Skindred - Smile (Cover Artwork)


Smile (2023)

Earache Records

If you know Skindred, then you know what their thing is. If you don’t know Skindred, then they’re reggae metal. That is obviously a very rudimentary explanation, but it’s pretty accurate. There are admittedly bits and pieces of punk, nu-metal and various other styles in there too, but reggae and metal are the overriding influences. And of those, the metal is certainly the dominant force. But the reggae is not simply in Benji’s delivery or turn of phrase, it influences tempo, structure and also the band’s almost legendary ability to connect with their audiences.

Smile is Skindred’s eighth studio album over a period of a quarter of a century, so they’re pretty well aware of their own style at this point, but that’s not to say this is just Skindred volume 8. And although the band are synonymous with people having a good time, they made their name with the release of records like Roots Rock Riot, Union Black and Kill The Power, so it’s not necessarily standard practice for them to embrace that aspect of their sound so fully as they do in the case of Smile. On top of the fact that this record sounds pretty much like you would imagine a reggae metal record called Smile would, Skindred have also elected to work with some people who have some significant experience working with bands who have (whisper it…) some degree of commercial success. And to my mind, that does come through in the content of Smile. For once, I don’t mean that as a negative, either. Typically I would, but two things save that from being the case here. Firstly, because Skindred’s sound actually works well with slightly more polished production. The guitars sound thick-textured, incredibly defined but they still sound entirely like guitars. And Benji’s voice has rarely sounded better. At points he even does a fair Patrick Stump impression, believe it or not (“If I Could”, especially). The second reason I think Skindred actually benefit, is that their sound is so uniquely their own, that it doesn’t suffer from the homogenisation in the same way so many other bands have done when heading down that path.

When it comes to the collection of songs we have on display here, then I’d say they’re varied. But even the base level is good, it’s just that some are exactly the sorts of bangers you’ll want to hear in a festival field alongside their older classics, and some arguably more interesting but less immediate tracks. However, because of that production job with keys, horns, samples, etc you can’t ever find time to get bored. Which is good, because when I first pressed play, 45-odd minutes and 12 tracks seemed like a big ask. The other factor that plays to this is Benji. The man is a one-off. A Welsh, reggae metalhead with more natural charisma and confidence in his pinky than most bands have in their entire lineup. He might not be everyone’s ideal frontman, but you definitely can’t ignore him, and neither could you argue he is anything less than fascinating; and that’s when you’re only operating in an audio medium of course. In the live environment he is almost unrivalled. Hence Skindred’s ubiquity in festival lineups in this country for most of their existence.

Being utterly candid, I find a few of the songs on the record to be a little grating (“Gimme That Boom” and recent single “L.O.V.E. (Smile Please)”) and some of the synthetic string stabs that crop up intermittently don’t sit well with me, but that’s doubtless just a hard-wired opposition to anything that my subconscious perceives as being a concession to the mainstream, but it’s not that it doesn’t fit in with Skindred’s sound, so I think that’s maybe more of a ‘me’ problem to be frank. Overall, I think that long-term fans will be happy with what’s on display here, the anthemic and radio-ready lacquer that’s been expertly applied may well bring in new fans and the X factor of Benji’s performance means that even as a grimy underground guy, I can’t find it in me to do anything other than enjoy most of this record and wish Skindred well for release day and whatever comes after.