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To drive the dub starship through the horror zone

With this release, Max Romeo’s masterclass in Roots Reggae is reinterpreted by Lee Perry and Daniel Boyle as a Record Store Day special carrying the title To Drive The Dub Starship Through The Horror Zone. In the style of many Dub albums released in early 80’s, both the track titles as the artwork features a space theme to match the nature of the echo and reverb creating large chambers of sound and space. The basis for any good Dub album always starts with having quality rhythms to work with. From there on it is all up to the mixing engineer to tear the tracks up to bits and pieces before slowly building it back up and adding his own unique touch. If you have an interest in how the first Jamaican mixing engineers turned the mixing board and sound processing equipment into a musical instrument, I can highly recommend the book Soundscapes and Shattering songs in Jamaican Reggae. It is a bit theoretical but it gives a profound insight into the production method of dub by many of its masters.

When looking to purchase the album, I saw plenty of webshops offering the LP but no blogs or magazines reviewing the album. Normally an album release by Lee Perry has at least some blogs or magazines paying attention to it, especially since the previous albums with Daniel Boyle were met with critical acclaim. All the more reason for me to write this review. I had quite some material at hand to determine if and what I liked about this album. For those who don’t know a lot about Dub music, almost every Dub album has an vocal counterpart. In some cases the Dub album even precedes the vocal album. In this case, the vocal album is named Horror Zone and was released as a double album offering a Dub version of every track on the second disc. To Drive The Dub Starship Through The Horror Zone is thus a new take on the original multi-track recordings using the Rolling Lion Studios SSL mixing board.

 

In order to write this review, I listened carefully to  both albums one track at a time. First to the original vocal cut before moving on to the Dub version on the original album to finish with the new Dub version on To Drive The Dub Starship Through The Horror Zone. Since the track order has been altered I will keep to the track order of the latest release which this review is focused on. Unfortunately the new album isn’t available on Spotify or any other streaming service, so in order to make a comparison yourself you have to buy it. I included all the vocal and original dub versions on Horror Zone below for you to listen so at least you have a sense of direction.

To The Horror Zone In Dub

The opening of the album couldn’t be any better, starting with one of my favorite tracks from the Horror Zone album. The original track is as catchy as Max Romeo’s now legendary work from the 70’s such as Chase The Devil, One Step Forward and War Ina Babylon. As the sirens swirl in and out of the mix, it sets the stage for yet another warning of the Armageddon. This is picked up by a heavily phased-out guitar riff and a thundering bassline. With the original Dub cut the sound effects immediately get more space to float around in as the echo creates a larger soundscape than the vocal cut. The bassline and the drum pattern get room to take center stage before being disintegrated. Only the bassline and sound effects keep the track alive before the drums return to take it to the end. On the new Dub adaptation the sound effects are stretched beyond their limits resulting in a mix of howling sirens and lasers. However, I do prefer the original version to both Dub versions since Max presence and lyrics play such an important part next to the fact that the rhythm fares better without a huge amount of tape manipulation.

Asteroid Field Dub

The surgeon general has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous! A warning that has been going around since 1964, all the while 15% of global deaths are still being attributed to this habit. Where the original vocal cut serves as another warning, the Dub counterpart really lays bare the strengths of the rhythm track. Standing out with a thick and heavy bassline and lots of percussion in between the hi-hats and snare drum. The flute adds a melodic cloud of smoke which unleashed one sound effect after another before it dissolves into thin air. As a non-smoker, I don’t relate so much to the lyrics and with such a strong rhythm track the Dub versions are more to my taste. Another bonus is that the flute plays a more dominant role since is doesn’t have to compete with a lot of other sounds on the same register. I do enjoy the latest Dub version a bit more mainly because of the manipulation of the guitar which sounds to me as if the Starship made a crash landing into a desert on a distant planet.

Fed Up To The Stars Dub

Fed Up is another prime example of Roots Reggae of the highest order with a clear and simple message. Having equal opportunities for all mankind. Instead of sitting back, Max encourages everyone to stand up and take it to the streets as people have been pressured for far too long by a system that takes advantage of the weak and less fortunate. Even if the message may sound simple and has been a topic for more than a 100 years, Max is able to mold it into a potent warning that people are indeed fed up and are no longer going to stand by. Seeing that this song predates the Black Live Matters movement, Max was dead-on with his warning. If one of the new dub adaptations is true to its title, it is definitely this one. It feels like the Starship is being sucked into a vortex where sound does appear to travel slower. The slow pace fits the song perfectly and make it one the best efforts so far.

Nebular Dub

Next up is the dub version of What If, the opening track of Horror Zone with its unmistakable opening salvo by the horn section. The horn section remains a top draw throughout the track and is able to carry the weight of the lyrics. Topped with a bassline that makes the earth shake and rumble and matched by the numerous drum rolls in between a steady groove. On the Dub version, Lee Perry makes his entrance mumbling along with the melody only to make a reappearance at the end. If your stomach is up for some more bass then the Dub version is right up your alley. It gains that’s pulsating round sound one gets from playing bass on a live session. You are actually able to trace it back to the bass player plucking the strings on his guitar. The bells, percussion and keys also get more room to breathe, were you as a listener can sit back and take everything in. The new Dub version doesn’t add a whole lot in my opinion apart from the fact that the overall sound gets a bit murky. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it wasn’t for the fact that I love the level of clarity on the previous Dub version.

