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.
- Bass Communion II
- Bass Communion I
- Bass Communion III