Bass Communion – Atmospherics

1999

A quick run of shorter posts before we hit Lightbulb Sun and Returning Jesus. [Magical, airy, building in tension.] In the 90s, Steven Wilson made soundtracks for commercials. [Warm, flowing, euphoric.] He lucked into the job through Mike Bennion, a film director, whose sister was Tim Bowness’ ex-girlfriend, and who was quite fond of the work they did on No-Man, and so he and Steve got in touch. [Slow, thoughtful over eerie crackling record.] Bennion would go on to work with Porcupine Tree several times, most notably as the director for the Piano Lessons video and a major player in the aborted Deadwing film. [Gradually creeping, muffled, ominous.] Some of his commercial work would show up later on in Unreleased Electronic Music. [Light, climbing, wondrous.] Atmospherics, obviously, is not that. [Swelling, mysterious pulses.]

This, instead, is a collection of very short two-to-three-minute pieces, some of which are extracts and remixes of other Bass Communion tracks, meant for use in TV and radio programs. [Sinister, underwater pressure.] In other words, the same kind of thing as what he was doing on adverts. [Calm, ethereal, steadily rising.] This compilation’s existence also makes sense in another way, as Wilson’s music has always had a particular cinematic bent to it, and the work of Bass Communion is always particularly evocative. [Jungle at night, echoing noises.] Very often, Bass Communion sounds like the soundtrack to the sort of creepy, unsettling, dream-logic film Wilson would just love, so why not take the obvious step and hook up with a library music company and make that music available for actual creepy, unsettling, dream-logic TV shows? [Soft, slowly progressing mystery.] (I find myself wondering which shows do in fact have a Bass Communion sample thrumming ominously in the background, now.) [Sober, uneasy, surreal.]

As befits an album sold to production companies for BGM purposes (as anyone who listened to those really early Two Steps From Hell trailer music compilations would know), this is definitively not an album meant to be listened to from beginning to end. [Tranquil, spreading waves.] So there’s very little point in looking at this the same way we’d look at, say, Bass Communion II. [Quietly threatening, danger approaching.] This is more like a catalogue, something to thumb through to find a specific sample that serves a specific purpose in the story (an intention reinforced thanks to the 60- and 30-second samples of each track that make up the album’s back half). [Gentle, tentative progression.] And indeed, that’s the exact effect Atmospherics gives, of a disjointed hopping from soundscape to soundscape, some familiar, some not, in a sort of sonic buffet. [Eerie minimalism.] This isn’t something for you or me. [Smooth gliding motion, increasing in pressure.] But the value in an album like Atmospherics comes in the way familiar songs are recontextualized, and in this case what we get is Bass Communion’s Greatest Hits For The Discerning Studio Soundtrack Decision Maker. [Spooky late night restlessness.] Completely commercial, yes, but as anyone who’s listened to Two Steps From Hell will also tell you, just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean there isn’t artistry there, even if some of the artistry in question was sometimes pulled from elsewhere. [Haunting desolation.] We want to hear more of what was featured here, and that, infuriatingly, goes double for the pieces original to this collection.

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Bass Communion – Bass Communion V Muslimgauze

September 1999
Bass Communion V Muslimgauze EP, July 2000

Hooboy.

Bryn “Muslimgauze” Jones is one of those guys who probably should have a song-by-song retrospective written about his work, ideally by some underground music nerd who’s written a dissertation on recent Middle Eastern history. Over the course of his twenty-year career he’d release well over a hundred studio albums, mostly atmospheric loop-based electronic pieces (swinging between ambient and dub and noise and everywhere in between) with vocal samples and traditional Middle Eastern instruments thrown in, all laser-focused on conflict in the Muslim world. The music of Muslimgauze, and the way it interacts with the person who created it, is full of apparent contradictions, and is worth engaging with because of them.

