From a review of Arkology

Dub Missive (Volume 10 #4, 1997)

By Robert Nelson

Music is a part of living culture and mythologizing enhances that phenomenon over the generations, whether it be blues man Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, the tragic loss of Buddy Holly or even the kitsch of Elvis. For reggae music one of the more mythic and mysterious episodes in its young history is the rise and fall of Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark studio. Hemmed in by relying on other studios that stifled his creativity, Perry built his own recording studio in his backyard which included a simple four-track recorder and an arsenal of delay and phase shift gadgetry. From humble beginnings, the Black Ark studio was born.

I have always loved the name "Black Ark" to describe what Perry created in 1970's Jamaica. Black signifying Africa and its people. The Ark, with its Old Testament promise of redemption. The Rastas and their unflinching and uncompromising co-opting of their birthright as the chosen people of Jah. Yet I also think of the Ark as symbolic of a double passageway by ship. The seven miles of Black Star Liners waiting to carry the Rastas home to Zion, like Moses saved his people from Jehovah's wrath. Or, more ominously, the middle passage that brought Africans to the new world, "packed like sardines in a tin" as Prince Far I put it so eloquently. That is the sound that I hear in much of Perry's mixes from the Black Ark. The Ark as a dungeon, where the music is so thick with dread, so dark and impenetrable.

Black Ark certainly wasn't the only sound happening in Jamaica at the time, but a generation later it has eclipsed other stalwarts like Channel One and Joe Gibbs in terms of the current reissues market. While these singles may not have topped the Jamaican charts, Black Ark was certainly known as the place where the heaviest level of musical creativity was happening in Jamaica: exciting, new, alienating and unpredictable. It was the career highpoint for many artists who never reached that pinnacle again once Black Ark ceased to exist.

In fact, I believe that Lee Perry and his work at Black Ark is beginning to approach Bob Marley as an equal in importance to people who follow and collect reggae with any sense of regularity. By the time Perry destroyed his studio in a sense of frustration, paranoia and/or substance abuse-fueled mental instability, the legend had been born. And the seeds of that storied tradition are bearing fruit in the mid-90s. Even if it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction about those half dozen years (1974-79) when Black Ark was in operation, the music has held up unbelievably well. It doesn't sound dated or quaint in the least. It is just as rough and aggressive and powerful today as it must have seemed totally foreign and before its time while it was being created.

Perry's productions refuse to adhere to any sense of dub recipe, and many of his mixes have a sense of "on the fly", extemporaneous mixing that is loose and disjointed at times. He would often record and mix at the same time, so he never really had any second thoughts about separating those two processes in his mind. That slapdash style and refusal to second guess himself is what set him apart.

Phase shifts, echo, reverb and delay show up in random places throughout vocal and dub mixes. Melodies and vocals vanish and re-materialize at odd times in a total unconscious disregard for being limited by any musical constraints. That shuffling groove and enigmatic murky sound, coupled with all the sense of humor and found sounds and noises, swirls of hallucinogenic echo and the whole black magic vibe are all part of that mystique. However, Perry also demanded the best out of his singers, DJs and musicians, who have never sounded better than when they recorded at Black Ark. That was all part as much a part of his genius, in a more conventional manner, as is the musical magician tradition for which he is most revered.