Sub Rosa’s Subsonic Series – Overview

Released sporadically between 1994 and 2000; this collection of six albums is described by the label Sub Rosa as ‘the Subsonic series dedicated to the electric guitar.’

The series involved twelve different musicians, each of whom has their own level of reputation for doing something different from the norm on their instrument. There are electrics, acoustics, bass, treated guitars, feedback and loops. In fact there’s no doubt a lot more than that going on. But among these albums there are many wonderful occasions where, no matter how many times you hear them, you will never know how those sounds were made. As a guitarist flirting with improvisation, I enjoy those moments where it’s anyone’s guess how a sound came about.

Yep...only five. See below.

The list of collaborations is a mixed group to say the least. But each pairing is matched up pretty well in terms of style, giving each record a distinct feel:

Fred Frith and Marc Ribot. Bill Laswell and Nic Bullen. Justin Broadrick and Andy Hawkins. Caspar Brotzmann & Page Hamilton. Sascha Frere-Jones and Loren Mazzacane Connors. Lou Barlow and Rudy Trouvé.

Quite a diverse list, well matched.

I feel it’s only right to make aware that, before I get too deep into things, I have yet to take delivery of the sixth album: Lou Barlow and Rudy Trouvé’s untitled effort. It should be here soon so I hope it won’t affect my writing too much until then.

That aside, I feel it’s still ok to air my one big criticism of the series – let’s get it out of the way. The first record I got in the series was Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s ‘Zulutime’; on which the two guitarists improvise live in the studio together. This struck me as a work of genius.

The problem is – Zulutime is the only record where the two guitarists collaborate with each other.

There will always be records where two rich show-off rock/blues guitarists collaborate and put out more tracks of soulful pentatonics. But how often do albums like this come out in the mainstream? Quite rarely. I say mainstream, of course I’m talking nonsense, but considering when these came out there are some relatively high profile players involved here. Justin Broadrick, Lou Barlow and Page Hamilton must have sold a couple of million albums between them.

My feelings are that a trick was certainly missed by not having the pairs collaborate on the other five albums. Although there’s a lot to keep discovering on repeated listens, the curiosity around what I could be hearing if both players were in the same room never leaves me. What could have been a wonderful alternative to shredder guitar thing (Vai, Satriani and all those G3 types (apart from Fripp) – I’m looking at you) was never realised.

Nevertheless, this remains a series that is as exciting as it is frustrating.

Coming next: Fred Frith and Marc Ribot’s ‘Sounds Of A Distant Episode’

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