It’s now a quarter of a century since Asian Dub Foundation’s debut album, 1995’s Facts and Fictions, saw the East London collective form part of a wave of young British Asian artists who broke through to a mainstream audience by astutely blending the music of their ancestral backgrounds with modern urban styles.
But while contemporaries like Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawnhey predominantly favoured the more club-friendly sounds of dance and drum and bass, from the outset Asian Dub Foundation wielded a harder, more abrasive edge, influenced by punk, reggae, hip hop and rap. They were also notably more direct in their political messaging – never better showcased than on their landmark Mercury Prize-nominated second album, Rafi’s Revenge, which attacked police and judicial injustice head on, with tracks like Free Satpal Ram and Operation Eagle Lie as lyrically uncompromising as they were musically exhilarating.
On Access Denied, the Foundation’s ninth album and their first in five years, they remain as vital, innovative and passionate as ever. Built around a core of founder members Steven “Chandrasonic” Savale and Dr Das, with a supporting cast including former Prodigy drummer Brian Fairbairn, their formidable reputation has also attracted an impressive array of collaborators, ranging from Palestinian fusion pioneers 47 Soul and French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux to none other than the modern world’s most recognisable activist, Greta Thunberg.
Right from the first, accusatory line of flagship single and opening track Can’t Pay Won’t Pay “here comes bad news outernational, announcing another crash”, a scathing attack on the greed that led to the financial crisis, this is vintage Asian Dub Foundation. Stealing Our Future, a frenetic mash of jungle beats, squalling electric guitar and Indian flute that savages the policies of recent Conservative governments, and the Latin-influenced title track – perhaps the closest thing to a straightforward rock song on the record and a deft but heartfelt indictment of UK inequality – are among other early highlights of what’s a consistently strong collection. A particular treat are the hypnotic instrumental partner pieces of Realignment and A New Alignment, which bring the group’s Bengali classical influences to the fore in two subtly differentiated compositions featuring tabla and strings.
The guest appearances are something of a mixed bag. Tijoux’s moody Spanish vocals offer a menacing, icy counterpoint to Frontline Santiago’s study of Islamaphobia, while Australian beatbox vocalist Dub FX adds extra fizz to the closing, Roni Size-like Smash And Grab The Future. But the spoken-word pre-recorded contributions of Ms Thunberg on Youthquake Pt 1 and comedian Stewart Lee on Coming Over Here, which address climate change and Little Englander xenophobia respectively, feel a little out of step with the vigour of the soundscapes surrounding them.
Nevertheless, these are minor setbacks for what’s a compelling return from Asian Dub Foundation, one that proves that while they’re not necessarily doing anything new at this stage of their career, there is still a very much a place for their unique genre-melding cocktail of cross-cultural political protest in 2020.