Graded on a Curve:
Dub Syndicate,
Ambience in Dub
1982–1985

The early work by African Head Charge was reissued by On-U Sound last year, and now the first four albums from Dub Syndicate are getting the vinyl treatment. That means debut The Pounding System, the full-band dub of One Way System, the team-up with melodica player Doctor Pablo on North of the River Thames, and the assured advancements of Tunes from the Missing Channel. Additionally, there’s the compilation of unreleased versions Displaced Masters, and for those still luxuriating in compact discs, everything’s included in the 5CD + 24-page book Ambience in Dub 1982-1985; it and the LPs are out now.

Dub Syndicate is often simply credited as the joint endeavor of Adrian Sherwood, justly celebrated as a dub-obsessed studio wizard and the chief operator of On-U Sound, and Style Scott, previously noted as a drummer for Roots Radics and Creation Rebel, but alas, it’s far from that simple. 1982’s The Pounding System was completed prior to Scott’s involvement with Sherwood assisted by members of Creation Rebel, African Head Charge and Jamaican saxophonist “Deadly” Headley Bennett.

In the liner notes to that set’s 1998 CD reissue, Steve Barker quotes Sherwood’s assessment of The Pounding System as “one of those quick ones.” The album emerged early in the label’s existence, cataloged as On-U LP 18, and as such, was shaped by non-musical factors, prominent amongst them a lack of money; rhythm tracks were laid down at The Manor (owned by Richard Branson), where the time was either cheap or free, and the mixing was done in a single day at the Berry Street studio run by Dennis Bovell.

However, The Pounding System doesn’t sound rushed or scattershot, instead just connecting like a solid slab of dub reggae, and from the opening title track forward, there are flashes of weirdness that assist the LP in standing out. Dub and weirdness are no strangers of course, but the blending here is noticeably distinct from the Jamaican template that served as Sherwood’s inspiration, even as Headley adds beneficial flavor to what’s essentially a bass and drum foundation.

The three-part excursion “Hi-Fi Gets a Pounding” underscores the rhythmic orientation. As Barker mentions, the titles of ““African Head Charge” Don’t Care About Space Invader Machines (Pts. 1 & 2)” and “Crucial Tony Tries to Rescue the Space Invaders (With Only 10p)” are piss-takes of Scientist’s over the top track-naming method. But in terms of sonics, The Pounding System is very much in the mode of Scientist (and King Tubby) as Sherwood’s abilities were sharpening; if not a mind-boggler, it’s a consistently enjoyable set with distinct ties to prior and subsequent On-U Sound releases.

1983’s One Way System wasn’t initially released by On-U Sound, instead coming out on ROIR (short for Reach Out International Records), a NYC-based cassette-only label noted for releases by Bad Brains, Mekons, Flipper, Suicide, MC5, and even GG Allin (plus a slew of additional reggae entries). This likely had the effect of turning on lots of adventurous punks to the Dub Syndicate’s wares, surely a welcome audience given Sherwood’s background and dually because full-on acceptance of his productions by the reggae scene had yet to transpire.

Save for one track, One Way System consists entirely of versions (that is, treatments of extant tunes rather than new ones conceived in studio), and it’s ultimately nearer to trad dub reggae than The Pounding System. This shouldn’t suggest a backslide, as the contents benefit from the sharp studio band which retained Headley and marked the entrance of Style Scott.

Scott is credited with drums on this disc, which has been pressed onto 45rpm double vinyl for this edition, but One Way System isn’t a showcase for his input; that would come in time. Taken chronologically as part of Ambience in Dub, it’s a solid component in the project’s evolution, and it stands up well on its own, unfolding with smoothness and confidence enhanced by the crack musicianship. Like so much dub, it thrives as a piece intended for uninterrupted, deep listening, though the cheerily melodic “Substyle” still delivers a highlight.

Don’t confuse Doctor Pablo with Augustus Pablo, though the elder Jamaican melodica specialist obviously inspired the younger in name and choice of instrument, as North of the River Thames is an open tribute to Augustus Pablo’s classic ’77 LP East of the River Nile. A member of Creation Rebel, Doctor Pablo (aka Pete Stroud) was also part of the band for One Way System, and his playing here, if not as sterling as his namesake, easily justifies the co-billing.

But North of the River Thames is more than just a trib. Released in ’84 as On-U LP 30, it documents stylistic breadth amid sheer prolificacy while injecting facets of Britishness into the recipe; the album opens with “Man of Mystery,” noted as a 1960 hit for The Shadows, and follows it with a version of Ron Grainer’s theme for the TV series Dr. Who. US residents of a certain age will likely recognize “A Taste of Honey” through the horn of Herb Alpert, but in the UK, it was a hit for Mr. Acker Bilk.

These bits of geographical personality deepen North of the River Thames’s appeal and reinforce Sherwood and associates as reliably more than merely imitative in communicating their love for Jamaican music. But the blend of passion and individuality fully comes together on the real banger in Ambience in Dub’s bunch, Tunes from the Missing Channel.

Scott rises to the role of instrumental leader, with Steve Beresford, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Ashanti Roy just some of the contributors, while Sherwood adds sampling technology to his arsenal. The results of integrating this then-new technology (Sherwood was calling it “captured sound”) are far from pedestrian and not even especially dated, though the album is emblematic of its decade in numerous positive aspects, e.g. “Over Board,” which flaunts a keyboard line (courtesy of Wobble) that could comfortably fit on the soundtrack to any number of releases from Vestron Home Video.

The twisted vocal croak and distorted bass of “The Show is Coming” do emphasize an upswing in twistedness, but Tunes from the Missing Channel also derives strength from its juxtaposition of extremes, with “Forever More” wedding instrumental outlandishness to Bim Sherman’s smooth croon. Indeed, there is a marked increase in voices, though the sampled-sitar of opener “Ravi Shankar Pt. 1” and the aggregable sway of “Jolly” are just two of the non-vocal standouts on the strongest album in this series.

Displaced Masters might be a collection of outtakes and alternate versions, the best being “Honey Version” and “Subway Style,” but the quality is high and the contents cohesive throughout, in part through three Sherman vocals. In short; anyone picking up the four albums above (three of which include download bonuses) will want this one too, as it broadens the output of a vital chapter in the On-U Sound story.

The Pounding System
B+

One Way System
B+

North of the River Thames
A-

Tunes from the Missing Channel
A

Displaced Masters
B+

Ambience in Dub 1982-1985
A-

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