Let us, then, engage. Famously, Jones himself was a nonreligious white guy from Manchester who never visited the Mideast on the grounds that it was (and is) occupied territory. His impetus for starting the project was the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and over the next seventeen years he’d develop an encyclopedic knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and history, but his perspective on that history never progressed beyond “aggressively woke Tumblr teenager.” Even more bizarrely, outside of his strident opposition to Western imperialism and adventurism in the Mideast, his politics were apparently wildly incoherent, to the point where the creator of an album titled Fuck Israel happened to also be, of all things, a Thatcher supporter.

This is actually perfectly ideologically consistent. The mistake here is assuming that an anti-imperialist position is exclusively leftist when it’s not hard to come up with counterexamples. (To pick one immediately to hand, Khomeini. He may have called the US the Great Satan but that doesn’t mean his post-revolution goal was a secular, moneyless, propertyless utopia.) This myopia can be partially explained through Jones’ nationality: he lived in a country whose late empire remains lamented amongst its right wing. Meanwhile, in a country that was the victim of empire, it’s not hard for a conservative nationalist anti-imperialism to develop, perhaps centering around an idealized vision of how the land was before the Westerners started marching in with their tanks and their decadence and their arbitrarily drawn lines.

(Tangent 1: So it’s clear that leftist and rightist anti-imperialisms can bleed into each other pretty easily. Going back to Iran, for instance, both socialists and theocrats had a hand in toppling the Shah in 1979. That said, it’s probably best to leave the question of how to deal with the uncomfortable ways left and right intersect here to those actually on the ground.)

(Tangent 2: And that, by the way, is how Ostalgie-riddled ex-Communist East Germany fell hard for the AfD.)

(Tangent 3: That for all his militancy Jones was apparently very awkward and introverted in real life should also not be surprising, as anyone who actually knows militant Internet people can testify.)

It is this sort of conservative anti-imperialism that the music of Muslimgauze easily lends itself to. Many of the album and song titles—when they’re not referencing a specific person or event or blasting a nation complicit in the systematic oppression of Muslim people—reference a traditional aspect of Islamic society and culture. The field recordings and use of traditional instruments paint a picture of a traditional society that has had modernity—in the form of oil-thirsty empire—imposed on it from outside and which is suffering for it.

(Tangent 4: The most immediate critique—the West ≠ modernity—is obvious and essential. This conflation we can probably chalk up to the way Britain thought of its empire as a civilizing force instead of the destructive force it actually was.)

If we’re being unkind, we might even call this a fetishization of Middle Eastern culture, and speculate that Jones’ refusal to actually visit the Mideast might also have been subconsciously fueled by a desire to not have this very intricate idea of the Muslim world, silted into existence over years and years of research and music production, collapse in on itself after coming into contact with reality. That’s a fair critique. It certainly reads that way to someone like me whose mental image of the Mideast is less Hebron and more Dubai. Either way, though, there’s extremely little in the way of any broader anti-capitalist sentiment here.

Nevertheless, the field recordings are evocative, the dronework unsettling, the electronics abrasive and challenging. The questionable politics are there, yes, but they’re questionable in very specific and idiosyncratic ways that demand polysyllabic engagement. This remains, fundamentally, very well-made music.

(Tangent 5: Besides, if I only listened to music that aligned with my specific politics I’d only listen to anarchist crust punk recorded in squats, and that’s no way to go through life.)

(Tangent 6: And no, I have no idea how you’d make an explicitly leftist counterpoint to Muslimgauze. Perhaps ask someone who’s actually from the Mideast.)

Steven Wilson has a longstanding policy of not caring about an artist’s politics, so long as the music is good. (Not unrelatedly, Steven Wilson is a cisgender white man.) And this music is extremely good, and more importantly, extremely good in an off-kilter left-field way that’s right up his alley. So, when Wilson discovered Bryn Jones and his considerable discography, he wrote to him, they met, and he gave Jones some of his own music, which Jones then heavily edited to fit his own style and sent back.

