Bassless

To the horror of bass players everywhere, some bands just do without one. I’m not thinking at the moment of the increasingly popular guitar-and-drums duo format, whose sound is already stripped-down and somewhat experimental to begin with, and  which probably deserves a post of its own. I’m thinking rather of bands that do seem to go for the traditional rock format of two guitars, bass and drums, only leave out the bass. Do we miss these low frequencies when they’re not there? Does the band try to fill in the missing parts of the spectrum, and if so, how? Or do they just forget the conventional mould and try to create a different sound-picture altogether?

Having no bass often stems from prosaic personnel problems – the founding members have a really close relationship between them and are reluctant to disrupt it with a new member, or they can’t find the right bass player, or they just can’t be bothered to look for one, or the old one left and they haven’t managed to replace them. But more often than not, this possibly arbitrary practical choice leads to intriguing artistic results.

In the case of Cold Pumas, for example, the lack of bass seems to become incorporated into the band’s sound as one of its distinctive features. It emerges as another facet of the “Persistent Malaise” described in the title of the Brighton-based band’s 2012 debut album. Despite all its richness and resonance, the music evokes a kind of flimsy ricketiness, as if there is something crucially missing where its core is meant to be. The guitarists often play the bass patterns, but without the deep bass sound, leaving the drummer as lonely as a goalie facing a penalty kick. Everything is trebly, reedy and defensive, almost groundless. The guitars sound as if they are played through compressed reverb, if there is such a thing. It’s motoric music without horsepower, progressive krautrock without the horizon of a hopeful expanse, groovy music without the groove. And it’s quite beautiful.

Blonde Redhead’s basslessness on their fourth album, “In an Expression of the Inexpressible,” turns in their able hands into another tool in their fascinating reimagining of pop-song structures and sound-picture conventions. Nothing is a given, not even the bass frequencies, which are sometimes compensated for by a guitar or a keyboard and sometimes totally absent. The result is an equilateral triangle of charismatic musicians who are free to come in and out and complement and intersect and contradict each other, creating a unique type of pop beauty. The lack of bass seems to release the band from any well-worn ideas of what a song should be like, and produce a record that is at once very inventive and singular, and very accessible.

The San Francisco band Enablers compensate for the lack of bass in their line-up through their extraordinary playing and compositional skills. The kick drum and the guitars (generating bass tones through alternative tunings and intricate playing), and to some extent even the vocals, alternate on bass-supplying duties. This means that the bass parts always remain somewhat evanescent and elusive, keeping to the Jazzy feel of a small bass drum and an upright bass. It leaves plenty of room for the exquisite guitar interplay, the powerfully musical drumming and the intense poetry of the vocals to shine. In the subsequent sprawling, free-verse spaces, the Enablers’ music is subtle and sophisticated and very special indeed.

 

Finally, imagine the impossibility of the Breeders without Kim Deal’s bass, and you might get close to imagining the sound of Thought Forms, a band from Wiltshire, UK. The trio relies on their heavy sounds, rich textures and pounding kick drum to mask the absence of the bass guitar in their noise-rock/shoegaze landscapes. Bassless though it is, their recently released debut album “Ghost Mountain”, when it doesn’t lose its way in endless faux-spiritual “avant-garde” doodling, attains the heights of muddy, magical pop weirdness reached in the 1990s by the Memphis band The Grifters.

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4 Responses to Bassless
  1. Ido Schacham says:

    Fascinating post. Most bands can do without bass because a lot of the bass parts in rock music are dull root chord 8ths that are pushed way down in the mix and are only there for the low sound and nothing more. So people don’t care if there’s bass or not, they have no idea. I like the reverse effect of bands like Royal Blood, Lightning Bolt, and Ed Turner And Da Danilof Center who have a bass but no guitars.

    • Michal Sapir says:

      Yes, it’s probably true that most listeners don’t listen to the bass parts as such, although they probably do feel the presence of the low end, albeit unconsciously. I also agree that most people think bass playing is simple and obvious, and almost every guitarist thinks they can play the bass, but they’re wrong – great bass playing is anything but simple and obvious (and when I say great I’m not talking about funky “virtuoso” nonsense). Excellent and important point about bass-only bands!

  2. Ido Schacham says:

    Ooh, and once there was a band with 2 basses – Cop Shoot Cop!

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