Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
At the millennium, when musical hermeneuticians convene to discuss the past hundred years, they will be focused on the most turbulent and ebullient period in history. From Stravinsky’s rhythmical advances in “The Rites of Spring” to jazz drummer Art Blakey’s polyrhythmic time-keeping; from John Cage’s purely random music to the apparently random, but actually mathematical compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen; from reggae and dub to dance and rap; from country andR&B to rock ‘n’ roll; the aural world of the 20th century is an oyster filled with entire strings of pearls.
Critics are already attempting to provide a context for such stylistic diversity in this century’s social and technological upheavals. But the postmodern sensibility, which has indeed transformed truths into vicissitudes, is misunderstood. Ours is a time not of anomie, but of mystery—and it has brought us a musical golden age.
Documenting the expeditions of the most far-flung of ’90s stylistic adventurers is a daunting job, but Kevin Martin is almost machinelike in his obsession. As a critic for England’s The Wire music magazine, Martin is a relentless chronicler of musical wandering. In his three bands (God, Ice, Techno Animal), he’s a fellow traveler. And as an album compiler, he has mapped the new terrain he and his cohorts have discovered on two albums of forward-thinking music. Isolationism gathered, defined, and celebrated minimalist soundscapers whose music targeted the subconscious. While important to fans of ambient’s avant-garde, the record reflected the narrow focus of its title. But Macro Dub Infection, Volume One, is epochal, spanning the gamut of this century’s musical modes, fusing their disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
In “Scientist Meets the Ghost Captain” (the collection of quotes serving as Macro Dub‘s liner notes), Martin frames the history of dub, dance, rock, jazz, and modern classical music with the commentary of performers, artists, and scholars—and his own editorial remarks. Linear time is disregarded, as quotes from this century and those past are cut and pasted into an informational collage. A quote from 11th-century assassin Hassan i Sabbah—one that has caught the eye of artistic rebels from Albert Camus to Jim Carroll—here epitomizes Macro Dub‘s postmodern ethos: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
Martin opens Macro Dub with the traditional-style dub of the Disciples’ “The Struggle of Life.” Reggae rhythms are bathed with echo while a crazed MC spouts a revolutionary diatribe. Among the more traditional artists on the compilation, including the Rootsman, Two Badcard, New Kingdom, and Iration Steppas, the Disciples stand tall, but their song merely illustrates dub’s beginnings, in effect highlighting how much more inventive a form it is today. Nowhere is dub’s development more evident than on the track that follows “Struggle”; Spring Heel Jack’s “Double Edge Dub” is one of the collection’s sharpest tracks.
The echoed, new-age piano sounds that start the track do not bode well, but when drums and bass kick in, “Double Edge Dub” is drenched in a caffeinated rush of sound that kicks up a fierce fight between beauty and the beat. Skittering, spasmodic blasts of snare and visceral bass booms beat the phased, synthetic strings and tinkly piano accompaniment into merciful submission. But the energy that infuses “Double Edge Dub” is completely outstripped by that of the duo 4-Hero.
One of the originators of jungle techno, 4-Hero has cooked up drum, bass, and sound-effect experiments for several years, but the lab explodes on “The Paranormal in 4 Form,” an everything-goes number that gleefully fractures musical syntax. The song is driven by a battery of computers, keyboards, and effects, yet sounds completely unplanned as it ebbs and flows in a quiet and completely negligible manner. Then a heavily reverberated, slo-mo dub beat drops into the background, only to be silenced when the spaciness resumes. After a few minutes, after the listener has virtually sunken into a stupor, a lightning-fast break beat, like loping hiphop drums shifting into superoverdrive, leaps in, phasing through myriad permutations. Disorienting pitch-shifted sounds dislodge any complacency the lulling intro may have established. Then the track transforms again with gentle, electric piano chordings over a rim-shot rhythm, finishing with an early-’80s electrobeat reminiscent of Afrika Bambaataa.
Other than the Golden Palominos, Macro Dub‘s only American contribution is by the Chicago collective Tortoise. Beginning as a Slint-influenced math-rock group, Tortoise has turned against the white-boy indie dismissal of samplers—shunned because of the American premium on live perform ance—not only accepting technology, but using it as an integral part of its futuristic compositions.
“Goriri” is a remix of a Tortoise single, and the treatment it receives here (in the spirit of Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters, Tortoise’s amazing deconstructionist remix of its entire first album) transforms it into a wholly new composition. Like 4-Hero, Tortoise approaches “Goriri” from a different mind-set than other Macro Dub sound-sculptors. By embracing the malleability of song form allowed by dub, rather than concerning itself with the end function (i.e., a finished composition), “Goriri,” whose off-kilter starts and stops move from hyperquiet murmurings to extreme blasts of dub grooves, creates a new form that does not rely on traditional tempos. It’s Tortoise’s collective inner clock that matters, not the steady tap of metronomic time. This thinking parallels Ornette Coleman’s complicated (and perhaps unverbalizable—even by Coleman) harmolodic theory. (As Bill Shoemaker analogizes in this month’s Jazz Times, harmolodics is something like “having a brilliant orange canvas on a wall by itself, and experiencing the pure color. Then you place an intense green canvas next to it. The orange hasn’t changed, just our experience of it vibrating against the green.”) With the confrontational attitude that music depends on more than the organization of the conventional scale’s 12 tones, Tortoise twists traditional times and sounds to produce a jumbled, rambling work of genius.
