Welcome to the Dreadzone

That's no film - it's just a new age dub-dance extravaganza.
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The Independent Online
Dreadzone's stage show exists in the rhythmic synergy of sound and vision, in nodding dreadlocks silhouetted against the projected image of Sabu in Michael Powell's The Thief of Baghdad, in lights and live action of a sort. It's a show that does without much traditional showmanship for, as co-leader Greg Roberts observes: "There are no icons, no stars glittering in the firmament of dance music." His partner Leo Williams's dreads animate the static stage picture somewhat, but it's the interleaving of sound and image that pulls you in. All in all, Dreadzone have to be one of the most interesting groups of the moment, even live. They're also the most cine-literate.

A scholarly regard for the treasures of the British film industry is not the first thing one associates with the British dance music scene, but Dreadzone's excellent album Second Light incorporates dialogue samples from Powell and Pressburger's classic A Canterbury Tale, as well as the song from Thief of Baghdad and the headmaster's spoken vision of the future from Lindsay Anderson's apocalyptic If. There's even a spot of Derek Walcott's epic poetry and sundry ironic messages from the channel-hopping trawl of a stoned viewer's late-night television habit, like the opening track's ancient cheery documentary voice-over of This is Britain!, immediately subverted by the onset of a deep reggae bass-line.

Second Light is, it is clear, a big ideas album, deconstructing received notions of Britishness with the kind of multi-cultural perspective to be expected from two survivors of Big Audio Dynamite and the post-punk Notting Hill scene, plus their fiendishly clever knob-twiddling third partner, Tim Bran. The effect is - largely because the music itself is so good - enthralling, and it runs counter to the current renaissance of guitar-driven bedroom angst posing as serious pop. Dance music, after all, is often regarded as content-less, a mere matter of BPMs and stimulus- response behavioural audio signals that, Pavlov-fashion, simply order the body to dance to their tune. Ideas, emotions, identity; surely, they're the preserve of rock as we know it, symbolised with satisfying monumentality by Smashy and Nicey's Bachman-Turner-Overdrive cueing lever?

But Dreadzone have the temerity to try to make us think, even while they're putting us in a trance. "I was very much into what Michael Powell was trying to do in putting something of the national character of England or Britain into his art," says Roberts. "It wasn't a sense of patriotism so much as a sense of history and emotional ties with the past. That's what we're trying to do with those elements but by mixing them up with what we know, with dub, with Jamaican and Indian influences, to make up this whole collage of what we see as representing Britain today. It's something that doesn't have anything to do with an imperial past and wants to cut those ties, but something that also wants to breathe new life into the land."

Williams the dread nods sagely: "We need to show that it's not Great Britain anymore. It's Little Britain; it's moved on. You can't reject your past, but you've got to be able to adapt; it's a new age."

The new age elements are in there too, in the album's strains of Celtic folk, the appropriation of the pirate tradition for "Captain Dread", and also in the group's sizeable crustie following, which, given the dub-wise sophistication of the music, is at first a little surprising; at their Wolverhampton gig last week, the audience was like a Glastonbury tribe gone back home to the reservation for the winter.

The major point of contact must be the group's strong taint of anarchic millenarianism, which itself can be traced back to their punkish roots in BAD, and, for Williams, to the original days of the Roxy where he hung out with his mate Don Letts, who was the DJ and who became, through his Super 8 films, the movement's principal archivist. It was Letts who named Dreadzone and at least partly conceived the concept, after he had, along with the Clash's Mick Jones, formed Big Audio Dynamite and recruited Roberts and Williams. Without Jones, the three later formed a new group, Screaming Target, which provided the bridge to Dreadzone. "What's going on in dance music now," says Roberts, "is like the old punk dream come true, the ethic of anyone can do it. It just came true 10 years later because, with a sampler and a drum machine, anyone really can do it."

"BAD was our apprenticeship, if you like," says Williams. "It taught us a lot and it's still in there. Don Letts is the guru, the Don. He's making movies in Jamaica, but he's still with us." The rainbow coalition of Dreadzone's musical and social concerns can be seen in retrospect to stem from the bricolage of styles that BAD promised but never entirely fulfilled. "On the new single," Roberts says, "there are Asian dub mixes, jungle and hard techno. In the real world, they'd all be in different clubs and you'd never hear them at the same time." Williams nods sagely again: "We soak it up like a sponge, but not willy-nilly." Later, on stage, Rex Ingram as the genie flies through the sky, Sabu looks cute and the shadow of a dreadlock nods sagely in time to the rhythm.

n Dreadzone play Brixton Fridge on 14 Dec. Bookings: 0171-924 9999. 'Second Light' is available on Virgin Records.