This month in Subdetritus we look at the physical and psychological effect of music on people, specifically with regards to our good old friend – bass. Since the earliest day of sound system culture in Jamaica, there has existed a competitive strive towards having the biggest rig able to push out the maximum amount of bass. Sound systems are still judged on their ability to not only clearly represent all the frequencies of music to the ear, but also their ability for the music to be felt. To this end, quality sound systems are designed to emit frequencies well outside the range of frequencies that humans can hear. Above that range is known as ultrasound, and below the range is infrasound.
I distinctly remember my first visit to Fabric nightclub in London and that physical pressure in my chest and head from the bass during a Roni Size set in Room 2. While these kinds of systems are heaven to bass music lovers, the risk of permanent ear damage is very real and should be avoided with quality earplugs. Other symptoms of prolonged exposure to high volumes of low frequencies and infrasound can include disorientation, shortness of breath, anxiety and nausea.
Unsurprisingly, the physical and psychological effects of certain music and frequencies have been used by governments, military and police as sonic weapons. The use of sound to strike fear into enemies or prey has always occurred in nature by animals, and has long held a place in human conflict in the form of drums, trumpets, war cries and other taunts. During the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coalition forces reportedly blasted heavy metal from speakers mounted to vehicles in the battlefield and inmates at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay were allegedly exposed to extended, loud bouts of music from bands such as Metallica as a form of torture. Similar tactics were used by the US military against General Noriega in Panama and the Branch Davidians in Waco, and are also used to disperse crowds and deter teenagers from hanging around shopping malls afterhours. Sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease react negatively to wrong notes played in a familiar melody highlighting the effects of music deep in the subconscious.
Much research has been poured into sonic weaponry that goes a little deeper than the above examples. A great chunk of the research into the effects on the human body from infrasound was conducted by NASA in the early 1960s to discover what affect the low frequencies created by rockets would have on astronauts during launches. The most infamous effect on humans comes from the so-called ‘brown note’. The brown note is a theoretical infrasonic frequency between 5 to 9 Hz that would cause a person to lose control of their bowels and soil themselves. While the idea is frankly tremendous, little to no scientific evidence actually exists to support the theory, though many have tried – including popular TV show Mythbusters but alas to no avail. Other weaponry applications include sonic booms or ‘sound bombs’, focused beams of high intensity ultrasound that can cause lung and intestinal damage in mice, and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs) used to send instructions, warnings and deterrents to enemies over long distances.
If this field is of interest to you, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear by Steve Goodman – better known to bass music fans as Kode9. Goodman’s book not only explores the application of sound and frequency in a military sense, but more broadly how acoustic forces affect populations in a political and social context by creating a “bad vibe”. Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with his label Hyperdub will attest to his fascination with interplaying rhythmic patterns and disorientating discordant harmony. The result is music that instils a pervading sense of dread or unease, but unfortunately won’t make you shit your pants.
This month in Subdetritus we take a look at an influx of amazing, long-awaited releases from the world of bass music that are hitting record stores and headphones at the moment. I can’t remember a time in recent years where there has been this much good music stirred into the cosmic soup all at once. Pens and wallets at the ready…
The big one that has just been unleashed is the brand new full-length album from the head of Hyperdub himself – Kode9 & The Spaceape’s Black Sun. A lot has changed in bass music since their first collaborative album dropped back in 2006, but Kode9 is still hailed as a visionary leader of the movement. The album holds all the ominous might and menace you’d expect from this pair but the beats are teased out in slightly different directions. The collaboration with Flying Lotus is as killer as it should be.
Another Hyperdub legend recently gave a rare treat – new music from the elusive and iconic Burial. The three-track EP Street Halo holds its own after an agonizing four year wait for fans on any new solo material from his hallowed studio. It comes straight off the back of his stunning collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Four Tet. Speaking of Radiohead, there are very serious rumours of a remix project of tracks from their incredible The King of Limbs album. Thom Yorke has made no secret of his love affair with the new vanguard of bass producers having previously collaborated with Flying Lotus and recently spinning a surprise DJ set at Gaslamp Killer’s night Low End Theory. Names being mentioned as possible remixers for Radiohead include bass wizards Mark Pritchard and Illum Sphere. Watch this space for more news on this exciting project.
Other amazing albums with a drum’n’bass slant that are shaking up the detritus right now include the eagerly anticipated Instra:mental album Resolution 653 on Nonplus and d’n’b-heads-turned-steppers Kryptic Minds with their third album Can’t Sleep. Dutch producer 2562 has also lifted the lid on his third full-length Fever which heads in a decidedly more housey direction.
The king of them all right now for this bass head though has to be the brand new album from Mr. Amon Tobin. Entitled Isam, this record builds on the dense compositions, moody sound design and disorientating rhythms of 2007’s Foley Room with a more urgent and harsh electronic edge to it. Head to his website here for a free download from this amazing record and details of an incredible art installation to celebrate it’s launch. Also, be sure to check a full track-by-track commentary of the album by the man himself on his Soundcloud. It’s a good time to be alive!
It has been a while since I posted up a Subdetritus (my monthly bass column in 3D World) on the Morass site and for that I apologize. I thought I’d remedy the situation by posting this month’s column which is my little tribute to Mary Anne Hobbs after her recent decision to leave her position as host of the BBC Radio One Experimental show.
From here on in I will be posting them each month as they are published in 3D World (hopefully). Hope you enjoy!
In news that saddened many bass music fans – last month Mary Anne Hobbs hung up her headphones with the broadcast of her last ever show on the UK’s BBC Radio One. Hobbs had been with the radio station for almost fourteen years hosting her weekly two-hour Experimental show (formerly known as the Breezeblock). Over the course of that time, her ear and penchant for hyperbole helped break countless electronic music artists, and indeed entire genres. It’s hard to imagine another figure that single-handedly did as much to break the dubstep and wonky movements (and all their mutant strains) to a global audience. This month in Subdetritus, we pay tribute to the breathy-voiced queen of bass and beats.
Mary Anne Hobbs was not always on the cutting edge of electronic music. Her first passions were metal and motorbikes, so at the age of eighteen having ran away to London she ended up living in a bus with the band Heretic. She helped out as a mechanic and designed sets and cover art for the band. A year later, Hobbs landed a gig writing for Sounds Magazine in the UK and not long after found her way on to the pages of the revered (and loathed) British music press NME. When James Brown, former deputy editor of NME decided to leave and co-found Loaded Magazine, Hobbs went with him before falling into radio work on XFM. It was there that she got noticed by the powers that be at the BBC.
Being a massive fan of the late John Peel and his tireless work breaking new artists on the BBC airwaves, Hobbs jumped at the chance and has enjoyed a long relationship with them ever since. Over the history of her Experimental show, its hard to think of a forward-thinking electronic artist, label or subgenre that she hasn’t explored. Once claiming that she listens to about ten hours of new music a day, Hobbs’ quest to present the finest two hours of sounds on the planet each week was relentless and inspiring. Her ‘Dubstep Warz’ special back in 2006 was a watershed moment for the genre presenting mixes from the leading producers of the time and her final show featured an exclusive mix from Kode9 and Burial which was simply stunning.
Far from retiring, Hobbs will continue to DJ globally as well as taking an internship at Sheffield University, curating stages for Sonar and Bloc festivals and is currently helping Darren Aranovsky with the soundtrack to his new film Black Swan. We wish her all the best!