[13 June 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Bill Laswell (along with Morrissey, Billy Idol, and anyone else who had an American radio hit between 1982 and 1992) has certainly benefited from the success of the ever-growing Sanctuary Records Group, which includes Trojan. The Material founder/space rock icon has been given his own offshoot label. To celebrate, he offers this curious collection.
Why curious? Look at the front cover of either Chapter One or Chapter Two. You’ll see “Trojan Dub Massive” up top, in huge lettering. Then, at the bottom in small print, “Placed by Bill Laswell”. Flip the package over; and, if you’re a dub reggae fan, you’ll like what you see: greats like King Tubby, Sly and Robbie, the Upsetters, Augustus Pablo, and more. Looks like ol’ Bill has taken a troll through the Trojan catalog, picked out his echo-chamber favorites, and divided the 36 tracks between two discs. Score! Then look at the inlay card. “Placed by Bill Laswell” has become “Enhanced by Bill Laswell”. Not so irie.
You see, it turns out that Laswell has not only compiled these vintage dub tracks; he’s also remixed (or, in the modern euphemistic terminology, “re-interpreted”) them, effectively re-dubbing the dubs. This is the aural equivalent of ordering apple pie with an apple on the side, just in case. Does more dub a better dub make? Some who recognize Laswell’s name may not even care to find out; this is the man who created space-dub versions of Miles Davis and Bob Marley classics, impressing a few fans and critics and horrifying many others. Simmer down, reggae purists: Laswell’s “enhancements” make Dub Massive more . . . massive. No more, not much less.
The source material is strong and basically foolproof: classic, analog dubs of vintage performances, most from the golden age of the early-to-mid 1970s. Tubby, Pablo, and the like created such thundering, chattering, otherworldly tracks that Laswell’s meddling is sometimes tough to pick out. After about a dozen cuts, though, you start to get the idea: Laswell is fond of adding even louder, more reverb-soaked anvil hits; along with extra whooshing, whirring, and seemingly random bits of moody synthesizer chords; and he completely mixes the vocals out of most tracks. The overall impression leans toward the recent, electronica-informed “illbient” style; although, thank Jah, there’s no drum & bass.
It follows, then, that the tracks that work best are the ones that are already moody: Sly and the Revolutionaries’ “Herb” features a creepy bassline, the Upsetters’ “Washroom Skank” co-opts psychedelic soul; Horace Andy’s earnest, wraithlike croon makes a completely appropriate appearance on one track per Chapter. Likewise, Ras Michel’s “Keep Cool Babylon” is a haunting chant that’s ripe extra reverb, keyboard, and percussion. This may be the only track where “enhanced” is the appropriate term for Laswell’s tinkering. The nugget of the set has to be Tapper Zukie’s “Man a Warrior”. With a threatening three-note baseline and heavy, ominous atmosphere, it’s the intro to “Crazy Train”, dub style.
Laswell has less success with the brighter, ska-influenced material. Laswell can’t make Roots Radics’ “The Death of Mr. Spock” and “Flash Gordon Meets Luke Skywalker” live up to their titles. Scientist’s “Miss Know it All” was fine without wah-wah guitar. And did the Upsetters’ “Drum Rock” really need cheesy syndrums? Is Rupie Edwards’ “Buckshot Dub” really made better by sticking a pouring water sound effect right in the middle? What was Laswell thinking when he included Sly and Robbie’s “Stepping Out”, a ragga two-step that’s 15 years newer than anything else in the collection?
Historical context and archival preservation clearly aren’t Laswell’s goals for Dub Massive, which contains no information about the original versions other than writing credits and copyright dates. He clearly has his own vision for the project, and sticks to it, even going so far as to segue the tracks together. Chapter One gets the nod over Chapter Two, mostly due to stronger source material and a more natural, uniform atmosphere. Only hardcore enthusiasts will need both discs; did you know that continual reverb-soaked anvil hits will actually put you to sleep?