April 1998 – album reviews – Bass Communion’s ‘Bass Communion’ (“things flirt round the edges of familiarity”)

29 Apr

Bass Communion: 'Bass Communion' ('Bass Communion I')

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)

The potential for making noise, making our own personalised sound via brain, limb or breath, has always been with us. In the sampler age – where you can trap any sound in a digital jar and then play musical Darwin with it – the option range has hurtled up several levels in the space of half a generation, and the serious sound addict can now personalise any noise no matter who or what the source.

Which brings us to Bass Communion, the latest brainchild of studio wizard Steven Wilson. As if he weren’t busy enough psych-rocking with Porcupine Tree, cult- popping with No-Man, or working out his Kraut/post-rock urges with The Incredible Expanding Mindfuck. Let’s face it, few people are better qualified as a sound-addict.

Bass Communion (no thumpin’, pumpin’ house-music project, despite the suspicious name) is Wilson’s most direct attempt to date at riding this addiction. It’s also his most cryptic and esoteric, in which he rejects his usual battery of synthesizers in favour of the use of sounds “sampled, looped, transposed, layered, filtered, and processed into infinity” via electronic circuitry and sampler exploration. Wilson permits himself occasional real instruments (such as the skinny, echoing Bark Psychosis-style guitar on Drugged), but they sort of stand off to one side, like nervous uncles at parties. This isn’t really their show. For those who only skim the surface of Steven Wilson via the odd No-Man phuture-pop single, or hear the odd Porkies guitar blowout and maybe damn him as a wannabe Dave Gilmour, Bass Communion will come as a beautifully disorientating shock. This music shares secluded room-space with the work of Aphex Twin, Muslimgauze, Oval or Paul Schutze.

It might be a logical extension of Porcupine Tree’s ambient atmospherics or No-Man’s avant-garde leanings, but it’s also a giant leap of pure faith. There are no tunes, cheesy or otherwise. At all. And no attempts to please – there’s no equivalent to Aphex’s Come to Daddy on ‘Bass Communion’. Melodies, if they happen, seem to evolve almost by accident. Harmony is something that occurs occasionally when patterns coincide, rather than something that’s held to. Things flirt round the edges of familiarity, repeat and loop, but don’t so much hold the attention as massage it. When in doubt, it stays quiet. Actually, it’s always in doubt and always quiet, but never entirely at a loss about where to go. Bass Communion is profoundly experimental, but Wilson’s sharp, pop-attuned ear ensures that at least it never paints itself into a corner.


 
Shopping, the opener, deflects digital coldness from the off via its crackle and fluff of sampled vinyl noise: quiet, but almost drowning out the amnesiac wafts of melody which float, with disassociated loveliness, off to one side of the listening ear. They come in, they go; a wobbly snatch of Bach jumps out at you, trips over, cuts out. From then on, you’re on your own in Bass Communion’s subtly surreal electronic world.


 
Orphan Coal sounds like night in an abandoned telephone exchange. A clattering can drum pulses its elliptical way around and around. Echoing blips of voice trail after it – a hiccup in the system – and tones flicker irregularly like monitoring lights, going from ice to feather-stroke in seconds. Sheens of sound arch in ghostly fashion overhead: at peace, but disturbing yours. You almost expect HAL 9000 to be keeping a watchful red eye on it all. In which case the slow flood of Sleep Etc. is the digital limbo after the plugs are pulled and the lobotomy comes down, sending tides of electronic fluid trickling across the speakers, rising and implying a slow suffocation. Leafy rustles and long low scraping whale-like groans overlap deep subterranean booms and lost dizzy ringing sounds. Somewhere back in there there are hints of double basses, Rhodes pianos, and Mexican percussion – it could, conceivably, have started off as Wilson chopping up something like Weather Report and reducing it to sonic pulp for a new recipe. Whatever the source, now it sounds like icebergs having prolonged nightmares.


 
With all the experimentation going on, it’s almost a shame to admit that it’s the two versions of Drugged – apparently the first parts of an evolving sound series – that hit the spot best. How to define them? As “not-duets”, probably. Collaborations with live musicians that aren’t live, aren’t jams, weren’t composed, yet still sound like immediate and co-operative performances even though they’re manipulated and mutated bits of taped sound sent through Wilson’s cloud chamber. The effect is eerie: you feel that if you lent Steven Wilson your soul, he’d hand it back to you within days polished, cleaned and reconditioned, and with a few welcome surprises in the pockets.


 
On the first Drugged, Theo Travis‘ plaintive soprano saxophone replicates and proliferates, dozens of birdsinging reeds fluttering and fading over the warm upholstery of reverently pastoral organ chords. His playing is the most directly human and emotive on the record, yet here he sounds as if his personality is being melted down even as he makes his mark. There’s somehow something of the swan-song to what he’s doing, as if he and Wilson were carrying out a voluntary, luxuriant suicide pact.


 
The second Drugged, featuring the celestial guitar Soundscapes of Robert Fripp, is an especially inspired bit of audio piracy: a close cousin to the similar and marvellous Born Simple from No-Man’s ‘Flowermix’. Seven seconds of Fripp lifted from an old No-Man source tape, then refracted through Wilsonian concepts and gizmos for twenty-five minutes of protracted, blissful imagination. Frippophiles might notice that it equals about any genuine Soundscape they care to name: everyone else will be up with Steve ‘n’ Bob, nuzzling the starry skies.

A deep-down indulgence well worth sharing. Filter me another one, bass-boy.

Bass Communion: ‘Bass Communion’ (‘Bass Communion I’)
3rd Stone Ltd., STONE 036CD (Barcode)
CD-only album
Released:
April 1998
Get it from: (2020 update) Bandcamp, Burning Shed or Amazon
Bass Communion:
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