The two of them would fling remixes and remixes of remixes back and forth until an album emerged. The result is something that would be a lighter Muslimgauze offering if it didn’t sound like Muslimgauze run [further] through the William S. Burroughs cut-up method. There’s not much in the way of Jones’ usual trademarks, like the vocal samples or the percussion, but there’s a lot of distortion and artistic brickwalling. It’s like if someone dunked the Muslimgauze machine in water and then let it rip. As for Bass Communion, their (“their”) more pronounced contributions generally show up toward the back, with Moonloop leftovers showing up in Four and Six, and their penchant for slow, incremental change (not, critically, a Muslimgauze staple) appearing in Five.

In general, though, this collaboration still feels like a watering down of each artists’ respective strengths. As I write this I still find myself drawn to the punchier stuff Jones released solo instead of what this collaboration produced. Bass Communion fares slightly better, but that may have more to do with the way their identity is less subsumed into the collective muck than anything. In that respect, this EP feels somewhat unbalanced, and one would expect a months-long remix and re-remix effort to eventually produce something that both retained each artist’s individual identity and molded them together into something distinctive. That didn’t quite happen.

It’s probably inaccurate to say it’s a “missed opportunity.” That would imply there’s some ideal way for a Bass Communion/Muslimgauze collaboration to sound, and given the two projects approach ambient and experimental music from perpendicular directions (loosely: BC plays up the alien-ness of its soundscapes, whereas Muslimgauze is firmly rooted in the real world), if there is one, this is probably it. But it doesn’t really matter, because the two artists wouldn’t have the chance to collaborate again. Bryn Jones died of a rare blood disease in 1999, leaving behind a Tupac-sized mountain of unreleased work that took over fifteen years to fully sift through. (Fortunately, it’s all on Spotify. My personal recommendation is to start with Gun Aramaic and work your way outwards from there.) Wilson, meanwhile, would go on to collaborate with multiple Israeli artists (one of whom is related to Moshe Dayan), have a second home in Tel Aviv, and describe other musicians’ support of BDS as performative ego-stroking. Go figure.

Bass Communion – Bass Communion II

July 1999

  • Advert. Like an advert, except with beeps. (When did he stop doing these?)
  • 16 Second Swarm. Melancholy horns over static fuzz. More reconstructed memories (what was happening in 1999?). Not a memory—a ghost (do the Hokey Cokey). Record scratch fades out, ambient shimmers fade in. 6’00” in…violins. Cellos. (A mourning.) Ágætis byrjun, abstracted. A call of alien animals across the highland hills.
  • Grammatic Oil. Thumping, thrumming, all-consuming low humming. Not quite JBK-tribal but close. Electronic echolocation. All blends together into a coalescing, oppressive wall of noise. Which then fades out to alien whispering distant alien shrieking.
  • Drugged III. Back to the shoreline saxophonic well. Intro feels like a tension-riddled Japanese tea ceremony. Ambient swells kick in early. (Kyoto—outside of time—akin to the timeless London whose Thames bridge Gull jumped off in From Hell’s penultimate chapter. (A memory of an imaginary city.)) Sax from before, accentuated with guitar (see above). Fades out in favor of soundscapes and whalesong, the suite collapsing in on itself and reconstituting. Travis’ sax becomes disembodied from itself, as we drift slowly upward.
  • Dwarf Artillery. Twitchy, glitchy, and full of radar. Voyage 34, Phase IV, if Brian was a conspiracy nut. (This time the paranoia is palpable.) (It has direction.) Distorted guitar ambience in the background in the midsection.
  • Wide Open Killingfeld. Wind above metal shacks. Future civilization camping in amongst the ruins of ours—communicating in song (sounds like birds). Abstracted seagull calls. First part sounds the way a Lasse Hoile photograph looks. Radio static, rusted flagpoles. After this, only the mood.

————

A central concept of the first volume of Phonogram, the Gillen/McKelvie not-quite-love-letter to music nerdery, is the memory kingdom. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, a scene, something like Swinging London or Madchester or Britpop, as it exists in the culture’s collective memory.

