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Bass Communion: "Litany"; "Molotov & Haze + Haze Shrapnel"

img  Tobias

Most artist tend to become more predictable over time, but with Steven Wilson, this process seems to be running in reverse. Founding Bass Communion was a bold step in the first place. One would have thought that repeatedly describing, defining, delineating and defending the internal logic and continually expanding stylistic outreach of his main band Porcupine Tree in countless interviews would have been enough trouble as it is. No sane pr-adviser would have considered dealing with ambient, drones and sound art a good idea for a „Rock Star“ either. Even Wilson himself expected most Porcupine Tree-fans to „hate“ and misunderstand these physio-psychological nocturnes, which, at least initially, drew from the immersive atmospheres of Krautrock's soundscape-branch. And yet, in an unexpected twist, the discographies of Bass Communion and Porcupine Tree did not end in confusion but mutual reinforcement.

Certainly, the concepts and strategies behind Bass Communion were never as trivial as some made them out to be. This was not just a playground for experimental ideas. Neither was it, strictly speaking, to be considered a side-project. As a matter of fact, other than a prolific production cycle, which has yielded ten full-length albums within a mere eight years and is testimony to the growing importance of Bass Communion within his oeuvre, there are enough clues in the works themselves which suggest that they may actually be among the most private and personal statements he has ever published – and that  includes „The Incident“, his latest and upcoming effort under the Porcupine Tree-banner, which explicitly deals with highly intimate issues and fears. This idea was further reinforced in Spring of this year, when Wilson hit the spotlight with his first record under his civilian name: „Insurgentes“, a multicoloured, polytempered and shimmeringly eclectic multimedia-package, not only paid tribute to Prog-Rock, Radiohead and Electronica, but also to the deep drone-spheres he pioneered on compositions like „Ghosts on Magnetic Tape“.

When that latter album was released, it was greeted with a notable degree of interest not just from diehard Porcupine Tree-followers and Droneheads, but from the entire experimental music scene. Its spooky tenderness and spectre-like allure, combined with the intriguing story of its creation proved to touch listeners in a fundamental way: Wilson had used out old Vinyl records dug out from his parent's attic as a basis and their mysterious, spiderwebbed nostalgia translated to the new medium with striking emotionality. The technique of using only a single sound source for each piece appeared entirely natural here, like an implicite tribute to these frozen moments in time. Almost in sync with what was now hailed as a „masterpiece“, Wilson intensified his links to the soundscape-community by teaming up with Andrew Coleclough, Dirk Serries and Collin Potter and offering his „Dronework“ EP on Paul Bradley's Twenty Hertz imprint.  Bass Communion was no longer just considered the hobby of a musical eccentric now. It was deemed a force with the potential of adding new impulses to the scene.

The hopes of those who would have been content with Wilson simply continuing down that road were brutally crushed on the eighth Bass Communion album „Molotov and Haze“, however, which marked the advent of new techniques, introducing a setup of Guitar and Laptop. These pieces virtually oozed a live feeling. This was in itself a return to the project's roots, as early tracks under the name of Altamont were realised without the assistance of multitrack technology. Yet it also presented a step away from the pristine precision of some more recent material. And then, there was the schizophrenic nature of the record, which oscillated between two harsh, aggressive sheets of noise and two tracks of dreamy, airborne ambiances. As these pieces took turn, a gripping and unsettling rhythm began to establish itself, tearing the listener from one extreme to the next and tugging at his nerves and heartstrings at the same time. This was not an album you could just drop in your CD player at night to sing you to sleep. Instead, it required active participation from its audience and the audacity to explore.

The Vinyl edition of „Molotov and Haze“, despite its impressive, heavy-weight packaging, actually softens the radical nature of the album somewhat. Pieces  are confined to their side of a disc now, no longer appearing right next to each other. Those who just want to drift away to the mellow, shifting phases of „Glacial 1602“ can now safely close their eyes without having to watch the volume control at the transition to its forceful successor „Corrosive 1702“. Those, on the other hand, who enjoyed the latter's bowed Bass slides and hallucinatory distortion-blankets can finally surrender to them without compromise. The spatial characteristics of the music are naturally reinforced here, as the needle of the turntable works its way through landscapes of both beguiling and frightning intensity. Rather than the progression and development of the album as a whole, the particularities and qualities of its individual compositions are taking center stage: Opener „Molotov 1502“ has been extended by a full five minutes and is even more of a combustible psychedelic journey through both digitally sizzling and consolingly glowing sounds than before. And in its new edit, closing epic „Haze 1402“ borders half an hour, its intertwining themes wondrously rotating around each other for three more comforting minutes.

The real treat of the limited edition, however, is the inclusion of the „Haze Shrapnel“ 10inch, originally on Frans de Waard's MOLL imprint. Nervous, fibrillating pads are portals into a feverzone made up of calm bass swells and shooting-star-like tonal interferences panning from left to right on an apocalyptic night sky. On his side of the equation, de Waard then reduces the music to its bare necessities, to pulse and timbre. It is only thanks to this piece, added to the already luxurious set as an EP, that the dual and bipolar nature of „Molotov and Haze“ is reconciled in a single, industrially gleaming track.

Only a few months on, Wilson has given yet another spin to Bass Communion. With its sacral ambiance and prominent use of choral samples, „Litany“ distances itself from the worldly game of opposites and attractions and instead tends towards contemporary composition and the wordless mysteries of Orthodox mass. Even though clearly divided into an „A“ and „B“ side, there is no beginning or end here, the music referring to nothing but itself like two snakes biting each other's tails. Some will undoubtedly consider the movements all but identical, but rather they appear to be different sections of one and the same piece: One recognises the recurrence of thematic elements and musical movements, but they seem to be at different stages of development.

On the outside, „Litany“ radiates complete calm, concentration and composure. And yet, there is a neverceasing evolution and inner re-arranging of the material taking place. On closer inspection, several strands emerge: One consists of a pulse of minor key string-harmonies, another of a closely aligned choir-breath possibly culled from a Mellotron. As these two elements billow and deflate, an ephemeral castrato is caught in an infinite loop of two notes, occasionally colliding with another voice in microtonal frictions. Finally, there is a single chord change from f# minor to c#minor, which returns at several stages of the piece. Corresponding timbres are occasionally taking turns as well, when a Flute discreetly performs some of the string parts and vice versa, adding a subconscious sense of sweet estrangement. By varying the dynamics of these components and floating them in a threedimensional grid, Wilson creates a radically minimal music that is as constant as it is in constant flux and as pure as it is intricately interlaced.

Wilson has been known to find inspiration in a lot of different genres and fields and perhaps he was thinking of composers like Gorecky and Pärt here. But the way he moulds his material is decidedly his own. Like a foil, the orchestral allusions and monasterial ambiance veil a world of majestic electronics that protrudes and contracts in cycles of perpetual peristalsis. Terms like „Drones“ or „Ambient“ have long lost their capacity of containing the Bass Communion approach, which is increasingly spinning off into its own, intimate galaxy. For all those who are willing to follow in his slipstream, this cosmic excursion is sure to offer just as many delights as confusions.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Bass Communion
Homepage: Tonefloat Records

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