The perfect chance to revisit the early days of the seminal On-U Sound band's career
Last year, legendary dub-centric UK label On-U Sound reissued a clutch of early albums by one of the label's flagship acts, African Head Charge. This year, it's the turn of fellow On-U stalwarts Dub Syndicate to get the re-release treatment.
Dub Syndicate began life as one of the many studio projects of UK dub pioneer and On-U boss Adrian Sherwood, working alongside a revolving cast of musicians. Those included the likes of Skip McDonald (Wood Brass & Steel, Sugarhill, Little Axe), Keith Le Blanc (Sugarhill, Little Axe, Tackhead), Doug Wimbish (Wood Brass & Steel, Sugarhill, Living Colour, Tackhead) and, most importantly, Style Scott (Roots Radics), who over the years emerged as the collective's de facto leader until he was murdered in Jamaica in 2014.
Dub Syndicate's best-known work undoubtedly remains their two late 80s/early 90s collaborative albums with Lee 'Scratch' Perry, Time Boom X De Devil Dead and From The Secret Laboratory, as well as 1991's Stoned Immaculate with its Doors-sampling title track. But here's a chance to revisit the years leading up to that purple patch, with four albums released in the early 80s, plus a new collection of previously unreleased material, all gathered together in one boxset but also available separately.
Taking the albums in chronological order, then... 1982's The Pounding System (Ambience In Dub) is the best place to look if you're after classic yard-style dub in the King Tubby/Lee Scratch/Scientist mode. Reggae's mid-80s digital revolution - which saw dancehall morph into ragga and the emergence of 'digidub' as a distinct sub-genre - had yet to arrive, after all! This album, while perhaps not really breaking any new ground, was effectively a statement of intent, and showed that great dub music didn't necessarily have to come from Jamaica alone.
1983's One Way System is quite a different proposition. It was originally a cassette-only release on New York's legendary ROIR label, whose output over the years ranged from Einsturzende Neubaten and Lydia Lunch to Suicide, Bad Brains and a very young Beastie Boys. That fact perhaps goes some way to explaining the much more experimental approach taken on this set: it's awash with broken rhythms and strange noises, and as is so often the case, it'd be fair to say not every experiment worked! There are still straight-up headnoddin' dub vibes on offer, but if any album in the collection warrants the "for completists only" tag, it'd be this one.
1984's North Of The River Thames was recorded in collaboration with famous melodica player Dr Pablo (not to be confused with the producer Augustus Pablo), and the prominence of said instrument means this album, too, has a distinct character of its own. That's by no means a complaint, though; hell, the version of the Dr Who theme is worth the price of admission on its own!
It's on 1985's Tunes From The Missing Channel, though, that the sound most people know and love Dub Syndicate for really starts to emerge - indeed, this is the one album that plenty of listeners will already be familiar with. Now working in the digital as well as the analogue realm, here classic JA-style dub begins to merge with a broader palette of influences, from the sitars on opener Ravi Shankar Part 1 to the heavy guitar riffs on The Show Is Coming, and you see how they became such a firm live/festival favourite.
The line-up's completed by Displaced Masters, a brand new collection of previously unreleased dub mixes of early On-U material by both Dub Syndicate themselves and others. Stylistically, what's here is closest to the classic sound of The Pounding System, and it'd be hard to call it an essential purchase in itself - but it does round out the picture nicely.
Overall, then, this is a more varied set than you might be expecting. I'd heartily recommend you buy the boxset and have done with it - the individual releases are presumably aimed more at existing fans who want to plug holes in their collections. But if you can only afford to buy one or two of the albums, then head for The Pounding System and Tunes From The Missing Channel first.
Words: Russell Deeks
Release date: 10 November
Review Score: 9