Like many other pasty white dudes, I am inordinately fond of Jamaican dub. I couldn’t really tell you why if I had to, but there’s just something about those swirling, sweaty basslines and dark, echoey drums that conjures irresistible, nigh-psychedelic imagery and atmosphere. Atmosphere. That’s the word: the feeling that you’re descending into an alien atmosphere, in the grip of an inhumanly strong gravity, surrounded by clouds of opaque, monstrously chartreuse interplanetary gas.
For those of us without the desire to sit around getting legitimately high while charting the imaginary architecture of Black Sabbath records and eating entire bags of Cheetos, listening to dub is the next best thing to being there. Of course, the appeal of dub as a talisman for obscure music aficionados everywhere is also a source of derision for some: ever since the Clash recorded Sandanista!, a rock band can’t mention that they’ve been listening to dub without their fanbase running for cover. Like Can, Lee “Scratch” Perry is one of those artists whose influence on other artists exerts a gravitational pull seemingly independent of their actual cultural significance—“significance” being, of course, in scare quotes for the purpose of this article. (I’m not bashing the Can, mind you, just pointing out that during their heyday more minds were undoubtedly blown to Foghat than Ege Bamyasi.)
All of which merely goes to say that dub remains a powerful force in music, not necessarily by virtue of all the records the genre sells (not many), but by who listens to those records. Musicians love dub, because it’s one of the most malleable genres in creation. This malleability is apparent on Dub Gabriel’s Bass Jihad, which appears for all intents and purposes to be as stridently orthodox a dub album as you could possibly create, but which still manages to be immensely satisfying. You’ve got a certain set amount of ingredients scattered throughout, with maybe a handful of surprises, and if you portion your ingredients properly it’s almost impossible to fail.
The unusual ingredient in Dub Gabriel’s stewpot is the smattering of Middle and Far Eastern elements that give Bass Jihad its unlikely title. It’s impressive to see the ease with which Gabriel adds echoey tablas and Arabic chants into the mix—a track like the righteous, inescapable “Second Coming of the Urban Mystic”—all of 16 minutes long—builds to a profound climax by adding layer upon layer of exotic elements into one massive feedback-drenched echo chamber, creating an impossibly dense and inescapably heavy atmosphere over the plodding repetition of a droning bass drum.
The album actually begins, on “War In The Poppy Fields”, with the trance-like repetition of Indian drumming, under which Gabrial slowly slips in the booming, screwed-down drum loops and sickly melodies familiar to anyone who knows their dub. The cacophony of “Zooklyn” batters the listener with a massively ominous echo. Khalil provides a bizarre monotone rap for “Tales of One Man’s Trials”, which resembles nothing so much as an Anti-Pop Consortium B-side, while “Bass is the Place” would not have been out of place on Massive Attack’s Protection. “Garden of Light in the Shade of Grey” inserts a note of melodic ecstasy that stands in enlightening contrast to the bass-heavy .
For those who cherish deep, dense and dubby grooves, Dub Gabriel’s work is eminently pleasing. The mixture of exotic Middle Eastern elements to the familiar dub template is hardly revolutionary, but it sounds like a match made in heaven. Like the darkest chocolate, Bass Jihad packs a long, slow punch.
// Notes from the Road
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