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Neucleus 2003 – Ultimate Album: Jah Wobble & Even Parker – Passage To Hades

October 29, 2013

Jah Wobble & Evan Parker – “Passage To Hades” (30 Hertz) (2001)

When hearing dub – a style which originated with Jamaican producers creating stretched-out instrumental versions of dancehall and reggae hits – you would normally expect to hear plenty of organs, melodica, thudding drums with plenty of reverb and echo, and that slow, deep bass landing like a ton of bricks. What was originally a form that allowed DJs to talk-sing over during parties, and found on the B-sides of the hits from which they were based, dub’s popularity saw a rise to prominence in the Caribbean as form in its own right. Yet dub in 2001, over twenty years since the form arrived in Britain saw the release of this album that included the very un-dub like sounds of soprano saxophone, harmonica, Thai pi flutes and bagpipes. Such “corruption” of the form has been a major part of British music for much of those two decades, but the initial spark can be traced back to the time of the late 70s post-punk bands, and most notable Public Imaged Ltd, whose sound was greatly defined by a young bassist by the name of Jah Wobble.

The major interest in dub for many UK musicians has been as both an experiment in the application of the production techniques and also an investigation of slow, rhythmic heartbeat-like rhythm. Much of the jungle and ambient music emanating from those Isles has been based on these ideas. But since the late 80s, Wobble – real name John Wardle – has taken a different approach. Instead of merely dance music, Wobble has seen dub and reggae as a social music in sympathetic with most traditional music forms from around the world. In doing so, he has discovered that the rhythm of dub bass is compatible with much of this global music, leading him to release collaboration albums with musicians from Egypt, China, Laos, and various Celtic countries, amongst others. These albums, often released under the collective title of Jah Wobble and the Invaders Of The Heart, have fed back into his continuation of more experimental work that started with the maelstrom of sounds incorporated in PiL. And so when choosing personnel from his regular stable to mark his collaboration with Evan Parker, Wobble chose piper Jean-Pierre Rasle and Clive Bell, a Brit who had studied shakuhachi in Japan, as well as many other Asian flutes and whistles. Add regular drummer Mark Sanders to complete a tight rhythm section and you have an album of rich texture and substance, with dub aesthetic being applied to largely improvised music.

Despite the unusual line-up, this setting proves very fruitful for Evan Parker. Like Wobble, Parker has a long career with collaborations. A Free Improv saxophonist influenced initially by late-Coltrane, Parker has been a vital part of the avant music scene in Britain since 1965, having played with most of the key musicians on both sides of the Atlantic and in Europe. He also appeared with non-jazzers in Robert Wyatt, drone-rockers Spiritualized and is about make his forth album appearance with ex-drum’n’bass producers Spring Heel Jack. Over the course of sixty odd albums under his own name, Parker has shown his uncompromising technique, using circular breathing to generate long waves of bleats, shrieks, honks and squeals that duck, dive and hover acrobatically.

Such is Parker’s technical proficiency, when you Parker on Passage To Hades, you may wonder if echoes and reverb have already been added to his horn, such is the amount of quick flurries of sound he makes. Yet the results are even better when the echo and reverb is added. On the trio piece “Giving Up The Ghost”, these simple production techniques, plus a little pitch shifting, create a shimmering wall of sound that shadows his horn. This track is Parker’s tour de force, with Sanders and Wobble creating a tightly locked yet flexible groove over which the first flurries float. In true dub styling, the odd reverb is added to Sander’s deeper drums, while Wobble keeps to his bass task diligently, until the tempo or rhythm changes, allowing Wobble to slide into a different circular bass line. Throughout the track, the rhythm section fades off, as the shimmering appears again, followed later Parker’s original soprano throwing its weight around, until the stage is set for bass and drums to fade back in with renewed vigour. But the real highlight is when the ambience fades, allowing Parker unprocessed improvisation to take centre stage, flighty and free.

