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Jah Wobble Jah Wobble
Album: The 30 Hertz Albums
Label: 30 Hertz/Cherry Red
Tracks: 10+5+11

Musician and composer John Wardle’s memorable sobriquet Jah Wobble arose out of a drunken mishearing of his name by Sid Vicious – but the name stuck. He first came to prominence as bassist with Public Image Ltd at the close of the 70s, but departed the band after two albums and went on to enjoy an enormously prolific and successful solo career. Quite how prolific, though, has been seriously underestimated, for he’s also somehow found time to work with a hugely diverse range of artists from Baaba Maal to Eno, Björk to Sinead O’Connor, The Edge to Primal Scream, all the while pursuing his own artistic muse. Indeed, he started the label 30 Hertz Records primarily as a vehicle for his own music, back in 1997, following a couple of years of commercial success with major labels Warner and Island, including the release of a collaboration with Pharaoh Sanders and an album of settings of William Blake poems, the sheer adventurousness of which could be seen to prefigure the kind of music he was to bring out on the early releases on his own label. This superb new box-set collects together the first three of his 30 Hertz releases, in freshly remastered form and with some bonus material. For many listeners, it will be the first time hearing these important albums, and for me they’re something of a revelation. Their genesis can be found in JW’s fertile musical creativity, coming at a point in life when, as he writes candidly in his sleeve notes for this set, “music was pouring out of me; unfortunately it was the wrong sort of music for Island; they wanted stuff with an urban, contemporary slant. Whereas I was writing requiem masses, psychedelic dub tracks and reading lots of poetry”. This intense creativity, coupled with a perennial thirst for discovery and experimentation, was to produce some brilliantly original, individual and incredibly farsighted music that over 20 years later still possesses the power to startle and invigorate the senses – notwithstanding the countless musical projects that have paraded under the banner of “fusion” during those two decades.

The first 30 Hertz album, The Celtic Poets, was credited to Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart, and was by JW’s own admission a “deep” album that somehow captured essential aspects of Celtic/Irish culture without being in any way whimsical or trite. Five of the album’s ten tracks involve recitations of poetry; these involve the distinctive and authentic speaking voice of Dubliner Ronnie Drew, whom JW had met when the two shared a bill in Dublin (when JW was reading Blake’s poetry). Interestingly, the poems selected don’t include the half-expected W.B. Yeats but instead consist of two by Louis MacNeice, one by Brendan Kennelly, one by Jah Wobble himself, and a piece by Shane MacGowan, The Dunes, which was the project’s catalyst in that it was one of the poems whose reading by Drew in concert had made such an impression on JW. The musical backdrops to the poems heavily feature the timbre of elbow-driven bagpipes (played by Jean-Pierre Rasle, in emulation of the Irish uilleann pipes), while the ambitious scoring also extends to the album’s five instrumental adventures. These also incorporate keyboard and ambient textures, drums and percussion, occasionally adding harp, flutes and the exotic textures of sitar and shakuhachi, and, on four tracks, some magnificent jazz trumpet work from the late Harry Beckett. And naturally, there’s Jah Wobble’s fabulous bass, a pulsating dub animal that provides the solid, yet somehow also disturbing, bedrock for most of what you hear. This is overlaid and embellished with world flavours, jazz, even folk and contemporary classical, all elements melded together and configured into a natural and organic stew.

The second 30 Hertz album, Requiem, also originally released in 1997, is no pious representation of JW’s early catholic upbringing but instead a commentary on the passing of that faith and of “a certain culture” that was associated with it; this was expressed with love and respect for that faith (which at the time he was letting go of), while containing sections which sound like settings of parts of the mass. Requiem takes the form of a five-movement suite; it was composed on a Yamaha sequencer, onto which the studio recording overdubbed some string (and, in four of its five movements, vocal) parts. Requiem is a difficult album to bracket or contextualise musically, for at times it embraces a kind of New Age feel (in which sense it might be regarded as more overtly accessible in terms of pure sonority than The Celtic Poets), with something of the sonority of prog (grandiose organ chords and the like in Part I), 20th century choral/orchestral composition (Part II called Janácek to mind) and film/theatre music (the dramatic contrasts of Part III, whose central section, based on motoric syncopated rhythms, marks the first – indeed, only – appearance on this album of JW’s definitive underpinning bass). The organ-rich, mantra-like paired fourth and fifth movements (The Father and The Mother) are ostensibly the most overtly “devotional” in style, although the lengthy final movement typically interpolates episodes of a different hue that bring in bucolic wind sonorities, oriental inflections and cyclic rhythmic patterns. With hindsight, it’s all too easy to see why Requiem was completely ignored by the critics, for its spirit was certainly unfashionable and its defiant enterprise could be seen as wildly out of step with the musical trends of the late-90s. I firmly believe it would’ve been more at home on the latter-day BBC Radio 3, and would’ve stood a better chance of acceptance in that milieu; either way, it’s a profoundly satisfying work.

The third 30 Hertz album, The Light Programme, is simply a collection of instrumental tunes recorded between 1995 and 1997, and inhabits a markedly looser, less structured, more relaxed world. Some of the tracks (eg Veneer and Night) were recorded at the end of remix sessions for other artists, and some tracks reveal the influences of other musical experiences to which JW was being exposed – like the sound of busking drummers in midtown Manhattan, or modal English melodies, or drum-and-bass. There’s also an experiment with strange rhythm on One In Seven, which features some amazing drumming from guest Jaki Liebezeit, and full-on dub gestures inform Appearance And Thing-in-itself; Magical Thought and its (bonus cut) radio edit feature the voice of Spikey T. And of course there’s those characteristic penetrating, wall-vibrating bass lines that couldn’t have come from anywhere else but JW’s fretboard – just get the vibes of the rushing 15 Dohs into your brain!… The final track on this collection is its second bonus cut, an expansive 11-minute instrumental workout that shares its title with the label itself; sadly, JW’s otherwise in formative anecdotal sleeve notes don’t acknowledge the provenance of this track, which in some ways recalls the moody electro-scapes of Kraftwerk. But in the end, nothing could be truer than JW’s summarising statement that bedecks this new box-set: “When I listen back to these first three 30 Hertz record releases I can hear myself beginning to really flower as a composer”. Yes, an intensely worthwhile issue, hopefully heralding the re-release of more gems from the Jah Wobble past archive.

David Kidman