Tag Archives: Subsonic

Justin Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories

It would be easy to write a biography of Justin Broadrick here. That’s not really my aim, so perhaps the best thing I can do is send you here to check out the insanely long list of records he’s put out since the early eighties and let you dig around the internet to your heart’s content in search of more info.

What this is about is Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories. [Note: I covered how I came across this record in the last entry.]

This album brings together Broadrick and Andy Hawkins from Blind Idiot God‘s ‘Azonic‘ project.  As on the majority of Subsonic albums the two don’t collaborate. In this case however, this probably for the best. Both guitarists have very different styles and Broadrick’s sparser playing on this record might not blend well with Hawkins’ huge washes of sound. This incidental segregation of the two artists also makes this record one of the most diverse and exciting of the series.

Skinner’s Black Laboratories was recorded in 1995 at the mid-point of the career of Godflesh, Broadrick’s uncompromisingly heavy and bleak project that may still be what he’s best known for. Since then he’s done an awful lot more (go back up to the top and look at that discography) including Jesu, the band where he’d finally master blending his pop influences with the crushing riffs that he’s so adept at churning out.

But it’s the essence of Final, yet another Broadrick project (and possibly his longest running) that is most evident on this CD. This is by no means as uncompromising and drone-based, but the spirit is very similar – lengthy solo tracks where the only accompaniment is the loops he creates himself. The track titles are a dead giveaway too; Guitar One, Two, Three and, most tellingly, Four/Infinite. The lack of more creative song titles totally fits the minimal Final aesthetic.

The music on display here is really varied. ‘One’ fades in incredibly slowly until that famous Broadrick guitar tone comes to the fore. It’s perhaps less distorted and aggressive than usual, but you can still tell that the inorganic, curiously boxy, sound is him. He builds up more and more rhythm but never loses the space in the music.

‘Two’ is simply one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard, the naked guitar chimes and it builds into one of the most hopeful pieces Broadrick has ever put out.  Years ago I played this to a friend whose room I was crashing in for the night. We lay in our beds, somewhat wasted, talking nonsense. Five minutes into the song he broke the long gap in conversation that had developed without either of us noticing with a simple ‘this is beautiful’, and it is.

‘Three’ fares less well. It’s a scratchy, broken affair that brings to mind the old dial-up tone that nobody in the developed world hears any more. Proceedings are saved by the lovely final track that brings back the bell-like tones from ‘Two’. The song feels a lot more shy. There’s real discipline on show here. The use of space and cathedral-style reverb is perfect. Many lesser musicians (myself included) would have just let the song turn into an over-the-top mess.

It leads wonderfully into ‘River Blindness’ – not only the first song on the record to be dignified with a real title – but also the first track from Andy Hawkins the guitarist with odd noise rock/dub band Blind Idiot God. There are definite hints of that band in his playing here, but the rhythm section has been dispensed with and replaced by more and more guitar. Hawkins only released one other recording as Azonic and although they were put to tape a year apart, the sound is near enough identical.

Hawkins has a HUGE sound. It’s smothered in stereo effects run into at least two amps. The most remarkable thing is the lack of attack, it’s almost as if the chords blend between each other, he must be using some sort of sustainer pickup as I can’t for the life of me replicate it.

On ‘River Blindness’ his guitar screams, roars, throbs, shreds (if only for a moment) and sometimes it just rumbles. Fans of rhythm needn’t cry though as tablas emerge from within the dirge too.

His other track ‘Nine Tails’ follows a similar vein. The guitar’s whammy bar gets a proper shoeing here, the already detuned strings rattle against the fretboard before being yanked back up to pitch time and time again.

Hawkins really throws down the heaviness gauntlet on these tracks. Enough to claim the ‘Heaviest of the Entire Subsonic Series’ title?

Maybe…

This is a stunning record, one which fans of experimental guitar should definitely seek out. There’s so much depth and range. Of course, you can listen to all of the songs on YouTube, but it really benefits from a full, uninterrupted, listen.

Thanks for reading.

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Gelbe Musik and the Subsonic collecting starts.

When you walk down Schaperstraße in Berlin you could be forgiven for walking straight past Gelbe Musik. The leafy road looks just like any one of the hundreds of residential streets that sprawl across the city. But the apartment buildings so typical of this area hide a bit of a gem in Berlin’s already pretty good record shop collection.

Gelbe Musik doesn’t shout about itself. A simple sign just saying ‘Musik’ is the only clue as to the crazy shit you’ll find here once you follow the steps down; but ever since my first visit to the city eight years ago I’ve returned each time.


See if you can spot the record shop hiding on this road.

It contains an incredible collection of avant-garde and  experimental music. I can safely say I haven’t even heard the names of 99% of what’s in there, let alone what any of it sounds like, but that’s what the real joy of this place is; discovery.

The shop is clean and minimal. Ursula, the owner, sits in a little back room with her dog, smoking fags in an nonchalant way that only someone who was around to witness a lot of this music being born could. It was in Gelbe Musik that the Subsonic series actually became a collection for me.

My wife and I were in Berlin to see Einsturzende Neubauten play a special ‘supporter’ show  in the derelict and stripped-out Palast Der Republik. It was a joyous long weekend of spotting ex-Bad Seeds, saying hello to Blixa Bargeld in his massive fur coat, becoming one of 200 drummers, and getting ripped to the tits at the best aftershow party I’ve been to yet. In fact the poster for the show is hanging behind me as I type >>>

That weekend with my mind open and brimming with creativity and wonder, a trip to Gelbe was more than necessary; it was vital.

Now I should clarify something here. At the time, I probably loved the idea of Gelbe almost more than the reality of it. I’d yet to make the transition from Kerrang reader to pretentious Wire magazine reader, so visits could sometimes be like being in sweet shop without a mouth.

Flicking through the racks of CDs was akin to when I occasionally go through a load of dance 12″ records – not a fucking clue. But then my eye was caught by a green coloured cd case, I pulled it out and found a familiar font and design style.  There it was; Justin Broadrick & Andy Hawkins:Azonic’s – Subsonic 3: Skinner’s Black Laboratories.

Ursula put the first track on for me and at first nothing happened, we looked at each other a bit awkwardly. The only Subsonic record I had at that time, Page Hamilton & Caspar Brotzmann’s ‘Zulutime’, explodes out of the speakers as soon as you hit play.  Slowly the track faded in, seconds later I was falling over myself to hand the Euros over.

And so now I had two Subsonic CDs, now it had become a collection, a challenge if you will. (Please check out this earlier post for a bit of background about the series.)

I haven’t visited Gelbe Musik for a couple of years now. I feel a real need to go back. If you happen to be in Berlin, and have any interest in a record shop that doesn’t choose to stock a load of pop records in order to pay the rent, check it out.

Next post I’ll talk more about the album in depth…

Bill Laswell & N.J. Bullen – Subsonic 2: Bass Terror

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

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.

Nic Bullen

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.