While Spring Heel Jack, 4-Hero, and Tortoise contribute Macro Dub‘s elite tracks, the dark dub of Bedouin Ascent, Skull vs. Ice, Wagon Christ, Scorn, and Automaton is nearly as inventive: Bottom-heavy bass lines and hiphop beats are mixed with malevolent atmospherics to effect an eerie malaise. Earthling’s “Nothingness” sounds like Public Enemy DJ Terminator X broadcasting from Venus: old-school scratching, a feedback solo, and squelchy melodies color in the sparse outline of a rumbling bass under laid-back rapping reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Modern dub hero The Mad Professor lifts the bass line from the Jackson 5’s “ABC” for a psychedelic dub extravaganza, while triphop king Tricky remixes “Pumpkin” from his Maxinquaye album into an ambient torch song peppered with oddly placed growls and squeaks.
But any survey that strives to be comprehensive is bound to cover some barren turf. Certain sections of the collection’s weaker compositions threaten to become rote—many simply match wan sound effects to blunt beats. The strongest tracks, however, indicate that Macro Dub is infecting us with the future.
In Macro Dub‘s liner notes, original dub master Lee Perry states “I imitate human being. I’m a machine being to satisfy your greatest dream.” Kevin Martin’s Techno Animal project, a collaboration with Godflesh’s Justin Broadrick, strives for a similar union between mechanized aesthetics and subconscious affect.
Divided into two 70-plus-minute discs titled “Dream Machinery” and “Heavy Lids,” the duo’s second album, ReEntry, is a marked improvement over its unfocused debut, Ghost Against Ghost. While Ghost was an innovative mixture of metal, free jazz, ambient, dub, and techno, it was also impenetrable. The follow-up drops its guard, welcoming but remaining wary.
While the names of both discs conjure somnolence, “Dream Machinery” ‘s hallucinatory dub induces insomnia rather than sleep. Techno Animal’s dub style is more menacing than funky, more concerned with dub process—the adding and subtracting of sound to disorienting effect—than the reggae rhythms from which dub traditionally emerges.
Fourth-world music pioneer Jon Hassell brings his electronically treated trumpet to “Dream” ‘s “Flight of the Hermaphrodite,” and his sensibilities match Broadrick and Martin’s—technology collides with humanity in the sonic equivalent of a thermonuclear blast. “Flight” ‘s slow-motion, almost heavy-metal beat sets the tone for “Dream Machinery.” Hassell’s delayed, reverbed trumpet fades in and out over a multitude of mood effects, reminiscent of those used by Miles Davis in his classic electric-period tribute to Duke Ellington, “He Loved Him Madly.” Like Davis, Hassell plays sharp bursts of notes, leaving space for the effects to take hold of the piece, threatening it with dissolution.
A cold, angry, mechanical hiphop aesthetic informs “The Mighty Atom Smasher,” a marching tune for a futuristic army, while “Mastodon Americanus” features a distant, relaxed drum pattern, as pitch-bent sounds whirl around a staccato, techno-educated, Devoesque lead line. As the same beat drones on for seven minutes, effects and sounds are methodically brought in and out of the mix. This dependence on method, however, is anything but unimaginative: The subconscious runs wild through the trance “Mastodon” creates.
Another enigmatic title, “Narco Agent vs. The Medicine Man,” has a long, heavy-breathing synth intro that wheezes like an asthmatic—until it gets crushed by the dead fall of a 10-ton beat. “Demodex Invasion” is satanic dub, featuring two long, beatless breaks; one sounds like dueling saber saws, the other features drones and sequenced bass rhythms reminiscent of Sowiesoso, by the German electronic duo Cluster.
Disc 2, “Heavy Lids,” is ambient music, but it doesn’t lull the listener, preferring instead the Scared Straight approach—grabbing the scruff of the neck and screaming “RELAX!” As their titles would indicate, compositions like “Evil Spirits/Angel Dust,” “Catatonia,” and “Needle Park” are dementia-inducing soundscapes, and the 21-minute epic “Cape Canaveral” is an experimental endurance test. “Heavy Lids” is an ominous-sounding record, but in fact all of ReEntry’s pieces conjure feelings of doom—which doesn’t seem an entirely displeasing notion to Martin.
Because even when limning despair, music can provide a profound comfort. If the world’s future is as bleak as Martin suspects, the soundtrack to Armageddon will be a delight.