The lack of reverb or stereo depth prohibits the music from gelling holistically.
Jah Wobble embodies the fact of the bass. The longtime avant-rock fixture, best-known for appearing on the first two Public Image Ltd. albums, plays with a steady, modest melodicism. His instrument exists purely in the low end, content to be itself rather than trying to rocket to uncharted heights or dreaming of being a guitar as is so often the case with bass performance in rock. Bill Laswell, meanwhile, expands the instrument’s possibilities, playing with an immediately distinctive low-end filter or letting big fretless chords glide over the proceedings. Their styles are opposite enough that Wobble could essentially get away with playing rhythm bass and Laswell lead bass on 2002’s excellent Live in Concert from Wobble’s Solaris band.
The two artists’ collaborations together, though, more or less situate Wobble in the universe of Laswell’s “collision music”: a sort of rock-dub-jazz fusion hydra played by diverse supergroups of underground heroes, focused on the interactions between different players and disciplines. The last Wobble-Laswell collab, Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission, offered a sort of polyglot groove music led on a few tracks by North African vocalists. Realm of Spells is vocal-free dub that serves less to explore bold new possibilities of global fusion than to let a few choice players jam out.
Wobble’s Fender Precision bass is the fluid, silvery backbone rippling through the whole thing, but drummers Hideo Yamaki and Marc Layton-Bennett get at least as much love. The drum tracks on these Laswell records tend to be precisely recorded, emphasizing the sounds of each individual drum at least as much as allowing a groove to cohere, and occasionally they splinter into thrilling dub echo. Keyboardist George King uses a friendly organ sound we don’t associate with experimental music or dub so much as jam bands and roots rock; this seems an odd decision, evoking bar-band bonhomie at odds with the augustness on display here. Laswell’s bass doesn’t make itself known much, and he mostly plays the role of producer.
We mostly remember individual sounds on Realm of Spells. What could be the ElectraPiano Fela Kuti so memorably used on Expensive Shit appears on “Uncoiling,” and “Fanfare for Phenomena” and “Off World Departure” feature a delightful sound that reminded me of someone scraping their hand down a wall heater, mixed with a Disney string swell. This is in line with Laswell and Wobble’s dub sensibilities, though the album doesn’t exploit space the way the best dub does. In fact, it feels a little crowded at times, especially when King and saxophonist-flautist Peter Apfelbaum get in their zone, and Realm of Spells often hangs in limbo between a sound-art and jam-band album.
This might’ve been less of an issue if not for the dryness of the production. This is a hallmark of Wobble’s collision-music albums. It’s served him well in the past, especially on the amazingly sparse Live in Leuven with drummer Jaki Liebezeit and turntablist Philip Jeck, but the lack of reverb or stereo depth prohibits the music from gelling holistically. Realm of Spells, with all its voices, could’ve benefitted from a little more of that.