Live: In The Rainforest - Might the Rainforest Noise be Taking Over?
Released in August 2001, Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra's Live: In the Rainforest was recorded live at various locations between 1998 and the 2001 Carnival season.
The album was recorded by Trinidad recording engineer Neville Aleong, claimed to be one of the most experienced pan music recording veterans. Alas, experience does not necessarily assure quality. This is certainly, sadly, demonstrated by Live: In the Rainforest. If you're looking for top-notch recording quality, you won't find it here. If, on the other hand, you're looking for an otherwise great steelpan album, read on, this Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra album is for you.
While admittedly, it is a well-known fact that steelband music is notoriously difficult to record well, it is equally well known that it can be done. Simeon Sandiford, also from Trinidad, has amply demonstrated this with some of his recordings for his Sanch label. And that, lo and behold, even perfection can be achieved has been demonstrated by recordings such as the glorious Despers' (Desperadoes Steel Orchestra) Steel In The Classics. What we have with Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra's Live: In the Rainforest falls far short of any of the aforementioned, sadly. There is a lot of clipping of the top frequencies, some distortion, and most noticeable, great variability in the levels of the individual tracks and too ambitious a dynamic range on individual tracks. Unless you don't mind being blasted one moment and finding another passage or track almost inaudible the next, you will constantly be fighting with your remote to adjust the volume. And even then, you will find it next to impossible to achieve anything like a satisfactory volume and quality on some of the quietest passages, particularly on the excerpt from Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. If you adjust your system to a volume where the loudest passages are at a level that is tolerable in a domestic setting and that won't make refugees of your neighbours, the quieter passages just go AWOL altogether, and the less loud tracks become very soft indeed even where they are meant to be at their loudest.
All that said, the recording quality is perhaps just a little better than that of Skiffle Bunch's 2003 album Skiffle Bunch And Stalin Live At The Naparima Bowl. Personally, irritating though it is, I can live with remote in hand to listen to Live: In the Rainforest. The sheer quality and joy of the playing of Skiffle Bunch alone surely makes this worthwhile for any true pan aficionado and is worth the price of admission.
And indeed, what a joy Skiffle Bunch's playing is! Their technical quality is more than outstanding, and their enthusiasm comes across very clearly and is just electrifying. Even on an album such as this these guys and gals amply demonstrate that they can proudly hold their own with the very greatest of pansides, Despers and Renegades, and deserve to be classed alongside them.
The material on Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra's Live: In the Rainforest is also generally excellent, if perhaps a bit of a mixed bag. The Carl Boberg penned How Great Though Art is the one track that would have been much better for having been omitted altogether. As competent as the arrangement by Len "Boogsie" Sharpe is, it really is time that shmaltz should be thrown out of steelpan. But, as pointed out, good arrangement though, and of course the playing cannot possibly be faulted, it's great. Staying with Sharpe, arrangements of classical music are certainly not one of his strengths. He treats Puccini's Nessun Dorma as he would a Panorama show piece. In itself, the arrangement works well enough as a track, and if you are not familiar with the original music, then it would probably sound great to you. However, this is Puccini, and a very sensitive, emotional aria. Alas, Boogsie's arrangement, especially with its much too fast tempo, leaves all that wonderful, rich emotion way out of reach somewhere and instead gives us a happy, chirpy carnival ditty. Superbly performed, too, of course. But still, not quite the done thing me thinks. Perhaps Skiffle Bunch should consider asking back at least half the exorbitant arranger's fee they paid Sharpe (and distribute this to the players!)? (Really, the fees that arrangers are paid are often completely disproportionate. Especially so when you take into account the pittance that players usually receive. This is a situation that is extremely unhealthy for the steelband movement as a whole.)
The other classical piece, Stravinsky's Firebird, is a perhaps more than slightly over-ambitious if otherwise excellent arrangement by Rachel Hayward. Really, the dynamic range here is just way too wide for any sort of comfort. As already noted, the softest passages are virtually inaudible. (They also suffer from prominent distortion and, incredible for a modern recording, noise!)
The superb Godwin Bowen arrangement of Shadow's Stranger and the equally excellent Annise Hadeed arrangement of Len "Boogsie" Sharpe's Misbehave are pure joy. But the real killers on Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra's Live: In the Rainforest are undoubtedly the superb arrangement by Len "Boogsie" Sharpe of Ken "Professor" Philmore's unforgettable Pan By Storm and the outstanding arrangement by Ben Jackson of Sharpe's equally outstanding title track, In The Rainforest. It is very easy to see why these two clinched the inaugural World Steelband Festival 2000 title for Skiffle Bunch. Sheer pan heaven!
Overall, Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra's Live: In the Rainforest is a fabulous steelpan album that is only slightly let down by the variable recording quality. It should not be missing from any serious steelpan fan's collection.
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