Bass Communion – Bass Communion III

March 2001
2-CD reissue, 2008

AMPHEAD: The most minimalist fog sounds we’ve heard yet, here resolving to something closer to radio white noise. Think the more ambient sections of Godspeed’s Lift Your Skinny Fists, &c. This is a desolate Ballardia, a land of isolated radio towers and public housing blocks, sprouting like weeds amongst an overgrown grass-scape. As it gets louder it starts clipping, becoming something that both is and is not a contemporary information overload.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: the third Bass Communion album is the weakest so far. As for why we say it’s the third studio release instead of the fourth, Atmospherics doesn’t really count as a studio album because it was contracted out to a library music company and not meant for public consumption. This one barely counts as a release itself; according to its Bandcamp page, it was originally intended as an on-demand CDR from the Burning Shed website before it was reissued as a bonus disc with Bass Communion II. 

SONAR / LINA ROMAY / GRAMMATIC FOG: Three tracks, each roughly three minutes long, in contrast to the entire rest of the album, which features pieces averaging a little over ten minutes. Sonar is a low throbbing overlaid with melancholy strings and what almost sounds like rusted machinery trying hesitantly to function. Lina Romay is darker and swampier. Some of the mechanical whalesong samples are reminiscent of The Howling Wind, a thing Jerry Martin did for the SC3K Unlimited soundtrack. He’s still haunting this project, it seems. Grammatic Fog has more of a vague noir tinge to it. 

A lot of its comparative weakness as an album comes from its history. This is, ultimately, a castoff album. Most of the songs were recorded between 1995 and 1999, at the same recording sessions for the first two Bass Communion albums. The rest were a few cuts lifted from Atmospherics. Sometimes, like with Recordings, it’s just that those songs don’t fit with the general atmosphere of the album they were originally meant for, but in the case of III the soundscapes really are less interesting and evocative in general than the ones we got on I and II. There’s a real sense that we’re going through familiar territory here, and in the intervening time it’s become wetter and muckier and more of a slog.

SLUT 2.1: Sounds like a deconstruction of a mid-90s JBK song. Lots of sounds reminiscent of surveillance, things like fuzzy CRT monitors, rapidly unspooling tape reels, microphone feedback, and echoing recorded voices. The most intersting thing here is that trip-hop inflected drumbeat and bassline. Gives this one a sense of deliberate motion, of gears turning and slotting into place.

This doesn’t mean that there are no innovations, of course. The drums and bass in Slut 2.1 and Sickness, for instance, push them away from the realm of textural experiments and closer to actual songs. That said, that increased sense of structure means Slut 2.1 is a bit of an odd duck in Bass Communion’s discography, as it’s pretty clear it points toward a direction that, if we want to litigate such a thing, Bass Communion has no business going in. If we wanted to get an idea of what the next proper album would sound like, we’d best look elsewhere.

43553E9.01: You know this one. Even if you’ve never heard this one, you know this one. This is the vaguely East-Asian background/introduction to Lips of Ashes, off In Absentia. All the echoing shamisen and piano noises make this feel like a shrine or a temple tucked deep in the mountains somewhere. Music to spiritually contemplate the natural world to.

Recycling is actually quite important when going through Steven Wilson’s discography, albeit one that we’ve not covered much here until now. The thesis, though, is as follows: once Steven Wilson hits upon a particular sound or riff or sample or whatever, he will extract as much value for it as he possibly can. There is, for example, a fair bit of cross-pollination between No-Man and Porcupine Tree. The melody for Days in the Trees shares its melody with Porcupine Tree’s Mute. Jack the Sax and Wake as Gun share a guitar progression. And so forth.

In this case, 43553E9.01’s status as a sample source for Lips of Ashes pretty firmly positions this album, constructed as it is from the leftovers from the first two, as inhabiting yet one more liminal space between past and future, and an echo of the more important one this era of Bass Communion inhabits in general.

In that sense, then, knowing what will come later, it makes more sense to think of the first three Bass Communion studio albums as a trilogy, working with broadly similar conceptual themes (to the extent the albums have them, of course). These albums represent the discovery phase of the Bass Communion sound as Wilson feels around and forms a universe that the project can operate in, and then everything from Ghosts on Magnetic Tape onward represents the project fully formed as it morphs and evolves and different aspects are brought forward. (Not unlike the early Space Era for Porcupine Tree, come to think of it.)

SICKNESS: Low bass, sparse kick drum. Speaker static fades in and out behind a landscape similar to the one we discovered in Amphead, but with the odd retro inflection reminiscent of an alternate German Expressionist fifties. Percussion not as distinctive as Slut 2.1, but it is there.

Unfortunately, that means that this particular album is awkwardly suspended between two poles. II was a masterpiece, early Bass Communion at its most fully realized. Ghosts on Magnetic Tape, meanwhile, is the project taken to its most conceptual and minimalist frontier yet, not quite a radical reimagining of what Bass Communion could sound like but a more substantial and fruitful evolution of their (“their”) sound than anything we’ve seen before. But we’re not there yet, and so we have this, an album that threatens to prematurely mark II out as Bass Communion’s peak. The course-correction that Ghosts represents was sorely needed.

REFORMAT SPIDERS: Deeply minimalist in the way most noir films are minimalist. Background brass is reminiscent of swarming insects. Theo Travis is here once again on sax. His presence is hugely important here, largely because he spends much of this song without any backing, and his part is very reminiscent of his more atmospheric contributions to the Jazz Era.

In a lot of respects, then, III represents an even fuller realization of the idea that it sits in a liminal space. Theo Travis’ work on this track is yet another long tail reaching back from the Jazz Era. We know through Tonefloating that Steven Wilson will eventually have a solo career under his own name. Now we know, thanks not just to Travis’ work on this album but also his continued presence in the background of a considerable chunk of Wilson’s discography up till now, what that solo career might look like.

Here, though, is the little secret behind the liminal space as a concept. When dealing with someone like Steven Wilson, whose discography unfolds less as an abrupt lurching from era to era as much as a steady evolution from genre to genre (usually), you could stake out an arbitrary start and end point and declare the intervening period a liminal space. II could be described as a transition between I and III just as much as III is a transition between II and Ghosts. In our history, every space is liminal, and carries the electrifying sense of infinite possibility that comes with it. This is true even for III, an album that feels like the possibilities contained within it are being rapidly foreclosed upon; they just aren’t found in obvious places like Slut 2.1. It’s in the reverb-soaked shamisen of 43553E9.01, the extreme minimalism of Amphead, or the saxophone of this song. And that’s why, even though the album itself is the weakest Bass Communion has released so far, it still contains within it the seeds of its own redemption.

  1. Bass Communion II
  2. Bass Communion I
  3. Bass Communion III

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