The Boston Phoenix
September 11 - 18, 1997

[Music Reviews]

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Aces of bass

Illbient, beyond DJ Spooky

by Chris Tweney

Think for a moment about bass. Booming bass, punchy bass, rumbling bass so loud it shakes your toenails loose. The question with bass is always, "How low can you go?" If you're listening to illbient, the latest cause célèbre in New York electronic-music circles, the answer's likely to be, "Not low enough." Although the field of illbient artists is extremely diverse, they all share a common obsession with frequencies so low that most stereo speakers have a hard time reproducing them.

The word "illbient" comes from a fusion of "ill" and "ambient." Its music is equal parts dub, drums 'n' bass, hip-hop, beatless knob-twiddling, and scary vocal samples. DJ Spooky, the most prominent practitioner of the sound, gets the credit for naming the genre, but he's not the only denizen of the new sonic territory. Fellow scenesters like We, Byzar, Sub Dub, and the Wordsound collective are also churning out ambient funky beats in clubs and chill-out parties.

The group We are the musical offshoot of a multimedia design posse called Multipolyomni. DJ Olive, Lloop, and Once11 mix up a deadly precise beat soup of jungle, hip-hop, African drums, and Arabic polyrhythms. Heard first on the early Asphodel illbient compilations Crooklyn Dub Consortium Vol. 1 and Incursions in Illbient, We struck out into full-length territory with this year's breathtaking CD As Is. The disc dives deep into the nastiness of urban living -- think of traffic jams, burned-out warehouses, and diesel exhaust set to a beat.

Whereas their early cuts were unabashedly dystopic and angst-ridden, As Is finds We adopting a more upbeat tone, jumping into semi-danceable beats rather than pure atmospheric ambiance. The opening track, "Magnesium Flares," works from the building blocks of the jungle sound, but it injects enough of the illbient virus to make the track an ironic critique of entrenched dance-music conventions. Elsewhere, Raz Mesinai, from the illbient project Sub Dub, sits in on percussion and provides the beat source for a cut-up cross between Arabic funk and abstract hip-hop.

Another illbient outfit, Byzar, crank the urban-grime-and-angst factor several levels higher. Having also contributed a few tracks to Incursions in Illbient, they too have ventured out on their own with a debut full-length CD, Gaiatronyk (Asphodel). The sound is relentlessly dirty, almost gothic, filled with noises that sound like the groans and grunts of sci-fi-movie robots being tortured. On the live track, "Mach," soul-music samples are strangled at the mixing deck, forming the sonic padding for a shuffle-funk beat. Byzar occasionally step up the tempo, as on the fast groove of "Gaiatron," but brooding, off-the-dance-floor tracks remain their specialty.

And that's still just the tip of the illbient iceberg. Other members of the scene include Sub Dub, a collaboration between DJ/bassist John Ward and Raz Mesinai that plants itself firmly in dub-reggae territory. On Sub Dub's latest CD, Dancehall Malfunction (Asphodel), Ward's booming bass anchors a welter of electronic noise, Middle Eastern percussion, and echo-drenched horns. There's also the Brooklyn-based Wordsound, part music label, part DJ commune, who preach a fierce original mix of roots dub and postmodern noise. Artists like Scarab, Spectre, Dr. Israel, and OHM float in and out of the Wordsound house, where collaboration and shifting identity is the rule of the day. Wordsound's Crooklyn Dub Consortium compilations (volumes 1 and 2) are an excellent starter for this eclectic, difficult strain of illbient. For the historically minded, Bill Laswell's compilation Axiom Dub: Mysteries of Creation (Axiom) is unbeatable as a primer on the connection between rootsy dub and modern illbient.

The theorists of illbient, headed up by DJ Spooky, carry the avant-garde high-art banner with pride. The occasional Soundlab parties, which set the illbient sound as a backdrop to relaxed, comfortable social spaces filled with multimedia installations, are the often-trumpeted ideal. But the reality doesn't always match up -- illbient performers are sometimes disappointed to find that audiences watch the DJ tables as they might a concert stage. So the emphasis of early illbient on pure textures and ambiance is starting to give way to more accessible, beat-oriented sounds.

The shakeout of pure ambiance reflects illbient's split personality. This is beat-driven music that's not meant for dancing. Illbient is funk turned upside down and inside out, with sprawling, scary sampled bass lines in place of punchy bass guitar. Where the P-Funk Mob wanted to take you for a nonstop boogie ride on the mother ship, illbient wants to sit you down in front of a powerful subwoofer and let you absorb the bass from the inside out. Illbient lays claim to being the soundtrack of the premillennial urban experience. The topsy-turvy approach to "dance" music is just the first brick in a growing sonic warehouse.

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