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution is a daring, politically-charged album that holds no punches in its bare critique of social inequality.
Handsworth Revolution (1978) strays from the typical reggae blueprint of sun-drenched grooves and carefree themes. Breaking free from this mold, Handsworth Revolution is an exquisite roots reggae album by a band looking to establish its musical identity. The album is every bit as raw and contentious as its title would suggest. Don’t let the grungy exterior fool you though, Handsworth Revolution is a diamond in the rough.
Immediately, Steel Pulse establishes the pace with the titular track. “Handsworth Revolution” is a heartfelt yearning for widespread change, coming from the steely Handsworth area that seems to grace the band’s album cover. Confronting racial discrimination, injustice and corruption, the band sings about reclaiming its hometown for future generations. The deceivingly-collected rhythm quickly erupts into a rapid-fire, impromptu spoken-word verse towards the end of the song. “Handsworth Revolution” holds no punches and serves as a solid introduction to prelude the rest of the album.
Steel Pulse follows with the derelict “Bad Man” – a song so primal in its delivery that it almost sounds as though it was produced deep within the jungle badlands. Lead singer David Hinds’ taunts to “leave town” are embellished by guitar riffs and a cacophony of guttural chants from the background singers. Hinds also uses clever metaphors to illustrate his point: there can be no sharing of power, because he is the “badder” man. Make no mistake; “Bad Man” is full of bravado and pretension. However, if one examines the song more closely, there are also subtle signs of weakness and insecurity. “Bad Man” is also a message about slavery. “Four-hundred years” and “strange fruit” are meaningful historical references that give the song its intellectual edge.
One of the more reserved tracks on the album, “Sound Check” is an odd, but thoughtful ode to music and dance. “Prodigal Son” highlights the album, with its foreboding rhythm and highly critical lyrics. The song artfully uses the jeremiad rhetorical device and draws upon the Biblical parable to craft a transcendent narrative of redemption. “Prodigal Son” is a powerful, apocalyptic admonishment of a wayward, materialistic society on the brink of collapse. Finally, “Ku Klux Klan” is every bit as fiery as the title would suggest. The rebellious “Ku Klux Klan” is quintessential Steel Pulse material.
Uncompromising and politically-charged, Handsworth Revolution is an anomaly in the reggae genre. With one foot in the Caribbean roots reggae scene and the other foot in the punk movement in England at the time, the album would eventually become representative of Steel Pulse’s unique sphere of influence.
What makes the album such a gem is that it retains its edginess without losing its feel for the music. A common dilemma among politically-themed artists is getting the message across without becoming preachy. Handsworth Revolution effortlessly avoids such pitfalls. What’s more, Steel Pulse needed only eight strong tracks to accomplish this difficult task. Cries of injustice reverberate throughout the concourses of this album, but the album never loses its cadence. The rhythms, though minimalistic, compliment the band’s evocative lyrics. And though Steel Pulse is noted for its great passion and energy, Handsworth Revolution is entirely focused. Deserving of its critical acclaim, the album not only established the Steel Pulse identity, but also solidified the band as a top-tier reggae talent.