JAH WOBBLE – Metal Box Rebuilt In Dub – 2xLP (Cleopatra Records 2021)

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I’ve always found Jah Wobble’s musical journey far too prolific to follow with any degree of consistency, and my best effort has been to dip into it every couple of years, or whenever something particularly compelling comes along. Up until 1994’s Take Me To God, I probably owned every record he played on but got lost somewhere in the mid-90s as the albums with Eno and many others piled on. His most prominent solo works at that point were undoubtedly 1991’s Rising Above Bedlam album and his iconic contribution to the Orb’s Blue Room in 1992.

In 2000, The Damage Manual band MK.1 featuring Martin Atkins, Geordie Walker and Chris Connelly made a terrific album with Wobble on board and were greeted with a stultifying lack of interest for their troubles. Fast forward to 2009 and Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra’s Chinese Dub album was something I played to death – It remains one of my favourite Wobble albums. In 2012, Wobble and Keith Levene reunited and recorded Yin and Yang together but the results were disappointingly a thin guitar jangle that I found as interesting as 1980s Wire records. More recently, a new version of The Invaders Of The Heart resolved many facets of Wobble’s musical journey into a well-oiled touring band and accompanying album The Usual Suspects, reworking PIL, vintage Invaders Of The Heart and a scattering of classic movie themes…

…But there is a very good reason why Metal Box casts a long shadow over everything else from 1979 to present ­– Its visionary deconstruction of rock music to an unpasteurised monolithic form ticked all the boxes for something genuinely new and creative coming from that era of UK punk. On a certain level, the album had designs on being one big antisocial cacophony but somehow rolled over into a compelling and singular thing of sonic beauty.

So it was of great interest to me that Wobble was revisiting the Metal Box material as a standalone project. Isolated songs have been part of his live set for some time, and a few have even been recently recorded, but to get the whole album (or most of it) reworked as a Wobble thing was an intriguing prospect.

Credit where it’s due on the visual presentation of this album – from metal tins to merkins, the PIL releases were always case studies in precision graphic design. Short of putting the whole thing into another film can (an aesthetic you can’t exactly download or stream), this needed an extremely smart design job to represent the myths and modalities of the material, and it succeeded admirably in that regard.

As it did on Metal Box, the unimpeachably imposing ALBATROSS kick starts the album – Here, it’s an instrumental workout along the spine of the central bass motif with various elements of musical progression and sporadic dub production steering it away from a straight read on the original. The genius of MEMORIES in its initial form was the creative sudden shift in production – a feature that’s hard to top. The Rebuilt in Dub version opts for more of a percussive shuffle than a cold disco thud. SWAN LAKE introduces a dance kick pulsing over the drums, drifting into a lush piano and orchestral section before returning to the bones of the track and hitting it hard – Bursting with creativity, it’s a highlight of the album.

Of course, it’s difficult to talk about this as an album from any other perspective than one of comparison – that’s simply the nature of what it is – suffice to say that production, playing style, interpretation and musical meandering make Rebuilt in Dub its own thing.

Arguably the most brain-rattling bass line of Wobble’s career, POPTONES launches like it’s going to play it straight, but slowly unfolds in several different directions. One of the very few tracks on the album to include a vocal, Wobble’s spoken/commentator approach is strangely complementary to the cynicism of the original text. CAREERING is very different. This has elements of Underworld or a Dreadzone remix and is unsurprisingly 1990s sounding as a result – It’s possibly the track that pushes the sound palette furthest on the album.

GRAVEYARD and THE SUIT are forever connected with Wobble lore and his parting of ways with PIL. THE SUIT’s bass line was originally central to an oblique cover of BLUEBERRY HILL jammed out during the Metal Box sessions. Lydon took it somewhere else with a scathing set of lyrics and some purely-for-irritation piano tinkling. Wobble then lifted the PIL backing tracks and rebuilt them into BLUEBERRY HILL for his wonderfully odd solo debut, The Legend Lives On… Jah Wobble in “Betrayal”, released in 1980. NOT ANOTHER from the same album is essentially GRAVEYARD by another name. This carry-on was considered mercenary by Levene and Lydon, and tipped already-strained relationships over the edge ­– PIL members were apparently free to do solo work, but there was a poorly communicated understanding that it was all supposed to come under the PIL umbrella.

Because there are technically versions of GRAVEYARD and THE SUIT on his 1980 debut album, then these are the tracks from Metal Box that Wobble has been toying around with longest as a solo artist. Both are injected with new melodic direction here but THE SUIT is the stand out of side 3 ­­– anything with Wobble’s unique softly-spoken East London vocal brings that Rising Above Bedlam magic to the mix and drives the personality of the album.

The run of SOCIALIST, CHANT and RADIO 4 was always my favourite sequence of Metal Box, so it’s somewhat disappointing that an important chunk is omitted for this new interpretation of the source material, especially given that side 4 of Rebuilt in Dub is two tracks from PIL’s debut instead.

So all that remains of the Rebuilt in Dub journey is SOCIALIST… A very wigged out version of this appeared on Jah Wobble and The Invaders Of The Heart’s 2017 album The Usual Suspects ­– I kind of expected this to be either the same recording, or a very similar interpretation, but aside from keyboardist George King, this band is a totally different, and so is their play on SOCIALIST. It’s forever ingrained in my brain as a kind of prelude to CHANT and feels like something is missing simply because CHANT is omitted from this recording.

I’m not sure why renditions of PUBLIC IMAGE and FODDERSTOMPF are marked as “bonus tracks” on side D, except that they’re from Public Image (First Issue) and not Metal Box ­– It’s a strange technicality given that they’re on all formats of the album. As with SOCIALIST, both were recently recorded by the Invaders of the Heart, and both of those versions are arguably better in that they do more to deviate from the source material… but anything’s better than the dreaded trend of limited edition 3-sided albums with a functionless etching on the 4th side.

… Any sort of run through the omitted tracks – BAD BABY, CHANT and RADIO 4 – would have completed the experiment of reassessing this material. That gripe aside, I’m perfectly happy with the result of what IS here. Wobble’s eclectic inclinations make for a produced and rendered version of Metal Box, and a worthy companion piece to a work of art we’ve all cherished and struggled to get out of the tin for decades. And while it’s not technically all “dub” in the same way as if the master tapes were handed over to the Mad Professor (which would have been incredible), the production trickery where present is wonderful, and such is the strength of the source material it that I’ll take it in any form.

Get it here…

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