If the peak of Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark period (which spanned much of the '70s) is Super Ape—certainly one of the greatest LPs in the history of popular music—then the peak of his less remarkable post–Black Ark period (from the mid-'80s to now) is Battle of Armagideon. Recorded in 1986 and released by Trojan Records, the record is a bridge from the dusk of dub in the late '70s to the dawn of triphop in the early '90s.
Musically, what makes Maxinquaye extraordinary is also what makes Battle of Armagideon extraordinary: It's as tentacular as Tricky's debut. Tentacular in the sense that it reaches out to not one but several pop modes and moods: reggae, hiphop, rock, dub, soul. Also, like Tricky, Perry's lyrics are always on the edge of meaning. His tracks never contain one clear concern, idea, or theme, but, all at once: hazy denouncements of capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, the record industry, racism, colonialism; and equally hazy praises of African ancestors, robots, Batman and Robin, Robin Hood, children, the march of time, the sound of thunder, and the terrific sight of lightning.
The LP's strangest and most successful tracks are "Drum Song," "I'm a Mad Man," and "Show Me That River," which is a cover of Ray Charles's "That Lucky Old Sun." But this is a contaminated cover. The purity of the original is not at all preserved, but severely distorted, and made all the more beautiful by this bending and blurring of its initial words and meaning. In "Drum Song," there is the impurity of "Norwegian Wood," the pop melody of which is played on a guitar (instead of a sitar) and drifts in and out of a sacred moment called into presence by tribal drumming.
But what Battle of Armagideon has a lot of, and what you will not find on Super Ape, is humor. At times, Perry sings as if he really means it, as if he is being serious about the evils of the world; other times he is imitating Long John Silver. At the beginning of "Grooving," Perry sniffs something like a dog; at the end of it, he sings like a soul crooner.
Like all great albums, Battle of Armagideon is way ahead of its time. I will even go as far as to proclaim the last track on the record, "Time Marches On," the first triphop track in the history of popular music.
Lee "Scratch" Perry performs Sun July 15 at Neumo's, w/Dub Is a Weapon and Little Big Man, 8 pm, $20 adv, 21+.