Graded on a Curve: Vladislav Delay,
Sly Dunbar,
Robbie Shakespeare,
500-Push-Up

Since 1997, Finland’s Sasu Ripatti, better known as Vladislav Delay (amongst other handles), has been impacting the electronic scene across numerous substyles and with Jamaican dub a key influence on his overall thing. In 2018, he was a participant in the sessions that produced the Nordub album, alongside the celebrated and inarguably essential Jamaican rhythm section-production team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. 500-Push-Up, a new record on vinyl and compact disc from the Sub Rosa label, is a reunion combining the rudiments of dub with extensive electronic expansion. A wonderful trip beyond, it’s out May 15 with two bonus tracks on the CD.

Amassing releases that have been tagged as techno, house, glitch, and ambient, Sasu Ripatti is a prolific man. In addition to Vladislav Delay, he’s recorded as Sistol, Uusitalo, Luomo, Conoco, and even under his surname Ripatti, with the music spread across a number of labels, including  Mille Plateaux, Huume, Leaf, Staubgold, Halo Cyan, Raster-Noton, ~scape, Semantica and most recently, Cosmo Rhythmatic.

But Ripatti’s considerable output is dwarfed next to the productivity of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who are cited in Sub Rosa’s promo description for this release as the “most prolific Jamaican rhythm section and production duo.” A look at their stats on Discogs proves sizable enough to quash any debate over the claim. It’s basically a cinch that even casual fans of Jamaican music made in the last quarter of the 20th century have heard the work of Sly and Robbie.

The duo has also played a role in numerous non-Jamaican releases as well, ranging from Bob Dylan to The Fugees to Marianne Faithfull to Joe Cocker to Grace Jones to No Doubt. And as the intro above mentions, Sly and Robbie’s vitality has carried over deep into the new century; in 2018 alone, they have at least five full-length releases where they are co-credited. That includes the Nordub 2LP/ CD cited above, which found them co-billed with Norwegian trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvaer as his countryman Eivind Aarset and Ripatti were featured artists on guitar and electronics, respectively.

Nordub is a fine record, but even with Molvaer’s electronically processed trumpet (a norm for him, as he’s reminiscent at times of Jon Hassell and ’70s Miles Davis) and with Delay on board (who mixed and produced most of the album), it’s nowhere near as strange as I expected, instead settling into an agreeably warm zone. After its release by the Okeh label, the participants gathered for a tour, and then in January 2019 Delay traveled to Kingston to record drums, bass and some vocals with Sly and Robbie, plus what Sub Rosa calls “atmospheric field recordings.”

Delay went back to Finland and, after working extensively with what he’d gathered, produced results that’re far more bent than I was anticipating. For those familiar with reggae but lacking much experience with the dub style, this is likely not be the place to get acquainted with this strain of dub-techno, but for lovers of Lee Perry and Scientist who can hang with Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound productions and the wilder side of electronica, this set should provide a welcome trip into the deep weeds.

Curiously, 500-Push-Up offers no track titles, but instead uses numbers falling between 512-522 in parenthesis and out of order. Opener “(513)” begins with vocals and a bass pulse as the electronic haze gradually builds up; over two minutes pass before a drum emerges and the track commences with the hypnotic repetition. Along the way, those electronic brambles get thicker until they threaten to submerge the incessant throb.

The cut establishes the twisted nature of the album, with nothing thereafter particularly unexpected, though the contents do get crazier. I especially enjoyed how the second track, “(512),” began with a near identical vocal shout but then got right down to its rhythmic business, becoming a showcase for window-rattling bass frequencies, short siren-like tones and a barrage of drumming that gets more-and-more intense. A rubbery and increasingly robotic melody holds it all together, barely.

Next, “(520)” offers bass and tech swirl before the drum enters with a faster tempo and then travels toward a sci-fi-like conclusion. “(514)” sprinkles archaic early video game sounds into passages that seem to be unfolding from inside a tricked-out pinball machine as the rhythm rolls and echo-laden vocal loops fade in and out. “(521)” is more recognizably dublike, though it’s still plenty weird. Really, the main difference between this and standard dub is momentum, even at slower tempos that underscore’s Delay as 500-Push-Ups’ architect.

Right on time, “(519)” is as sweet a specimen of dub-techno as I’ve heard in a while, and then “(522)” magnifies the bass from deep inside a cavern in a (hopefully) far off dystopia. It satisfyingly ends the LP version, but then bonus cuts “(516)” and “(518)” are wholly effective at extending 500-Push-Ups’ scrambled methodology, which is exactly what’s called for in this setting. From the ample discographies of Vladislav Delay and Sly and Robbie, this one’s a keeper.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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