Entering a memory kingdom isn’t shown to be exceptionally difficult, as it’s the natural extension of the sort of things people do when they listen to a ton of music that they associate with a particular time and place (eg. Burial and New York, Pendulum and Hong Kong, Space-Era Porcupine Tree and Taipei). There’s some ceremonial set and setting stuff that needs to be done in the beginning, but the core of the whole process is this: listen to something of that time and get into it. Everybody does that.

Bass Communion II presents itself as an invitation to do something similar. The transition point is pretty clearly the moment on the second track where the record static fades out and the barrier between the listener and the soundscape has been shattered, and we spend the rest of the album wandering aimlessly around a strange new world.

The kingdom we’ve entered, though, isn’t a collective memory, or even Wilson’s memory specifically. This is an oblique heterotopia; green England’s fields turned upside-down and inside-out, an ominous hellscape populated with bird-men and glitch-dogs and other, more alien creatures that hum and drone beyond the horizon. They go about their dark work not even knowing or caring you’re there, safe in the knowledge that if a tourist were to pierce the separation between worlds and stumble into theirs, you’d have no idea what they’re doing and would be too scared/dumbfounded to ask. You are a dream, wandering a world of dreams made real.

This is part of why music is magic. You may not be able to physically reach out and touch the glitch-beasts in the last track on the second disc, and they may not have existed in any meaningful sense before July of 1999, but there they are, to quote Alan Moore, real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity. Steven Wilson sketched an entire world and packed it into 87 minutes of music, and you have filled in the details. A, uh, communion, if you will, between musician and listener.

But here’s the thing: there’s nothing inherent about Wilson’s soundscapes in this album, or even about Wilson as a musician, that allows this to happen. This is just an example of the magical properties of an aesthetic. Listen to a song, ideally one that carries a particular weight for you, and you’ll find this exact thing happening again. I’m doing it right now, with a different record, as I write this.

In other words, everybody does that.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I

————

  • A Grapefruit in the World of Park. Based on Robert Fripp soundscape. Oscillating burbles come in so loud they make the surrounding radio antennas hum. Music which has a concrete effect upon the world. Metallic hum resolves to cello. Individual elements slowly stretched apart.
  • Snakebird. Square Root of Sub remix. Spiritual sequel to Sleep, &c. Airships above a bog. At the center, a crystal shimmering. Mesmerizing. Drawing all in. Drugged reprise. Splashing, bitcrushed howling. Glitchy. Distorted beyond all recognition. Artificial, but very real and very threatening. But the brightness remains, beckoning. Something about the light’s true nature?

Bass Communion – Bass Communion I

April 1998

Oh ho ho, Hoity Toity Retrospective Person, you say, you confidently and triumphantly declared the Space Era dead last week, so why haven’t you posted an intro to the Alternative Era yet?

Because dead things leave corpses that need to be disposed of…and this particular corpse is still twitching. (We’ll get to that in a few weeks.) We’re in a transitional period, at the moment. The Alternative Era is still under construction, and won’t be completed and ready for showtime until the release of Stupid Dream next year.

That bit of housekeeping done, Bass Communion. The old line is “one can measure a circle starting anywhere,” and when it came time to kill the Space Era, Wilson’s circle started at Nine Cats. First released in 1983 as a gleefully monstrous sixties-psychedelia-by-way-of-Marillion behemoth on the good half of Karma’s The Joke’s On You. Shrunken and stripped down for 1991’s The Nostalgia Factory and shuffled into 1992’s On the Sunday of Life. Reached its final form in a fully acoustic rendition for 1997’s Insignificance. A perfect synecdoche for both the Space Era in all its glory and also, in the end, a harbinger of what would supplant it.

So what’s missing? What did the circle skip over that allows a project like this to slink into existence?

Back again we go to Steven Wilson’s Home Movies. The narrative is that Bass Communion sprung, indirectly, from Altamont, and anyone who’s actually listened to Prayer for the Soul would be justified in doing a double take here. Altamont was experimental in the two-kids-screwing-around-with-homemade-recording-equipment sense, not the tape-loops-of-field-recordings sense. It’s only upon reading an old interview of Wilson’s where he says that Bass Communion and Altamont share the same set of influences that things click into place. Altamont is Babby Steven and Babby Simon ripping off the Alte Deutsche Meister wholesale, whereas Bass Communion is Adult Steven abstractly picking at what made them worth ripping off wholesale fifteen years ago in the first place.

