This second part of the Subsonic series is a bit of a wild card. Whilst sonically it can claim the right to be the most representative of the Subsonic name, it stands out in that there isn’t really much six-string action on here at all. What there is is added more as embellishment rather than being the main focal point.
The primary focus of both artists on this is the bass guitar. Both are pretty well-known for their bass playing past, but each also shares a reputation for being exploratory musicians who deviate far from the traditional brackets that pop music often imposes upon its proponents.
Bill Laswell may well have the heftiest discography out there, almost certainly when it comes to bass players. Reading through his CV reveals his involvement in a number of records sitting on my shelves here at home that I’d never really noticed in the liner notes. Miles Davis, PiL, Last Exit, The Damage Manual…the list goes on. It’s also interesting to note that he would also pop up on Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s contribution to the next in the series – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories credited with ‘Guitar Production & Design’.
Nic Bullen is another highly prolific artist who emerged from the West Midlands in the early 1980s as part of the original Napalm Death lineup. This lineup soon added Justin Broadrick who contributes the other half of Subsonic 3; making these two records the most closely linked of the series, by personal connections at least.
Bullen went on to work on a number of different projects. One of these was alongside other Napalm Death alumnus – blast beat pioneer, and self-proclaimed ‘whirlwind’, Mick Harris in the long-term project Scorn. I feel it’s safe to say that Scorn is a much better indicator of Bullen’s contribution to Bass Terror than Napalm Death. In fact it was recorded while he was still a part of Scorn before his 1995 departure.
The most obvious thing about Bass Terror is that this is clearly the one you can dance to. Beats are essential to both these artists contributions in a way that doesn’t occur in the rest of the series.
Laswell only contributes a single track; the 15 minute ‘Tetragrammation’. What starts out as a very 1990s sounding ambient piece soon develops into a pretty rapid 4/4 beat funkathon. Laswell’s bass quacks through an envelope filter while vocal samples and monophonic synth lines splatter themselves over the rhythm.
Guitars crop up later adding a whammy bar manipulated drone that could well have been provided by the aforementioned Andy Hawkins; although he’s not credited as such. Theoretically the track is split into three different ‘methods’ which allows it to cover a lot of ground. My favourite is the third – ‘Evaporate’, which ironically drops much of the bass and brings it closer to the feel of subsequent records in the series.
Bullen provides two pieces here which, although they are also more rooted in beat culture than the rest of the series, have a distinctly darker tone than Laswell’s somewhat cheerful track.
The first; ‘Nocturnal Crawl’ brings to mind DJ Krush; with it’s speaker-threatening levels of low-end and ominous hip-hop beats. These sometimes give way to the relief of sampled tabla before pulling you back in to the grimy dirge of layered treated bass and drones. Towards the end of the piece the beats disappear altogether and it disintegrates into wobbles of sub-bass and reverb. In short…it’s wicked. Subsonic 3 and 4 are the albums I’ll listen to if I want to relax alone. This is the one I’d put on if I had company.
The closing track ‘Again & Again’ spends its first half riding a more up-tempo beat with spooky organ sounds and a floor shaking dub bass-line. The beats abruptly drop out at the mid-point taking things into ten minutes of some of the most atmospheric and unnerving sounds the series has to offer.
Bass Terror was the third record I bought in the series and I have to admit I was pretty disappointed at the time. Still obsessed with the more singular guitar sculpting of the third and fourth records; I found the more processed nature of both Laswell and Bullen’s tracks far less exciting. Subsequent listening over the past few years though has revealed a real depth and level of feeling in these tracks. I’m a bit older, perhaps more open-minded, and I really have grown fond of this record. Don’t get me wrong, nine times out of ten I’ll go for the guitar feedback, but at the right moment this record really delivers the goods. I do think Bullen wins out as Laswell’s bass is just a little bit too chirpy for my miserable tastes.
Bullen is soon to feature in a new exhibition ‘Home of Metal’ celebrating Birmingham’s contribution to metal which is organised by the people who run the rather excellent Supersonic festival. You can see him talking about it here.
I’m currently booking a trip to Birmingham to see the exhibition as well as return to the place where I studied at university for three years. Sadly, it seemed that I lived there during its least metal era – but I’ll check out the exhibition, hopefully catching Nic’s contribution, and report back.
Meanwhile, I suggest you find a copy of Bass Terror, and build.
Next in the series Justin K Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Skinner’s Black Laboratories.