Down with the high end

You know, what the world needs more of is rock music that flips the bird to that most boring of instruments, the electric guitar. Who needs it? The electric bass is the greatest lead instrument ever, but no one seems to realize it. Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water remains one of the best albums I’ve ever heard — oh, sure, it’s practically unbearable on first listen, but it’s totally great, honest. I just wish its super-dense sound weren’t such a rarity.

There’s always Magma, I guess. They didn’t necessarily can the regular guitars, but the instrument is almost always mixed so far down as to be little more than an accent. For instance, “The Last Seven Minutes” from Attahk is a blistering work built around a thick lead bass line (just wait out the 40-second drum intro):

The obvious problem being, of course, that Magma is completely insane, a French band singing about extraterrestrial exile in a completely invented alien language. It’s like Scientology: The Band, except not a cynical ploy to bilk gullible celebrities of their life earnings (because I doubt Magma ever sold enough albums for its members to upgrade from a subsistence diet). But somewhere out in the world, there’s gotta be someone sane who recognizes the genius of the lead bass, right? Please, enlighten me, humans.

35 thoughts on “Down with the high end

  1. For the last month or so, I have been in the process of writing a handful of songs for which I was contemplating ditching the guitar and playing everything on the bass. More for lack of members than anything else.

  2. Parliament frequently uses Bootsy Collins as the primary improviser. They are really really great. He’s one of the only bassist celebrities in history, too, and he is a genius. Check out Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome, which he’s all over and is tons of fun.

  3. Uh, well, I doubt it’s really up your alley but probably 80% of Mike Watt’s output is pretty bass centric. Though most of it’s punk, his more recent Secondmen stuff is sorta… Prog-ish? He takes it a bit out there with Burstedman and it’s video at least! That’s close to what you were going for, right?

    Man, this is a faliure. I’m terrible at recommending music.

  4. Oh man, I flipped out the first time I heard Fish out of Water. Chris Squire is a fucking amazing bassist. The album might have worked better if someone else was doing lead vocals – he’s great at harmonizing but not the best lead vocalist – but it’s still great.
    I don’t know how much Yes you listen to, but Drama has some amazing bass action on it as well and is often overlooked.

  5. Actually, Drama was the first Yes album I ever bought for myself. Once I got past the shock of a different vocalist I learned to love it.

    Isn’t Parliament insanely funky? I’m afraid that if someone as white as me listened to that much concentrated funk I’d die of funk toxicity.

    And I seriously hate everything I’ve ever heard by Tool, sorry.

  6. I’m surprised that Primus hasn’t been mentioned yet… I’m not a huge fan of the band, but if you’re going to buy one of their albums, go with “Sailing the Seas of Cheese.” A lot of the post punk bands that came out of the UK in the late ’70s/early ’80s gave the bass a more primary role in their sound with the electric guitar used more for texture or effects. Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” is a great example of that kind of sound.

  7. Also, that YouTube clip reminded me a lot of the album, “Music is Rotted One Note” by Squarepusher.

  8. Well… the only thing I know that even comes close to what you describe is this one song called “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth,” by Metallica, which is pretty much a three-and-a-half minute long bass solo. It is kind of weird, in my opinion, but interesting nonetheless. I hope that helps.

  9. OK – you have got to check out some tatsuda yoshida stuff! this guy is like the ultimate magma fan and fronts awesome zeuhl bands that play music that, all things considered, don’t even sound that much like magma. which is a neat trick.

    ruins, his bass+drums duo sounds like exactly what you’re looking for. yoshida plays drums and has been playing w/a revolving set of bassists since the 80s. my fave album is “burning stone” but that one seems to be OOP. but the live record “hyderomastgroningem” and the last studio album “tzomborgha” are both solid and readily available.

    keep in mind – this stuff is WEIRD (wierder than magma, yes) and kind of noisy/harsh. but it will sink in with time. it’s also insanely complex, if that’s your thing.

    but for my money, his best project is koenjihyakkei. all of their albums are different and worthwhile but “nivraym” is my fave:

    (make sure you get the remastered version on skin graft records. original recording is pretty awful-sounding.)

    if that’s too mcuh for you, try “angherr shisspa”. it’s a more nuanced record but I tend to prefer the bludgeoning heavyosity of nivraym.

  10. Parliament will kill you, but you will be immediately reborn as a new, funkier person. And you will thank them for this.

    If you want to ease your way in, early Funkadelic is secretly one of the best prog bands ever, featuring Eddie Hazel on guitar solos that make you think Hendrix never died. Parliament sounds like disco on the surface, but Bootsy’s right in the center picking away. And anyway they’re really just big nerds like their prog brethren; Funkentelechy is all about the superhero Star Child fighting Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk’s Placebo Syndrome with the bop gun. It is ridiculous fun. If you put on headphones, the song Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk (Pay Attention) is a great showcase for Bootsy. Check it out!

  11. also, if my research is correct, kids these days are into lightning bolt, another bass+drums duo. but this is more of a proggy noise band than a noisy prog band, if you get my drift. still good, blew my mind when I first heard em, got bored of them once I tired of the schtick. “wonderful rainbow” is their best.

  12. I must disagree; the electric guitar is, for me, not the most boring of instruments, and here’s why:

    I still recall the time I beat Halo 2 (which actually happened after I beat Halo 3, but I digress) and I had an electric guitar rendition of the theme foisted upon me. Pain and bewilderment are not, technically, boring.

