The last time London’s Dub Pistols dropped an album stateside, electronica — a blanket term covering everything from trip-hop to tech-house — was the music press’s buzzword du jour. You couldn’t avoid hearing a Fatboy Slim song while watching TV or seeing the dual mohawk and pierced tongue of Prodigy’s Keith Flint while paging through a magazine. It appeared as though computers were going to become as much a part of the rock idiom as guitars and leather pants. At least, that’s what critics told us. Alas, things didn’t quite pan out like they predicted: Today, Prodigy is better remembered as an Internet service provider and Christopher Walken’s creepazoid dance moves in Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video are better known than Norman Cook himself.
Apparently, the media’s swift over-saturation of electronica in the late ’90s soured even former Madchester club promoter and Dub Pistols mastermind Barry Ashworth to the dense ideals of clubland. But Ashworth has always been a bit of a groove culture subversive (just look at his band’s name): on 1998’s Point Blank, he enlisted some flesh-and-blood musicians and set out to sharpen big beat’s rapidly dulling edges with sampled Skatalite horn riffs, reggae skank, hip-hop bounce and plenty of punk attitude. On Six Million Ways To Live — the Pistols’ first album to hit American shores in a half-decade — Ashworth extracts the pulsating techno beats altogether and douses what’s left in reverb, creating a sound that shoots for the atmosphere rather than the dance floor and for the head far more than the ass.
Label squabbles and post-9/11 fallout delayed the record’s release by more than two years, but Six Million hardly sounds outdated; in fact, much of the material — connected by themes of conflict and warfare, whether it be between neighbors, rival sound systems, or individuals and themselves — is even more relevant today, and, at times, eerily prophetic, considering it was recorded prior to the 2001 terror attacks. “Terrorists throughout the land, try to make me understand / Making your point by killing an innocent man,” demands silver-voiced Jamaican legend and onetime Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy over the throbbing space-age dub plate “World Gone Crazy.” Ex-Specials frontman Terry Hall offers an indirect response in his trademarked deadpan delivery on his own electro-ska critique of an ailing world, “Problem Is”: “You kill my cat, I’ll kill your dog.”
While Andy and Hall’s detached vocals seem to float above ground alongside the Pistols’ airy production, the emcees that anchor Six Million‘s other seven tracks remain nailed to the floor. West Coast underground rapper Planet Asia brings enough energy and confidence on “Soldiers” and the straight-forward party-rocker “Architect” to cut through the fog and commandeer the songs for himself. New York-based collective Sight Beyond Light, however, stumbles in the haze. Their completely anonymous flows are far too bland to elevate the album’s weaker beats: “Still Breathing” is a throwaway, and the spare, acoustic guitar-driven title track is an unsalvageable snoozefest. Without the celestial presence of a Horace Andy or a Terry Hall (their respective cameos start out the album) to break up the street-level clumsiness, Six Million eventually loses its ethereal weightlessness and plummets toward Earth.
But even as the album is alternately weighed down and lifted up by its guest stars, Ashworth’s vision of a world where the term “dance music” encompasses anything inspiring — whether it’s dub, ska, hip-hop or punk — remains clear. As the instrumental closer “6AM” moves like a fogbank rolling through an empty discotheque, it appears as though the ghosts of electronica past are resting comfortably.