Jah Wobble – Dark Luminosity, the 21st Century Collection: Boxset Review

Mr Metaphysical, all round renaissance geezer, shows off his second half. Or , more likely, quarter.

Release Date: 21st April 2023

Label: Cherry Red Records

Format: CD boxset

So how the flipping flip do you even begin with John Joseph Wardle? Idiosyncratic to a fault, that very virtue sees him impossible to classify. And once you try, he knocks another genre out the ballpark. Yes, we are talking the same bloke: big fella, bald geezer, plays a bit of dubby bass, that being both the problem and the truth. The thing is that he plays that “bit of dubby bass”, brilliantly and inventively, across every music form ever invented, and a fair few besides. Just as you think you have him nailed, perhaps familiar with, say, a dozen of his albums, he’ll baffle, bemuse and delight with a dozen more. With over fifty to choose from, maybe it makes a compendium like this all the more needed, to pore light on all the nooks and crannies of his vast inventory, if also to find gaps in your collection that need swift attention.

Cherry Red, for it is they, have taken on this gargantuan task and delivered a doozy. Wobble himself was involved in the choices, adding pithy comment in the booklet bestowed within the 4 disc box. Counting, I find 65 tracks, involving 17 different variations and collaborations: purely solo, with his bands: Invaders of the Heart, Deep Space, Temple of Sound, English Roots Band to mention some, and then his many and varied hook-ups, with Evan Parker, Bill Laswell, Marconi Union. The list goes on, and, glory be, it includes a lift from his work with Jaki Liebezeit, surely a match made in heaven: metal box meet can!!

In a more or less chronological order, each disc follows his journey without maps, with a brief spoken word piece introducing and closing most of them, those strange and enchanting/annoying snippets that have always endeared/ frustrated his listeners. (A confession: last century, and in the original iteration of Invaders of the Heart, I found them, um, intrusive at best. Uncertain whether it is me or him that has changed, I can now find a wry attraction toward them, which still surprises me, as I write.)

So, the first disc, which opens with an autobiographical limerick, before a pair of Deep Space selections. the group he turned the millennium in and led. An unorthodox mix of instrumentation added bagpipes and woodwind to the standard lexicon of guitar, bass and drums, the vision being to create music organically, espousing the then routine use of samplers, part of his earlier palette. Drones, by now such a clear a part of the aural furniture, were then off most people’s zone of reference. As Night Falls, Parts 1 and 2 are almost, now, stereotypical Wobble, the mix of metronomic percussion, exotic sounds from the middle and far east, discordant post-punk guitar and the bass, always the bass, rumbling around in the subterranean, the blast of revisiting terrific. The bonkers entry of some psy-trance blues harmonica towards the end of Part 2 is tremendous. Two then by yet another iteration of Invaders Of The Hearts follow, Lam Tann Way, in both instrumental mode and an edit of the vocally embellished version, them both being collabs with Molam Lao, from Paris. Molam is an ancient Laotian musical form to serenade courtship ritual, gathering additional weight from pop and electronica along the way. So perfect for Wobble’s butterfly inspirations and aspirations.

Only one track from his disc with free-form sax-maniac, Evan Parker, makes this selection, a record that actually scared me back in the day, so radically unlike anything I had ever heard. Full On is probably the most accessible track and seems almost tame, twenty years on. Almost. The bass is relentless, as is longtime drum buddy, Mark Sanders, with Parker careering over the backbeat, a reedy bagpipe circular drone bridging the gaps. A couple from the Temple of Sound project follow, where Natacha Atlas found herself back in the fold for this blend of the Middle East and Asia; desert blues by way of the Gobi? Count Dubulah and Neil Sparkes, her Transglobal Underground bandmates, provide most the rest of the backing for both of these, it is almost an appropriation of their band by Wobble. Atlas gives reliably good banshee on both. 2003’s Fly saw the on-off push-me pull-me relation between commercial world dub, if there ever were such a thing. and the more experimental dip back again toward the latter. Harry Beckett, already a revered jazzer, blotting his purist copybook by then working with Massive Attack, was a speed dial regular throughout Wobble’s myriad twists and turns. His horn play on Fly 3 is exemplary, even with the now somewhat dated clicktrack percussion, otherwise imbuing a slight Buddha Bar vibe, that taken further Fly 9, with a HI-NRG bassline and hi-hat. But I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, and, oddly, hindsight makes it a whole lot more approachable.