So here we are, Bass Communion’s been quietly rolling out new soundscapes for four years and we finally have a debut album. Five tracks, most of them long. We dive in with Shopping, the only short song, serving as a slightly snarky introduction to the project. (Toccata and Fugue kicks in about a second before the song ends.) And after this, the goods.

The other four songs are ambient droney numbers that generally start out with a sample or a field recording and let sounds naturally silt into something coherent. Orphan Coal is instructive. Starts with a JBK-esque drum loop, overlaid with, in order, short female vocal samples, reversed tape loops, quietly unsettling Jonny Greenwood-esque strings, dissonant choruses, some rumbly Mick Karn-esque bass work, and finally some additional eerie synth work spread on top. The song it’s most similar to is Boards of Canada’s Jacquard Causeway, in the way every new element is at first introduced prominently and then slowly integrated into the song as a whole to make room for the next new element, ultimately making the song conclude at a completely different place from where it started. In Orphan Coal’s case, it started grubby and earthy, but ended somewhere creepy but airy. The other songs on this album are like this, too, but here is where the structure—and thus Wilson’s objective of abstracting music as much as possible—is most apparent.

Pulling apart a song like this has its own advantages in the particular mental images they evoke in the listener. Here, we turn instead to Sleep, Etc, the dystopian, quietly surreal adventure immediately preceding Orphan Coal. My notes for this song, verbatim:

  • beginning at least: burbling, discordant
  • like someone trying to evade the secret police by tromping through a swamp in a thunderstorm
  • droning police airships with searchlights overhead
    • (they’re getting closer)
    • (and they’re armed)
    • (they move like giant mechanical jellyfish)

Pure paranoia fuel, right here. And that’s something slower, more ambient music has typically been good at. What’s scary isn’t the giant clown monster with fangs and cracked makeup, cackling madly in your face. What’s scary is what’s implied to lurk just out of frame, the things about which we cannot speak. The clown can be killed. The ghosts in your peripheral vision can’t. (cf. Sicknote)

But all of this is prelude to the album’s centerpiece, the first two-thirds of the Drugged suite, the centerpieces of which are some seriously airy keyboard work and Theo Travis’ incredible soprano sax. And, oh yes, here’s where Theo Travis is formally introduced to the blog and begins with Wilson what would become a very fruitful two-decade collaboration. He is characteristically excellent here, beginning with what feels like lonely whalesong. But then more sax samples are laid on top, along with some lovely synth organ in the background, and everything resolves into something more melodic, tranquil yet oddly tumultuous, and deeply, thickly nostalgic. It is, if we may be trite for a second, the music of nature. And then at about eleven minutes some distorted, fuzzed-out electric guitars fade in, and for a moment they sound like breaking waves, and everything clicked into place.

Once in a while my family will go to South Carolina for vacation. It’s rare that I tag along, because I usually have obligations. I don’t remember what they were for this particular trip, I suspect it had something to do with college, but either way I wasn’t there. But this one particular time they came back with a story: they were relaxing on the beach, and they hear this music. And some distance away there’s this guy standing on the beach with a trombone. He’s facing the water and playing something wistful and melancholy, similar, I imagine, to what Travis is doing here, and it sounded absolutely beautiful. But no one wanted to go up to him and tell him that, because it was also very clear that why he was there and why he was playing that music was something deeply and profoundly personal to him, and interrupting him would have ruined the moment.

It feels like something similar happened with the Drugged suite. On all three parts, but especially on the first, it feels like we have seen, in some oblique way, a chunk of Steven Wilson’s soul. We’ve borne witness to something uniquely special here, and all told, that’s not a bad way to kick a project off.

  1. Bass Communion I