A release that has stayed under the radar for quite some time and apart from the promo single “Glass House“, Forward is (still) not available on any popular streaming services such as Spotify. Officially released on the 20th of September last year, only in limited quantities on CD in support of the Forward Japan Tour 2023 together with Yard Beat. There are only two for sale still on Discogs and I’m pretty sure there are not a lot more to be expected. The 30th anniversary deluxe edition of Forward easily lives up to it’s name as the 7” gatefold sleeve is an absolute beauty to behold thanks graphic artist BOB. It comes with an eight-page booklet which has Sly and Robbie portrayed by the same artist and it looks just marvelous.
Seeing the musicians, engineers and producers who where involved in the recording of Forward only lives up to the words of Joseph Hill printed on the inside of the gatefold cover. The albums also pays tribute to some of the most iconic voices and players of instruments who were lost recently; Ewart (U-Roy) Beckford, Dalton Browne, Mikey Chung, Ronald (Nambo) Robinson, Daryl Thompson, Uzziah (Sticky) Thompson, John Johnson and of last year the big man on bass Robert Shakespeare. If anything, this album does justice to recognize all as monumental in the development of Reggae music.
“It takes skilful Man to play Jah music”
Opening track “Be Accepted” recalls the famous words – not only by the words of your mouth, but the meditation of your heart – with an evocative organ riff in the style we are used to from Bitty McLean. Following in it’s tracks we have “Back In My Arms”. A lovers tune with a warm and lush arrangement while Bitty pleads for the return of love that’s left him cold and lonely. The rhythm rides ever so effortlessly, with Bitty’s sweet voice on top. A more modern touch on “Let’s Make Up” with recording veteran Robbie Lyn on keys (piano, organ and synth) providing the sweet melodies and accentuating the gaps left in the rhythm track with some groovy licks throughout. We can always depend on Bitty to give a stellar performance and this is no exception.
With an upbeat drum pattern “The Best Part” grabs your attention from the very first second, but moves in a more comfortable pace once Bitty comes on. By keeping the tempo nice and slow, the upbeat rhythm track get a sultry touch aided by the Wurlitzer. I had to figure out where they were going with this, but it all works extremely well. With Dean “Cannon” Fraser, another legend joins the session with his signature sound on saxophone. A gorgeous rhythm for “Love Has Gone” by Sly and Robbie is drenched in the right effects to draw you in closer and deservedly gets extended so you can really soak in the rhythm track. “One Nation” is a ode to Bitty’s roots and for every Jamaican to stand as one like so many have done before him. Bitty’s voice really shines bright on this one. It feels like a message he might have carried with him for a long time before putting it on paper. With Bitty McLean himself on melodica, the more stripped back “Beauty You Are” incorporates the drum pad effect Sly seems to have a patent on. This one an ode to the beauty of Black women to stay true to oneself. Another extended track follows with the gospel tinged “The Need In Me”. Sly keeps the track from going full church choir with his drum pad always tuned to the dancehall. Thr juxtaposition between the warm sound of Bitty accompanied by organ against the stark rhythm and spacey effects gives a track a certain edge.
They took a wise decision, if you ask me, to push “Glass House” as the single to promote the album. As a stand-alone song it is perhaps the strongest on the album. The rhythm track (bell effect on the drum pad) brings to mind Black Uhuru’s “Sponji Reggae” not surprisingly also produced by Sly and Robbie. An amazing track, exactly what one can only hope for when reading Bitty McLean and Sly and Robbie on the same cover. Up next we find another roots track. “Far As Eye Can See” stays closer to the classic roots format with the far east sound floating in reverb and echo when letting the rhythm track breathe just a little longer.
Closing Forward in fine style with “Where Is Your Love” and it’s dub counterpart. It seems that they saved some of the more rootsier tracks till the end. The swirling effect together with the harmonies create an eerie atmosphere in which Bitty questions if there is use for corrupted hearts.
Edgy and forward thinking, Bitty McLean together with Sly and Robbie have delivered another stunning album that given time will take its place amongst their most accomplished work.
I found a great interview done by Miss Lulú, MC of Mundo Reggae Radio Show out of Mexico in which Bitty McLean talks openly about growing up amongst the UK sound system culture, voicing his first song, learning the trade of sound engineer, his work with Sly and Robbie and off course his latest release Forward. Big thank you to Mundo Reggae Radio for the amazing and insightful interview with Sir Bitty McLean.