I had never heard of Fureur, wither the film or the soundtrack album. I note now it got more coverage in Jazz journals than across any mainstream, and, to be fair, is well-executed mood music, if a bit Giorgio Moroder, but less synth reliant. Back then (in)to Deep Space for the decided challenge of Five Beats, where the Deep Space crew was joined by Philip Jeck, who brought back live turntables and samples into the collage. In fact, the hypnotic Jeck, Drums, 2 Basses is literally that, tapes, over which a double-tracked Wobble plays one repetitive pattern, another bubbling faintly in the distance, with Sanders, as ever, ringing most the changes in feel, ahead the blend into Singing, which brings the vocal pyrotechnic of Cat Von Trapp gradually into the fold. The near comparative orthodoxy of Cannily Cannily, from the folk dub experiment, English Roots Music, comes then as almost a surprise. Ewan MacColl’s Cannily, Cannily had never sounded quite so funky, the album, if quite a shock then, sounding now completely par for today’s cross-genre sprawl of nominally folk music.

Disc 2 takes us up to 2010, picking up again with the folk of Unquiet Grave, with another memory coming in as to how unstructured the vocals of Liz Carter then seemed, another norm two decades on, with far less truck, nowadays, for the “received trad”, then so otherwise usual . The bagpipes here, incidentally, and also whenever needed by Wobble, come from Jean-Pierre Rasle, that resilient French piper, possibly unique in having played for two such different bassist bandleaders, Wobble and Ashley Hutchings. Two from Elevator Music, which surely take Eno’s concept of ambient to the ultimate, but still worth getting in a lift for. Mu, the track and the album, was always a particular favourite, it having lasted well; a very zen feel. Wobble describes it, in the notes, as a mix of plainsong and dub, the swathes of synthesizer wash actually redolent of choral vocal, unrealised at the time. From the same album Softwear starts with some forgotten-about spoken word, before coming what could, at another time, have certainly nudged the chart.

The Wobble/Liebezeit pairing is represented by Four, and again has Jeck on board. An edit, the already minimal piece is rendered even more so, a repetitive loop of drum and bass, but not drum’n’bass, if you catch my drift, with sound squiggles scattered on top. If you like it, you’ll love it. Luckily, I do. The contrast with the three tracks from Alpha One Three couldn’t be greater: Wobble, the electro-crooner, bringing in some of the lite acid jazz funk notes he has returned more recently to. At least until Looking Up At The Sky Again, which, if still with moments of that, manages to include elements of every kitchen sink on the block, the sort of confounding track usually present and correct on every release of his. If you are beginning to feel giddy, hold on even tighter, as the English Roots Band then reconvenes for a rare cover, of Dawn Penn’s No, No, No. More electro than the original, barely folk at all, as neither is the instrumental following, all part of the Wobble contrarian model of work ethic.

Contrarian? Heart And Soul, his 2007 album, on Trojan Records (!), was almost provocatively so, the two cuts here awash with smooth soul vocoder and shimmery synths, which contrast the deeper lyrical content. Fab bass, mind, on Whatever Happens. By now the bassist was doing entirely what he wanted, the next few selections coming from, respectively, Chinese Dub and Japanese Dub. Zilan, Mrs Wobble, famously, is Chinese herself, and a musician, their sons both educated and proficient in Chinese music. (They have their own band, even, Tian.) As it says on the respective lids, these represent, broadly, traditional musics, each with a rumble of low-lying bass. Between them comes Car Ad Music 8, the sort of ambient noodle he can cook up near spontaneously. Finally, ahead the poem Dub, another limerick, come two more ethno-dub rambles, Cadiz and Brazil, their names the clue as to the possible content.

Phew, long discs, eh, with disc 3 none the shorter, with fewer longer tracks, reprising, after the customary spoken word, with the third cut from Welcome To My World, Blowout, almost entirely percussion; remember Mr Wardle does good drums too. Some squonchy synth and more of, possibly, Beckett’s mellow trumpet rounds it out. This disc runs the gamut of his imagination, as he enrolls a bevy of other musicians to subvert their moods to his muse. The Modern Jazz Ensemble are up first, and the bass is almost conventional for such a setting, minus, that is, the distorted sound. Free-ish jazz floats over this and a tight reggae beat, odd etherealities sweeping in and out, at seeming cross-purpose. How this holds together, who knows, but it does. And well, ridiculously sublime. As is, in a completely different field and far, far away, Anomi, his partnership with ambient electronica duo, Marconi Union. But, before that, comes the psychic energy, literally, of Julie Campbell, aka Lonelady, for Psychic Life, her vocal bringing back the first clear echo of PiL so far, together with the muscular and chunky arrangement. No surprise that Keith Levene was on board for this one, too. This track, a timely prompt to a great album, is the ideal bridge, an opportunity to shake a leg, before the more cerebral offering, those two tracks from Anomi. I feel all electronic synthesiser duos should be forced to do at least one album with Wobble, and this is one of the Wob’s essential albums.

