Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bill Laswell - Sacred System: Chapter One - Book Of Entrance (Original TC Review)

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Reachout International: Cat. # RUSCD8225
Released 1996

Track List:
1. Babylon Ghost (6:00)
2. Dread Iternal (9:19)
3. Cyborg Assault (5:37)
4. Galactic Zone (9:31)
5. Sub Terrain (16:12)


(2010 Update:
I stand corrected. Bill Laswell did have a major hit, as he co-wrote Herbie Hancock's
Rockit. Oh, and when I refer to this release as 'minimal dub', I'm talking about traditional Jamaican dub played in a very minimal way, not minimal dub-techno. Really, you should know that -it's Laswell, after all.)


IN BRIEF: Blink, and it may be gone.

I love dub, really I do. The way it takes a standard sound and layers it over and over, creating these amazingly cavernous effects, is absolute bliss to a guy who tends to have headphones plastered to his ears most of the time. The resonance in the air of dub music has a way of sucking you in as you become lost drifting on the waves of sonic delights.

Ambient dub is often the more creative domain of dub music. With less attention paid to the immediate rhythms and melodies, producers use the sparseness of ambient music to toy around with resonance, admittedly sometimes with patience sapping, self-indulgent results.

One of the mainstays since the earliest days of this style is bassist Bill Laswell. Through dozens of collaborations and hundreds of releases, he may be one of the biggest names in electronic music you've never heard of, and for good reason. Because of his fairly loose approach to musicianship, he's never really had anything close to a hit in all this time. Much like jazz music, repeating melodies may come and go but are tinkered and toyed with as the song progresses. The idea of repeating the same melody in a traditional verse/chorus method is normally thrown completely out the window, allowing Laswell to feel his way through a song's duration and concluding it when he sees fit.

I came across Laswell via his Divination alias, a dark, minimal ambient side project that I quite liked. When I discovered he'd done a bunch of ambient dub as well, I eagerly began looking for some. Trouble is, because of his huge discography, I was stumped as to where to begin. Due to his ability to leap across musical genres almost at will, recommendations were all over the place. In the end, I did what was probably best anyways: take a gamble and grab whatever caught my eye. As a result, I'm here reviewing Sacred System: Chapter One - Book Of Entrance, the first in a series of dubby releases done for Reachout.

One thing I noticed right away is this is very bass driven music. While there is percussion and keyboards about, they are mostly there to complement Laswell's playing. As a result, I can see a potential audience being quite limited.

This isn't meant as a knock on bass players in general, but fact of the matter is not many people can get into this form of music. A bass guitar's frequency range is so low that, even if you have adequate speakers to do it justice, the human ear is far more responsive to higher range notes when they are played. This is why bass is almost always relegated to accompanying the rhythm or harmonizing with the melody to give it added tonal depth. You have to really pay attention when the bass is carrying the musical weight of a song, as things as simple as a single piano key easily stick out from many of the low tones.

That all said, does Sacred System have enough chops to keep an acute listener paying attention? It's a mixed bag, I have to say.

Opening track Babylon Ghost starts out with some bubbly sound effects (alright, it’s a bong. Don’t ask me how I know) setting up a light-hearted tone. The rhythm and Laswell's bass playing is quite bouncy and repetitive throughout, allowing all of the dubby effects to spice things as the song moves along. No two bars sound identical, but unless you're paying attention to such slight details like a stutter echo or delay effect, you probably won't notice much variation throughout. At points a couple piano chords with a lot of echo and delay effects join, creating an almost strumming sound, but the chords played are mostly the same as well, relying on dub tricks for diversity.

These techniques are played out in the next two tracks as well, offering different styles to utilize them in. As the name suggests, Dread Iternal is slower and darker, making use of sparse percussion and spacey pads that Laswell uses quite nicely. However, the bass does most of the work here, and with an over-nine minute duration, it can be a bit of a tedious excursion. Cyborg Assault is much quicker, leaping into jungle's territory as Laswell's speedy bass tears along. Even the strumming pianos, while sounding a bit muted due to the very brief echo effects, get a chance to play with more than just the two basic chords at times. In fact, Cyborg Assault may just be the most accessible track to casual listeners on here, provided they don't mind speedy rhythms.

Galactic Zone moves into different territory from the previous three. While a slower track like Dread Iternal, it doesn't fall into the repetitive, noodly style the former did. As a clumpity-clump-clump rhythm plays out with plenty of dub tricks, a gentle keyboard serenely moves throughout, improvising along the way to never fall into repetitive staleness the way the pianos did. Laswell's bass playing complements the keyboard nicely, alternating turns at carrying the song for its nine-plus duration.

And, before you know it, we're already at the last track on this release. Wait a moment! How did that happen? I could have sworn I just put this thing on. Sure, this isn't a long album in general (forty-six minutes total) but even old rock albums of shorter length don't go by this quickly. I suppose because the songs sound so similar, it almost feels like you are listening to just one big song, with brief pauses to change the tempo. Is this a good thing? I don't know, but despite the pleasantness of what's been played, I still kind of feel I'm not getting my money's worth if half an hour of music can pass me by without noticing much (and this is when I'm actually paying attention to the bass leads; I'd imagine most other folks wouldn't even notice that).

Speaking of one long song, the last one here, Sub Terrain, inconspicuously breaches the sixteen minute mark. Much like everything else on here, the pleasant keyboard tones, caa-lumpity clump rhythm, benign pads, and groovy bass are nice to listen to as they are playing, but they don't grab your attention for long either as the structureless approach to them has a tendency to let your mind wander. I'll be listening to it, go do something else for a couple minutes, and come back without feeling like I missed anything important. Fortunately, the sounds and melodies are catchy enough to keep Sub Terrain from crossing into dreaded muzak territory, but only just.

So, yeah, I guess this is a nice little album to throw on and sit back to. If you pay attention diligently to the subtle little production tricks, there's some interest to be had. However, knowing the attention span of most folks these days, I can't see them getting into Sacred System all that much. Perhaps it's their loss but minimal dub of this sort does tend to appeal to only a small portion of the EDM community.


Score: 6/10

ACE TRACKS:
Galactic Zone


Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2005 for TranceCritic.com.

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