Sound Of The Star War Dub

On the flip-side we find the new adaption of The Sound of War. The vocal track opens with a violin solo before the rhytyhm section breaks into the groove with the precision of a swizz clockwork. If you listen closely you will be able to single out Bregt “Puraman” de Boever better known as the front man of Pura Vida as one of the backing vocalist. The song is a direct message to all the wars that keep plaguing our world and the horrible effects it has on the innocent bystanders. The melody provided by violin and piano make up for an ominous feeling and this is further enhanced by the sound effects, such as the heavily phased-out guitar. The Dub version demonstrates more clearly how much effort they have put in setting the stage for such a message. On the vocal cut this may be less apparent and it may come across as a fairly simple rhythm track, but it is actually a carefully layered piece of music to match the seriousness of what Max is trying to portrait. Listening to the new Dub version, they managed to soften the hard edges and bring about a mellow atmosphere. The emphasize here is on the interplay between the violin and piano. No clear preference from my side as both versions bring something different and entertaining.

Starship Scamming Dub

Having dealt with enough scammers in his life-time, Max is about to set the world straight warning honest people for all the scammers around. The rhythm on Scammer Jammers is stark and dense with the keyboard and guitar interchanging each other on keeping with the offbeat. The mighty horn section is able to elevate the song with a majestic touch halfway during the track. Scamjam Dub is propelled by a slow and heavy bassline, some wicked guitar licks but it is the drummer that gets you fixated, nodding every time he hits the down beat. Because of the amount of delay and echo being used on the new Dub version it is less potent than the already existing one.

Protostar Dub

With a more upbeat approach and the melody played in major, What is Life stands out from the majority of the album which can be perceived as heavy and melancholic. It does carry a serious message though, no surprises here. The Dub version adds a lot of echo and reverb to make it sound larger than life before they bring it back down to earth. I really dig the drum pattern on this one, especially the double rimshot and flying cymbals. On the new Dub version the horns and lead guitar are manipulated to the point that they got a bit of quirkiness about them which I can definitely appreciate.

Dry Back Supernovae Dub

They kept the devotional Give thanks to Jehovah as the last track. You can’t say Max didn’t warn the wicked to come into the light before it is too late. Lee Perry takes the track into Dub territory rambling on like a shaman sending all the wicked into damnation as only he can. The bass keeps pounding away as it scatters all the ill minded near and far. This song is a prime example of what I like about Dub. The way a good mixing engineer is able to place all the instruments within the mix. Not only did they achieved to make every instrument traceable but more importantly they found the right balance in placing it in the front or back of the mix creating a rich and multilayered sound. The distorted trombone adds a certain quality to the new Dub version but apart from that it remains close to the already existing Dub version.

As I mentioned before, the basis of a good Dub record begins with having quality rhythms to work with. Upon release, Horror Zone was one of my favorite albums for 2016. It features only carefully crafted rhythms by veteran session musicians such as Glen Da Costa, Vin Gordon, Robbie Lyn and some of the brightest minds in analogue recording. Bringing together the absolute best in modern analogue equipment and vintage equipment means that To Drive The Dub Starship Through The Horror Zone already carries a heavy vibration. That also happens to be the pitfall. Having released such a fantastic record to begin with makes it very hard not to compare each and every track to the ones you already have a liking for.

On To Drive The Dub Starship Through The Horror Zone they take it a step further adding more effects, breaking down each track and morphing it into something new and in some cases more exciting. Throw in the custom hand painted cover created by Ellen G and you have a real collectors item for the fans of the crucial Horror Zone album. Looking at the album as a single body of work, I think that Lee Perry has released more satisfying albums the last couple of years such as the recent Heavy Rain. Don’t let this scare you off, it is still a very solid effort just not essential.

For all who are unfamiliar with both albums can also take the opposite route. Starting with the most far out experimental version and work your way back to the original.

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6 thoughts on “To drive the dub starship through the horror zone”

  1. A very thorough review! Agreed with most of your choices between the original and dub versions.

    Learned a lot today 😉

  2. I was so happy to bring the album home this weekend! Listened to it right after we got home and loved it all the way. Your opinion on all the versions is very technical. I do agree the original vocal album is the best and didn’t really like the original dub version. What I love about the dubstarship is how the essence of the message was held alive. I have never really experienced that with any other dub-album. For sure I will listen to this album a lot! Thanks for pointing me to it in the first place.

    1. You are more than welcome. To compare two dub tracks you have to get a bit technical but the feeling you get from a song is just as important. I do feel that they kept essence of the message alive just as you mentioned. But that’s coming from someone who was already a huge fan of the album to begin with!

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