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Island (1996)

by Chris Tweney

Buy Mysteries of Creation

Axiom Dub: Mysteries of Creation hit the shelves at the end of 1996, just as media interest in danceable electronica was showing its first signs of reaching critical mass. Now from Bill Laswell, bass player/producer/experimental advocate extraordinaire, comes a compilation that reaches down into the dirty roots of 1970's dancehall dub and comes up with a brand new fistful of deep tracks for the millenium. There's more than a little millenial anguish and religiously-inspired doubting here; not for nothing does Laswell quote William Gibson in the liner notes ("it was called was worship, Molly said, and a sense of community").

Dub was born in the late '70s when reggae acts started using turntables in their live acts, wielding sampled clips as a weapon in their arsenal of enlightenment (ganja, naturally, was another key ingredient). The sound was a variant of reggae with repetition, delay, noise -- all features that happily assimilate to contemporary electronica in the wake of the techno revolution of the '80s. Several of the artists on the compilation -- Sub Dub, Mad Professor, Dub Syndicate -- are straightforward "modern dub" producers, hashing out updated forms of dub with more than a perfunctory nod to the rave scenes of Britain and Europe, keeping the accented off-beat chops and round bass of reggae well in the foreground.

But the best tracks on the 2-CD set have only a distant family resemblance to dub. Jah Wobble -- with guests Neville Murray and Jaki Liebezeit (the incredibly precise ex-Can drummer) on percussion -- serves up "Nev 12;" this track's long groove and tight polyrhythms, combined with difficult stops and changes of meter, will leave you wanting to dance but unable to figure out quite how. That's a common theme on this compilation; deep bass always lurks on the underside, but the percussion and assorted samples above it confuse the issue: "which beat should I dance to?" And on "Nev 12," with the analog drum and bass layered with digital effects, you have to ask "is it live, or is it Memorex?" The beauty of it is that you can never tell -- not for sure, at any rate.

"Illbient," by We (featuring DJ Olive, Loop, and Once 11), is a fragment from the burgeoning New York illbient scene centered around the Wordsound collective. It opens with a slow, mournful "dread" (backward-masked) bassline that scared me silly the first time I heard it; several minutes into the track, however, the percussion opens up -- at around 140 beats per minute. And if that whiplash doesn't confound, the tempo switches further on will. This is a schizophrenic tune, carrying itself and the listener in six different directions at once, but the schizophrenia seems natural, even rational: the drums and samples have a mathematical regularity that appeals to the head, while the dread bass down below keeps the kernel of fear going.

The real gem of Axiom Dub is the fourteen-minute "Ghost Light/Dread Recall," by none other than Laswell's long-running syndicate, Material. This is strong dub without the reggae backbeat -- Laswell's bass, which sounds like a heavily amped acoustic bass, gives "Ghost" a frenetic, aggressive energy that always moves forward; the forward movement seems directed at no particular end, though, because Laswell's composition plays a number of foreground/background games (now you see it, now you don't). This is a through-composed tune, reminiscent of the King Crimson of 1973-4 -- dense, dark, driven -- but without the arched eyebrow and cult of the virtuoso. Put simply, "Ghost" rocks.

Other notables on Axiom Dub are "Dungeon of Dub," from Wordsound I-Powa (another illbient manifesto), Techno Animal's "Cyborg Dread" (the Terminator smokes a few fatties and hits the turntable), DJ Spooky's "Anansi Abstrakt" (ambient spiritual explorations with some low groove), and Scarab's "Fall of the Towers of Convention" (just because of the title). Axiom Dub is by no means flawless; like most compilations, there are a few dogs here. The Orb deliver up a predictably boring, stale track that smells like too many quality hours spent with CoolEdit 95, and Mad Professor's contribution is homogeneous, even obnoxiously repetitive.

If you're looking for an "instant party" disc that'll dish out the funky beats on demand, this one isn't for you. Though some of the tracks are dance-oriented and "happy," the overall tone is serious, dark, and challenging. The terrifying bass on "Illbient" and aggro beats of "Ghost Light," though they urge you to shake your booty, also suggest that this music isn't afraid to say the word "God" -- and mean it, too, in the way Kierkegaard meant it in Fear and Trembling. As a friend said when I cued up "Nev 12" for him, "how can you not move? It's scary." Indeed -- too much funk can be a scary thing, and this compilation knows that in its bones.

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