A Navel City / No One Is There – Hoppy Kamiyama, Bill Laswell, Kiyohiko Semba Version 2 Version: A Dub Transmission – Bill Laswell
When an artist sends as much new material into commercial production as Bill Laswell does every year, how can you pick the buy-worthy releases? He’s credited on hundreds of albums as either a bassist or producer, and as a practice he works with artists from the world over for his projects. Two of his teams performed at Bonnaroo III (Bill Laswell’s Material and Praxis, the latter being the more-than-a-decade-older version of the now touring Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, switching Claypool with Laswell). Unless you know of a record store with Laswell ready to spin (you’ll be hard pressed to score on a store with more than 1/10 of his produce), you just have to buy and hope it was worth the loot. (Or consult the All Music Guide. – ed.)
I can help, at least, on his two most recent showings: two great examples of what Laswell’s artistic polarity can accomplish. A Navel City / No One is There is a studio album, obviously edited and production heavy. Laswell plays bass, along with Japan’s ambient-synth powerhouse Hoppy Kamiyama (the album’s actual headliner) on digital president and slide geisha, and Kiyohija Semba on drum kit and various percussive devices (Semba is a fucking badass!), translating Asian sound textures deep into drum and bass steeped collages. Version 2 Version: A Dub Transmission (actually the fifth release in his ROIR dub series) seats Laswell deep in the post-performance studio, a place where he can shred, warp, and run percussion, melodies and bass structures through destructive echo chambers and then paste everything back together in a more personal design. In this case, he has teamed with regulars: Jah Wobble (bassist/co-writer), Bernie Worrell (Parliament Funkadelic famed keyboardist), Karsh Kale (tabla master), and Abdou Mboup (drums/percussion).
A Navel City’s ‘Azlo’ starts with a simple electric hum approaching from the distance. Laswell’s distinct funk riffs plunge, a common Laswell bass technique, regroup and are fresh. Nothing is generic or played out about this album. As I said, Semba is a fucking badass, and refreshingly unrestrained. Asian cymbal crashes call dragons out of slumber. Any jazz team would be happy to sit in his creased pocket. Kamiyama’s ambient whispers, whistles and squeals are unique in their own right, and would make perfect Praxis fodder sometime.
"Todes Fuge" is more reserved and depressed, but beautifully so. Kamiyama pushes for advance with schizophrenic piano runs and Laswell lays off the low-end for some crystalline harmonics. Semba’s snare raps blatantly reverse course ("Sospirando") and Laswell’s funky drops show appreciation for the applied juice. Semba’s kickdrum idles (dun dun, dun dun, dun dun…) as a tension builder and the aggressive releases are sweet. Laswell gets a gold star for this guest appearance, a position he’s comfortable with (and I’ve found a new favorite drummer!)
On Version 2 Version, Worrell’s haunting Phantom of the Opera organ wheels in and dumps Laswell’s soupy bass riffs over the proceedings (‘Dystopia’). Laswell’s steel-curtain bass talks when it wants to, drops out in a moment filled with Kale’s taps, reappears and falls away into canyon-esque echoes; this is the evolution of dub. Jamaica began the art and Laswell has brought it to its current height with help from an entire world of musicians, not that someone out there can’t do even more than he…
"Simulacra" is again started by Worrell’s drone, Mboup’s kit thumps and Worrell’s synth wobbling away like a friction-cursed top. What I can say of Laswell here, I can say of him for most any track he’s on: His ability to tread in the low-end (while Wobble handles the upper) without being boring is a testament to his ability both as a bassist and his tastes as a talent scout. With Wobble strumming overhead, Mboup and Kale trading punches, and Worrell adding his out-of-this-world synth, Laswell can take a nap when he feels like it and throw the hammer down when necessary. His approach to music, a shepherd of sorts rather than a wolf, allows him to be involved with such a broad range of styles, artists and albums; His approach to music is pioneering, uniting, and truly a gift to the world’s catalogue of sounds.
A clock tick and helicopter flutter head up "Night City," a song that’ll have you looking over your shoulder no matter what level of paranoia you usually maintain. Then, if you concentrate of Laswell’s reggae bass, irieness sets in. Mboup’s drop-beat goes well with Kale’s almost- Nyahbinghi patter and the all-powerful echo chamber knocks everyone down, only to hear them get up and start again; that’s quite the spirit of reggae actually. Laswell matches his best dubs here.
Picture Laswell’s studio albums as living, breathing, vibrant beings, active in form and structure. (Although the first CD reviewed is not of his own design, his bass is evident enough to place it along with any of his personal stash.) Now, picture a Picasso and you’ve got an idea of how his studio dubs (anyone’s solid dubs) sound on a good outing. You’re given just a hint at form, demanding a few ponderous chin scratches and an "aaha!" as you enter sedation, smiling for the ride.