Dub Syndicate`s Pounding System and One Way System are the sound of Adrian Sherwood learning his craft. An undisputed master in the making. Dating from 1982 / 83 they document all night sessions held at Berry Street`s basement studios. African Head Charge`s “Hole In The Ground.” Bashes thrown by necessity when time was cheaper. Versioning rhythms fashioned by the rotating assembly of the ON-U collective. Creation Rebel, Singers And Players. New Age Steppers. Recycling them. To make money to pay for more recordings. Addicted to the process. Addicted to Dub.
There`s something angular about the results that make them unique. There`s no mistaking them for the work of anyone else. Though they do share an isolation, sonic separation, with the contemporary productions of Martin Hannett. You can hear the ghosts in the room. That famous something strange in the mid-range that Hannett is often quoted about. Perhaps that`s got more to do with similarities in the gear used, rather than methodology. Something to do with the climate. As they summon images of a cold, grey `80s England. Collars upturned against the rain. Rather than the Jamaican sunshine that inspired them. The only warmth present coming from the guitar and organ details that filter in and out. Pounding System`s track titles poke fun at Scientist`s series of popular Dub battles, but the music surely acknowledges a debt to King Tubby`s young prodigy. For much of their duration these albums` are reduced to just bass and drums. Everything else cut into chirrups and echo. Experiments in how far the mixing board can go. Dub as a live, truly improvised music. Perhaps it was this that attracted ON-U`s more academic collaborators, such as Steve Beresford and David Toop. Yet compared to Sherwood`s later work the productions are restrained. Still a way off from the Science Fiction Dancehall collected on Trevor Jackson`s essential ON-U primer.
Bass-lines are twisted. Run back on themselves. Sucked through the puckered mouths of photon spheres. Drums are dropped deep into delay. Beats hitting in triplet. Quadruplet. Quintet. Like coins falling on a taut skin. Fingers and toes tapping out cardiac arrhythmia. Each repercussion slightly more treated. So that no two are the same. The kick Doof, Doof, Doofs, like a cardboard box getting a shoeing. Crashes in controlled explosions. Snares shimmer and shake. High hats splash. Cymbals are inhaled like smoke. Percussion patterns tumble like leaves caught in a wind tunnel. Machines jump up and down. Make noises like excited animals.
When I interviewed Adrian a couple of years ago he talked about the importance of establishing a “normal”, “dry” reference before fucking with it. Before making it “wet”. Here the drums are as arid as the Gobi. While everything else has its head repeatedly ducked. It was this hard drum sound that would make Industrial dance.
1984`s North Of The River Thames takes this template and sweetens it with melodica. Dr Pablo making like his namesake, Augustus. Blowing covers of soundtracks and TV themes. Doing a seminal rendering of Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire`s Dr Who. Fragmented instruments hovering like UFOs in alien landscapes. Panning from left to right. Circling the inside of your head.
Tunes From The Missing Channel is different. There`s Reggae there. But it`s an odd oasis of calm segued between blasts of muscular Funk. Skull-searing shots of distorted guitar. Dub equivalents of Heavy Metal that pre-date Tackhead. Robots switching from skanking to moshing. Jah Wobble lending tracks like Overboard the same Post-Punk feel as PIL`s Metal Box. While Wellie could almost be Island Records` Compass Point All-stars` take on New Wave. Access to an Emulator introduced samples. Spikes of “captured sound”. Lasers, whip-cracks and typewriter keys. Revving motorbikes. Sitars. Tabla turned inside out. Outside in. Gods using the stars for vibes. Sherwood`s DJ mentor, Emperor Rosko informing you, correctly, that
“Something nice is gonna happen to your ears.”
A fifth LP accompanies these four reissues. Displaced Masters compiles previously unreleased mixes from the sessions. It`s the most chilled set of the bunch. The most fitting of Pounding System`s sub-title, Ambience In Dub. Often beat-less, but never bass-less. The bass, a barely contained beast. Bim Sherman`s fragile falsetto floating. Drifting through its cavernous space. On All Other Roads Are Shut Off thunder claps, lightning flashes and Margaret Thatcher`s phantom barks. Part Churchill. Part Dalek. A reminder of the politics that under line ON-U`s continued existence. A melodica sounding a battle hymn for a resistance likely doomed to fail. But where there is “No alternative but to fight.”
Sherwood once lifted a line from William S. Burroughs.
“7% of the population, 84% of the wealth.”
Paradise Papers and ten trillion in hidden dollars. Thirty years on and we`re still calling for them to pay it all back.
ON-U Sound will release Dub Syndicate`s first four LPs, plus Displaced Masters, on vinyl, CD and download on November 10th. The best place to order is over at Bleep.
By way of tribute there`s a segue of a few my Dub Syndicate favourites here:
Ravi Shankar (Theme From On The Wire)
King Of Sound And Blues
Not A Word
All Other Roads Are Shut Off
Blood Shed Dub
Hi-Fi Gets A Pounding Part 3