Bill Laswell’s experimental dub series concludes with Book of Exit, a recording that seamlessly blends dub with Eastern music. Produced and arranged by Laswell, Dub Chamber 4 features vocals by Ejigayehu “GiGi” Shibabaw, drums and tabla by Karsh Kale, and percussion by Aiyb Dieng. Laswell , who also acts as producer/arranger, provides bass, guitar, and keyboards.
Like the other Dub Chamber recordings in Laswell’s Sacred System series—indeed, like virtually all of Laswell’s work—Book of Exit is a marriage of musical styles and cultures.
Laswell has long been interested in dub music, a form created in Jamaica by legendary producers like King Tubby, Mad Professor, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. That interest seems natural considering the fact that dub strips music down to the drum and bass bone, then adds elements back in to provide coloring and flavor, much as a master chef adds spices to a recipe to create a unique dish.
He has also done a lot of work with ambient sounds, creating soundscapes that can serve as foreground or background, allowing the mind to “space out” as in meditation. In Laswell’s words: “I think it’s just erasing thought and trying to disconnect the brain to just feel things…it’s just intuition.” On Book of Exit, he brings the space of dub together with the sound washes of the ambient landscape and produces music that sounds as though it comes from a long lost civilization. It retains elements that we are familiar with, but the result is not completely like any of those elements.
The album begins with “Ethiopia”, a piece featuring Laswell’s ambient guitar figure bolstered by some percussion and the accents of Kale’s tabla work. Ethiopian vocalist Gigi Shibabaw, whose voice is familiar to devotees of Laswell’s recent recordings (she is featured prominently on the Tabla Beat Science recordings, among others), floats freely and lightly over this ethereal background. At times the sheer beauty of her voice recalls some of the more tender work of Sinead O’Connor. She’s proven quite versatile, recording her own Laswell-produced album with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Pharoah Sanders.
The track slides easily into the first dub piece, “The Lower Ground” which features melodica (or a melodica-like keyboard sound), recalling Augustus Pablo, one of the artists to whom the recording is dedicated (the other is Neil Cooper, who originally founded the ROIR label as a cassette-only enterprise). The track is spacey—both in its lightness and the profound spaces that are left in the music for accents and ornamentation.
It’s clear that Laswell has investigated the work of Tubby and Perry and understood its implications because he manages to capture the “heavy lightness” of dub. Because the bass on dub tracks is “heavy”—out front and often speaker-wobblingly loud compared to the rest of the mix—the resulting overall sound is one of weightlessness (“lightness”), mimicking the effects of heavy-duty ganja smoking which usually accompanies the mixing of dub music. Laswell’s bass is more balanced in relation to the entire mix, but it is still out front and manages to convey the dub ambiance well.
“Shashamani” is similar to the previous track, but things are even more down-tempo this time, with more echo-laden drum accents and some trippy guitar lines from Laswell. At this point, listeners will either be deep into the soundscape that Laswell is presenting or incredibly bored, depending on their tastes. The fourth track, “Bati” brings the tempo up a bit, but remains heavily rooted in the dub aesthetic. Gigi returns to provide some wordless vocal flourishes that provide a melodic focus, drifting effortlessly in and out of the rhythmic gridwork established by Laswell, Kale, and Dieng.
“Land of Look Behind” is ominous, with Laswell’s bass positively booming over minimal drums and the melodica again rising to the fore. The final selection, the twelve-minute “Jerusalem” is another ambient piece that showcases Gigi’s transcendent vocals. When Kale’s table work finds a groove, the piece works slowly toward a rhythmic conclusion, with all the musicians cooking, one of the few times the music rises much above a whisper.
Because of the weighty, portentous sound of dub-heavy bass lines and the ethereal nature of the ambient sound washes together with Gigi’s exotic voice, Book of Exit can’t help but sound mysterious. It manages to stay away from vapid New Age music, however, because the musicians do work together well, and because Laswell seems more interested in maintaining the spirit of dub than in using the sound as musical shorthand to spice up some kind of funky Third World stew.
It is this commitment to the raw materials he throws into his cauldron that allows Laswell to come off as an intrepid musical adventurer rather than a culture pirate or a dilettante. Listeners who are willing to allow music to envelop them and unfold on its own terms rather than in ways dictated by Western notions of melodic and harmonic development will be well-rewarded by Book of Exit, and I highly recommend it to those listeners.