    And I apoligize for bringing up games in a section about rock music. I’ll just leave you guys alone now…

  13. Your quip about bass players makes me think of Flea of RHCP. He’s not technically the lead instrument, but goodness gracious that’s some funky bass.

  14. For some retro, bass centric tunes check out Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, “Grey Cell Green”, is a good starting track. From a review, “That unusual tension you hear is Ned’s dual bassists, one working with the drummer on the low-end rhythms, the other playing melody in the upper register — weird and counterintuitive, but it works.”

    I’m intrigued that you’ve taken an interest in bass based bands, as that was a style which attracted me back in the 90s. So also try, Cop Shoot Cop (although they have a guitar which gets beat on a little bit). I think the best description I could give for them right now, is to say that I think they should have scored the Sin City film. Another review, “If two basses pounding out mammoth riffs and guitar-harmonic mayhem shocks or scares you, please avoid Cop Shoot Cop.” Try, “The Divorce” as introduction.

  15. Besides “Anesthesia,” there’s a smattering of tracks from the Cliff Burton era of Metallica that have some nifty lead bass on them. “Orion” is probably my favorite. The live stuff from the “Cliff ‘Em All” DVD, too, there’s one I should hunt up…

    If it was Lars that got crushed under the bus, we’d all be better off.

  16. I always considered Mike Watts solo albums pretty good examples of lead bass playing…

    Definitely worth checking out even for a prog rock fan

  17. Since I have been mainly listening to “indie” tunes on the internet lately, I have been without any bass heavy influence. I have to suggest, however, that Morphine is still one of my all-time faves. Not just bass, but a bass with only two strings intertwined with a baritone sax and one of the deepest crooners ever. Mmmmm….

  18. I’ll second The-Bavis up there – Morphine is still one of my favorite bands, and Cure For Pain is still a desert-island disc for me.

  19. i second the mike watt. minutemen are hard to label ‘punk’ because most of their output sounds kind of like 70s AOR but really short and lo-fi, with the bass, drums and guitar mixed equally. firehose is a little more structured and ball-hog or tugboat (first/best watt solo outing) is not remotely punk. motorhead is awesome but might be a little much for a non-metal fan. how about kyuss? particularly blues for the red sun and welcome to sky valley. lots of long, spacey jams with quite a bit of low end thud, particularly the latter. more art rock than metal.

  20. To not have mentioned Stanley Clarke at this point is a crime – “School Days” is a primary example. Also check out “Romantic Warrior” by his and Chick Correa’s band Return to Forever to understand.

  21. Honestly I’m surprised no one’s mentioned Victor Wooten or even Jaco Pastorius yet. There’s a ton of solo bassists (who all also have band experience) like Jeff Berlin, Mark King, etc. However, a lot of the solo bass wankery stuff tends to get boring after so many listens. (This is coming from a bass player, no less.)

    There’s a band called el ten eleven that I’m pretty sure you’d like Jeremy. They’re just a bassist and a drummer, but they’re tricky in that the bassist plays a double neck guitar/bass hybrid plus uses a ton of pedals. The drummer also uses lots of drum pads and stuff besides his kit. They’re effectively a two man group that sounds like at least a 5 piece, maybe more. A lot of their music was featured in the movie Helvetica, which I hope as a graphic designer you’ve seen. I really love that movie.

  22. I was trying to play bass guitar alongside my Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive record this evening and failing horribly. Jazz bassists get all the fun it seems.

    I love lead bass that gets a unique tone out of the instrument. El Ten Eleven is a band I’ve been listening to where the guitarist and bassist are contained in the same person — playing the same two-necked instrument if I understand properly. Also, ring modulators and distortion give you a great sound too.

    “Fish Out of Water” should be on my list I think.

  23. Whoa — two El Ten Eleven posts one after the other. I KANT READ

    For the record Magma is really brilliant — just wish their albums weren’t so expensive/hard to find.

  24. I strongly second the Watt recommendation. His solo stuff, the Minutemen, and fIREHOSE.

    You may also want to listen to Dianogah. They’re a spectacular two-bass-and-drums band. I cannot recommend them highly enough.

    Joy Division often used bass as the lead instrument with guitar providing texture. I can unequivocally recommend every Joy Division record and the first two New Order records.

    Liquid Liquid and ESG are also worth checking out.

  25. There’s a great Ukrainian band called “…i drug moy gruzovik” (yeah, I’m Russian myself – that’s how I know about them). They’re kinda like Morphine, only brighter, poppier and more optimistic.
    And I kinda figured that lyrics in Russian and Ukrainian wouldn’t bother you at all after Magma.

  26. I’ll second the ESG suggestion and add a PIL Flowers of Romance. The most recent EP I’ve been recording, I’ve been going for a mix between Flowers of Romance & Come Away with ESG.

  27. wumpwoast: That’s because el ten eleven is awesome and worth every mention.

  28. No mention of the ultimate 70s prog masters yet? Rush! I’d say it’s more of a fair share of bass/guitar/keys leads, but bass does get attention thanks to Geddy.

    Also, I think Death From Above 1979 was a bass/drums duo who made one of my favorite records of the last couple years – You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. You won’t even notice the fact that it’s two instruments. Tangentially related, in Ian MacKaye’s current band The Evens he plays the baritone guitar. Which is probably less represented than the bass guitar. It has a nice tone, with a range in between the standard tunings of the bass and lead guitar.

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