UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro drop Unprecedented album


Longtime British reggae standouts UB40 have found themselves in a peculiar spot over the past ten years as a group. Following over 20 years of consistency, lead vocalist and guitarist Ali Campbell departed from the band in 2008. Campbell was followed by keyboardist Mickey Virtue and multi-instrumentalist Astro and the trio formed their own version of UB40 together.

This left two different lineups performing under the same name. After a legal battle, both groups could stay as UB40 with caveats. The original UB40 kept the name and the splinter group formed by Ali Campbell and Astro could perform as UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro.

UB40 featuring Ali Campbell and Astro released its debut album Silhouette in 2014 followed by A Real Labor of Love in 2018.

Both lineups of UB40 underwent tragic losses in 2021. Vocalist Duncan Campbell retired from the original group due to health issues followed by the death of saxophonist Brian Travers at 62. Astro, 64, died in November of that year.

Unprecedented is the final collaborative vision from Campbell and Astro. Astro’s unexpected death adds a new context to the background of many of the tracks on the hour-long record. This record’s cover-heavy nature acts as a love letter to the sounds and artists that brought these two together and solidified their bond for over 40 years.

While UB40 has always had a knack for transforming songs written by other artists, Unprecedented leans heavier into this trend with only five original tracks on the 14-song album.

The Kingstonians’ track “Sufferer” was crafted into a brisk, inviting tune that takes on a new life in the wake of Astro’s death. Campbell said prior to the album’s release that “Sufferer” was one of Astro’s favorite songs on the record.

This is far from a basic cover album. The transformative nature of the group’s interpretations of classic tracks from Stevie Wonder to Kris Kristofferson sound notably different; meshing familiar songs with UB40’s timeless reggae sounds.

Campbell and Astro use this opportunity to pay tribute to their influences. Even this late into their careers, Campbell and Astro don’t forget their contemporaries or where they came from on Unprecedented.

One of the more immediately recognizable covers on the album is “Lean on Me” originally performed by the inimitable Bill Withers. While other songs here feature broader changes, “Lean on Me” decides to stick closely to Withers’ classic. This song is notably in collaboration with NHS Charities Together, which supports a vast network of National Health Service charities across the United Kingdom. UB40 has been a politically conscious group since its formation, a common trait among most reggae groups.

Recorded in the shadow of a global pandemic in both Jamaica and the UK, Unprecedented takes on overt political stances. Reggae is an excellent backing to these messages because of the revolutionary, rebellious nature inherent to reggae.

“Lean on Me” returns toward the end of the record with a dancehall interpretation featuring DJ Bounty Killa. While the track takes from the same foundation as the aforementioned version, the remix is readymade for a dance party and should provide a sound more familiar to mainstream audiences with the recent global dancehall explosion.

The five original tracks on Unprecedented are “Unprecedented;” “Emperors Wore No Clothes;” “We’ll Never Find Another Love;” “Happy Includes Everyone;” and “Mellow.”

“Unprecedented” and “Emperors Wore No Clothes” openly criticize politicians, almost certainly informed by the inept response to a global pandemic some countries had.

These tracks exemplify the mastery of songwriting and nailing a mood that only comes from musicians decades into their careers. “Mellow” is exactly as the name indicates; a subdued jaunt that makes up for a lack of dynamism with an unquestionably relaxing vibe.

“Happy Includes Everyone” and “We’ll Never Find Another Love” are supported by earworm basslines and stellar percussion work from Virtue.

Unprecedented is a delightful record that offers a handful of original tracks and covers, giving listeners a full taste of what Campbell and Astro offered as a duo. It’s a melancholy listen with the understanding this is the end of a pair that’s created renowned reggae for the better part of four decades.

Despite the pain that comes with the past few years, in both a global context and the world of UB40, Unprecedented acts as an hour-long sonic oasis. Reggae is at its best as a respite; a revolutionary joy and calmness that is often needed when facing tragedy.

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