On “Full On”, Parker sounds more reserved, the place of the processed saxophone ambience taken up by the droning whirls of stereo goathorns, played by Clive Bell. Like Parker, Bell is a music writer and an active member of the UK improvisation scene. His solo and collaborative output has mostly been with the more eclectic end including multi-instrumentalists Steve Beresford and Mike Adcock, and fellow whistle player and electronic musician David Toop, plus many of Jah Wobble’s albums. Bell adds a sense of the ethereal and unexpected to Wobble’s sound, often deploying instruments as varied as Indian flute, miniature khene, Turkish sipsi, Indian chanter and the Cretan pipe. As Wobble himself admitted in an interview from around the time this album way released. “We’ve also got Clive Bell who walks in with a shopping sack full of primitive instruments I’ve never heard of before, things called Thai pi saw flutes and stereo goathorns. I’ll occasionally give him a few cues as to what to play, maybe by yelling, “Flute!’ when we’re playing, but most of this comes together on the night, with no pre-conceived ideas.” (NOW Magazine, October, 2001)

The sharp, brooding tones Bell emits from the goathorns becomes the centre gravity of “Full On”, meaning Parker must weave his sax around it, playing longer, soaring lines while leaving the short note clusters to fill the void when Bell occasionally fades out of the mix. It all sounds like a dubby whirling Dervish, where Bell’s whirling drones are matched rhythmically by Wobble’s throbbing electric bass line. As with most of the album, Wobble sticks to a three or four note dub line, but here it’s delivered with the menace Bell’s horns suggest.

French piper Jean-Pierre Rasle performs on the opening title track and the closing “Finally Cracked It”. Like Bell, Rasle has a long association with Wobble. Indeed, Wobble’s Deep Space group which features both men was created so that Wobble could explore the tones and drones of the bagpipes in an electronic setting. Such imagery might suggest the kitsch melody lines of Scottish jigs or drone plus melody of formalised tattoos, but the bagpipe family is a varied one and features in various traditional forms form around the world. Rasle mostly ditches the melody here, instead giving a larger focus on drones, which he produces throughout the instruments range.

“Passage To Hades” starts with eerie droning notes from Bell’s Thai pi flute, and as bass slowly creaks up behind atmospheric sounds, Rasle’s bagpipes starts to cut long, fluctuating notes through the mix. Parker’s sax is heavily manipulated, with heavy echo and a hollow metallic sheen; it pulsates under Rasle’s pipes like a beast trapped. Sander’s keeps his drums minimal, in true dub styling only hitting the skins when he feels the need, yet still keeping a slow, insistent beat. Soon Bell gets to multitrack, moving higher into the register as he adds harmonica, thus surprisingly entering the same sonic space as the bagpipes. The two instruments – bagpipes producing keening calls, harmonica adding flashes of typical wah-like notes – seem to slide over one another, giving the track an enthralling texture. Eventually both fade and Parker returns to the Mother Earth, briefly taking centre stage before jostling with the flute. The flute eventually wins out, its droning sound fluctuating as it is subtly manipulated in post-production.

There are many highlights in the closing track, “Finally Cracked It”. The initial impression is caused by the edgy locked groove created by Wobble and Sanders. Upping the tempo, the duo create a rhythm that is reminiscent of funk, while Parker moves to tenor and alternates between creating a muscular forward line and taking up hostilities again against his own echo. Eventually what sounds like a brass rhythm section joins in, their chords adding to the funk feel. But it is not brass at all. Instead the sounds are created by Rasle on bass crumhorn and Bell on a low flute. Wobble also adds some synth, like a Casio version of a harp, not at all cheesy but creating bewitching, interlocking loops that seem to add a counterpoint to Parker’s tussle with his own shadow.

At the end of the album, you are left with the impression that this is nothing but a dub album. Wobble believes in the old dub maxim that less is more, and never bogs any of the four tracks down with too much post-production. Here the odd drum smack gets an echo, while only one of the three wind players may get a reverb at though mostly everyone is left alone. Parker is the only exception but this is due to the breathtaking otherworldness of the results. Lastly Wobble’s bass is present but unobtrusive – a trademark of his that allows him to propel the groove while never gets in the way of his collaborator’s creativity. And in doing so he proves that dub has outgrown its sound system roots and has truly become an inclusive, universal music.

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