The ex-Beta Band man becomes the ghost in Bovell’s time-travelling dub machine.
Martin Aston 2011
Ghosts Outside resembles a spectre from another age, a dub mix buried in the swell of dance remixes that totally dominate the art of remake/remodel. Beats International’s Dub Be Good to Me is about the only dub-related mainstream cut in living memory – and that was 1990.
But welcome back, Dennis ‘Blackbeard’ Bovell, who made his name during the punk era with production, engineering and remixing work with reggae and punk/post-punk stars alike, including Janet Kay, Linton Kwesi Johnson, The Slits, Fela Kuti, Orange Juice, I-Roy, The Pop Group and Madness. Steve Mason, however, discovered Bovell via the soundtrack to the late-70s cult classic Babylon. Wanting to experiment and advance the songs from his 2010 album Boys Outside, Mason looked up Bovell, and Ghosts Outside was born.
It’s not a meeting of two oppositional mindsets either. Mason has always delved into rhythm, first with The Beta Band’s pastoral beats and then his own electronic affairs under Black Affair and King Biscuit Time aliases before putting his own name to Boys Outside, which was produced by Richard X (Kelis, Sugababes, Sophie Ellis-Bextor). Bovell, meanwhile, has that alt-pop/dance CV, so he wouldn’t have found Boys Outside’s mental despair and monochrome colours wanting. Instead, he’s taken Mason’s blueprint and added reggae’s core values – the skank piano, the shuffle organ and the rhythm guitar – and an occasional dab of horns, and then dub’s language: echo, reverberation, stripping out vocals and emphasising the bass and drums. Just don’t expect any of dub’s future descendent, dubstep. This is old fashioned – or, rather, timeless.
You might think removing Mason for large swathes is a bit drastic, but then Ghosts Outside isn’t a covers album. Even in the form of snippets, Mason’s melodies are strong enough to survive. But sometimes his originals survive largely intact, such as Yesterday, re-titled Yesterday Dub (which goes for every song), and the original album’s loveliest cuts, Lost and Found (aka Lost and Dub) and The Letter (aka Letter Dub). Other times, such as Am I Just a Man (aka Dub I Just a Man), Mason is simply the ghost in Bovell’s machine. But given the gorgeous, malleable rhythm and ambience – chilled, but given the album title, not bone-chilling – Mason sounds free from the depression that inspired so much of Boys Outside. Perhaps that’s his intention – to leave the blues behind and engage with dub’s liberation. In which case, job well done.