Theoretically, the mingling of electronica atmospherics with a reggae foundation—one current form of dub—would seem to posit a marriage rooted in irreconcilable differences. How could the former’s penchant for cool precision and ambiguous tones abide by the latter’s rootsy naturalism and its socially conscious, bleeding heart? Reggae is a consistent and pure sound to the point that heavy crossbreeding could easily subvert its high-minded aims. Well, dub is no novel invention. Though the style has evolved as production techniques have progressed, global artists stretching back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s have skillfully managed the trick of garnishing a reggae core with variant sonic genres. Dub is a special maneuver, even when the outcomes are less than thrilling.
Since the early ‘90s, the Austrian collective Dubblestandart has been a proud and impassioned torch-bearer for this movement, but still seems an unlikely one. Based out of Vienna, frontman Paul Zasky and his bandmates do not mask their zeal for reggae and, accordingly, have supported a variety of its reputable acts (Lee “Scratch” Perry, Dillinger, Topcat) on European tours. Yet the Euro-Jamaican confluence (also exemplified by modern roots’ infection of Germany) is far from, and never will be, self-evident. Let’s leave that enigma to rest. In the short term, the results are infinitely more significant than the rationale. Now on their tenth proper album, Immigration Dub, Dubblestandart serves up a colorful gem and invites its listeners into a wondrous sonic lab of hyper cross-pollination, where reggae is the inspirational signpost but not the sole muse.
To make a witch’s brew of such multifarious ingredients (reggae, overcast electronica, riffing grunge, soul punctuations, etc.) is to court the pitfalls of an excessively shambolic flow: messiness, indulgence, and inaccessibility. At 69 minutes, Immigration Dub is overlong, but most of its 13 entries—either instrumentals or helmed by unconventional vocal pieces—tow a remarkably focused line, as the secondary elements bend to the course of more customary sounds.
The most overt reggae splicings showcase this concentration on tastefully padding traditional arrangements, as opposed to mad embellishment. “MPLA Dub” is an ocean-sprayed, seaside amble with archetypal reggae dashes: popping percussion, jaunty plucks, and wirey organs. It’s infectiously amiable, but the way that Dubblestandart inserts streaks of production swirls and haze into the pot elevates the piece beyond a simple genre exercise. “Dub 51” unfolds similarly, even as its radio-broadcast samples and grainy atmospherics tinker with the roots foundation less subtly. As with the freewheeling “We All Have to Get High” and its percussive, more compact follower “This One Is About Flying”, Dubblestandart avoids wild-eyed sonic flourishes and, in this relative precision, maintains an honorific focus on their reggae muse.
Yet this is only a strand of Immigration Dub’s panoramic, genre-sampling motif. In the polytheistic sonics of Dubblestandart, reggae is the eminent deity, but lesser ones insistently manifest their presence as well. The excellent Dub Syndicate cover “Wadada” fuses a layer of fuzzy ripples with dirty grunge riffs (the kind that Rick Rubin could ingeniously relocate into a hip-hop stampede or straight pop) to forge a spacey guitar grind. It’s a bit of a loaded number, but stays together at the seams. “Tiny Place Called Earth” is a total noir piece. Its taut, moody aura—superbly buttressed by laser-synth beams and glinting organs—invokes a sweaty, Miami Vice-type setting, where lust and lethality dangerously intermingle. Though not as rewarding, the cover of “When I Fall in Love”, vocally helmed Ken Boothe, and its (superfluous) extended dub remix fall into this same genre grouping. The real knockout comes with “Grinning in Your Face”, a dreamy, sexual, and multi-leveled burner that sedates even as its tempo holds brisk. The best moment on all of Immigration Dub comes about four minutes into “Grinning in Your Face”. A patch of smoky acoustic plucks seems to herald the song’s end when, on a dime, it rapidly up-shifts to a higher plain outro of packed beats and chiming synth darts. It’s a perfectly out-of-nowhere deviation that’s as natural as it is joyously unexpected.
Comprised of a smattering of originals, remixes, and covers (some of which are instrumentals), Immigration Dub—almost necessarily—lacks a fluid narrative and thematic cohesion that could have lent its song-work some visceral heft. Despite its unabashed fervor for reggae, these dub outings work more on the head than on the heart. The effect is not always a classically pop one (i.e. easy, infectious appeal). Rather, in these impressively focused, genre balancing acts, Dubblestandart succeeds through technical expertise and an ear for when to hold back and when to gamely and tastefully experiment.
// Notes from the Road
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