The faint tang of acid jazz gets a further sniff, with Shakatak pianist, Bill Sharpe, teaming up, this time, with Sean Corby’s trumpet. Actually, less acid, more Miles, that being the shared love that led to this project, Kingdom of Fitzrovia. Maybe anything other than strangely, hindsight has it coming over not dissimilarly from Bill Laswell’s morphing of the Davis catalogue, Panthalassa. 2016, now, so it must be time to regroup the Invaders of the Heart, two from Everything Is No Thing, a deliberate homage to the ’70s, full of funk and disco tropes. Produced by fellow bass maven, Youth, this is represented here by the afrobeat of Cosmic Blueprint and the rampant jazz disco of Mandala. And, yes, that is Tony Allen on drums, for at least the first, with Nik Turner (Hawkwind) possibly one of the many featured sax players. Luckily Maghrebi Jazz was a much more tranquil affair, desert-inspired chill with vocals and guitar from MoMo, a Moroccan duo, trumpet, again, by Sean Corby, joined by Invaders and Wobble regulars, drummer Mark Layton-Bennett and the piano of George King, the last three also present on the more frenetic Everything Is No Thing sessions. A wonderful album, it was a rare RSD purchase for me, on re-release a year or few back. The three final tracks all emanate from Dream Time, Wobble at home, playing with his computer, simple/complex bubbly fun, a free for all blend of global prestidigitation, no-one to impress but himself. OK, George King fetches up on some of it, notably disc closer, L’Autoroute Sans Fin, which starts like Hot Butter’s Popcorn, before some mellifluous piano in the style of Robert Miles. Classy stuff and, frankly, unexpected.

The final disc covers 2018 to 2021, so misses out on the, at least, 2 or 3 releases that have appeared subsequently. Most of these are with his current Invaders of the Heart, Layton-Bennett, King, etc, this apparent often more from the credits than the billing. Thus Mind In Turmoil and Humans Are Full Of It both come from a Wobble album, the two next two from a “with Bill Laswell”(who is clearly also there for that one) and then two from an “and the Invaders of the Heart”. Mind In Turmoil is worth a shout, having a motorik beat and a frenetic Robert Calvert-esque sprechgesang. The Laswell offerings show the two bassists can still spark off each other, it being a decade since their last. The Perfect Beat and Dark Luminosity, the track that gives the name to this collection, are both polyrhythmic shuffles that mark Realm Of Spells, the parent album, as definitely one to add to the list for future fuller investigation. The twin basses in the former are positively life-affirming. A couple of simpler songs, as in singing songs, follow, Fly Away and Take My Hand, which both take a moment to accommodate, showing the increasing acid jazz/jazz funk direction Wobble seems steering the Invaders of the Heart brand toward.

And so to lockdown. Wobble says he took full advantage of the requirements, experimenting with chord progressions. Nocturne In The City, the album, offers 3 tracks, late-night instrumental interpolations all, or Ambient Jazz Grooves, as it was subtitled. It is all good stuff, even if the temptation is to blow a smoke ring at the camera, and say “Niii-iice.” Nocturne is the best of the three tunes, but Mooching About sums up better the mood of the moment. End Of Lockdown Dub was the album that clearly had to follow, with a pair of clearly exuberant tracks here, the disco funk of the title track, with echoes of both Telstar and Alphaville’s Forever Young, the bobbling bass a flourish of pent up joy, and Choral Ocean Dub, more of a skanky ceremonial oratorio, which gets delightfully over-excited towards the end.

The final few fathoms are made up by are the allowable indulgence of Dim Sum, attributed to Jah Wobble & Family, and is Chinese rap, introducing Charlie Wardle on vocals and chinese drums, John T. Wardle on both western and oriental percussion and zither, and Mrs Wobble, Zilan, on Chinese harp. More takeaway than throwaway. Guangzhou Funk, which is also included, comes as well from Guanyin, and is more expected fare, the same line-up giving another and funkier take on Chinese dub. Finally, with all good things needing to come to an end, the previously digital-only single, Tyson, gets an airing to close the show. As readers of his Twitter feed might recall, Tyson was the family’s beloved Staffordshire bull terrier, who barked his last in 2021 and is, fittingly, as true a slice of dub as anywhere on this ambitious and engaging compilation.

Cherry Red are to be congratulated for this timely representation of this inventive and industrious musician, capable of seeing joins where few have even noticed the gaps, his bass the glue to transform most ideas of genre into lazy adjectives. They also provide the home for Wobble’s own 30Hz label imprint. The set is well put together in a sturdy pack, with the accompanying booklet full of the wit and wisdom of John J. Wardle. (And that awkward question around file under? Me, I’ve filed this under ‘world’, Cherry Red say ‘pop’, and you could choose a dozen others)

As something a little different, here’s the hats in the air glee of End Of Lockdown Dub, in the End Of Lockdown Dub (Dub) version:

Jah Wobble online / facebook / twitter / Instagram

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