DYLAN HOWE - Subterranean: New Designs On Bowie's Berlin

It is not difficult to imagine the look of dismay on the faces of executives at RCA Records when David Bowie delivered the tapes for Low in 1976. There’s no single. Can’t we have another ‘Rebel Rebel’, or another ‘Fame’, please. As it happens they did get a hit with ‘Sound And Vision’, a song in which David’s vocals don’t appear until about half way through, but sales of Low can’t have helped RCA’s balance sheet and the same probably goes for Heroes which followed a year later. Nowadays these two albums are held up as cornerstones of Bowie’s catalogue, triumphs of art over commerce and indicative of DB’s status as a visionary who was not only miles ahead of his contemporaries but clever enough to see the lie of the land and switch direction to avoid competing with the punks. Still, the song ‘Heroes’ aside, these two records are a bit of a challenge, especially the instrumentals, which veer from ethereal to downright depressing. Nowadays, of course, you can buy almost all of Bowie’s instrumentals, dirges and otherwise, in one neat package as they have been collected on an album called All Saints, released in 2001. I’ve listened to it a lot over the years and find it immensely satisfying, even though ‘Sense Of Doubt’ still brings on the chills.
Now along comes Dylan Howe with his interpretations of Bowie instrumentals on an album called Subterranean: New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin, another prospect that is unlikely to make a record company salesman leap with joy. Dylan is a drummer cut from the same cloth as Bill Bruford, the first drummer in Yes, his dad Steve’s band, who left that group to pursue more challenging music with King Crimson and various jazz outfits and also, eventually, to write a witty and very readable book about his career; like Dylan, the exact opposite of those drummers in Spinal Tap who die in peculiar ways. Amongst other things Dylan is the drummer with the current line-up of The Blockheads and he also plays with Wilko Johnson, now fully recovered from cancer according to reports, a mighty blessing indeed.
         But Dylan’s real love is jazz, and his interpretations of Bowie’s instrumental music leave no doubt about this. Although there’s a touch of swing here and there, this is a thought-provoking record, meandering, atmospheric and technically adroit, especially Ross Stanley’s keyboards, both piano and synths, and Dylan’s own drumming, his arrangements calling for all sorts of tricky time signatures that you won’t find in rock. Indeed, the interpretations bear little resemblance to Bowie’s originals and I was hard pressed to recognise them, even when I listened to this album and Bowie’s All Saints back to back.
The tone is set by the opening ‘Subterraneans’, brooding, melancholy, late night music, and sustained through the pacier ‘Weeping Wall’, while a lengthy take on ‘All Saints’, in which the whole band take turns to solo at one time or another, sees them move more towards swing and free-form territory, with Brandon Allen adding an ominous saxophone part. ‘Some Are’ is more refined, the tune carried by Stanley’s melodic piano, which also leads the uplifting ‘Art Decade’. ‘Neuköln’ is spliced between ‘Night’ and ‘Day’, mysteriously portraying the grimness of divided Berlin where Bowie made his music after fleeing Los Angeles. With a hint of musique concrète here and there, it suggests the atmosphere of a deserted railway station in the middle of the night, a dark and sinister place where agents of unfriendly governments lurk in the shadows, more Harry Palmer than James Bond of course. ‘Warszawa’ evokes something similar, Adrian Utley’s sustained notes in the intro sounding more like a cello than an electric guitar, Allen’s solo moving into John Coltrane territory as the song opens out into full menacing flow. The forbidding tone lifts for the closer, the wraithlike ‘Moss Garden’ on which Dylan and Stanley are joined by Steve Howe whose koto adds an appropriate Japanese touch to a floaty piece that eventually seems to drift off into the breeze, like a kite carried away on a windy day.                                       
          I read somewhere that Dylan has been planning this record for seven years, just three years less than the gap between David Bowie’s last two albums. I hope the great man gets to hear it, for Subterranean is a sincere tribute that grows on the ear every time I play it.


Anonymous said...

Great review of a stunning album.

Apparently the other great man had heard it. According to Dylan's FB page the message from Bowie read "Dylan, That's a top notch album you've got there. Really.'

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to get this album and it keeps slipping my mind so thanks for the reminder. Thrilled that DB digs it as well.

According to the man himself, when he first delivered Low to RCA one of their executives' response was "can we get you another pad in Philly?"


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