Bill Laswell‘s discography is intimidating, and I’ve been grappling with it for a few years now. This week I decided to sit down and give the entire five album Psychonavigation series a listen.
It’s a trippy, bass-y journey that won’t work for everybody, but has a fair amount to offer for fans of experimental ambient music that’s heavy on atmosphere and repetition.
Bill Laswell: A vast and varied discography
My first encounter with Laswell was 1994’s Hallucination Engine. I picked it up unheard on the basis of a review that made it seem like something I couldn’t miss. After just one spin on the CD player, I knew I wanted more but finding more was quite a challenge.
This was the pre-Internet era, at least for me. I didn’t have much luck finding additional Material albums or any info about Laswell’s other work. The record stores of St. Louis had nothing I could find under the Material band name, despite Hallucination Engine being the sixth or seventh album under that band name.
For the past few years, though, I’ve had the opportunity to really dig into the treasure trove of Laswell’s discography–which has only grown steadily since the mid-90s. Even if Laswell had stopped recording in 1994 his output would be substantial.
Bill Laswell & Pete Namlook: Psychonavigation 1-5
Case in point, Psychonavigation 1 was also released in 1994. The first in a five album series (so far, anyway), Psychonavigation spans 1994 to 2002. Psychonavigation 5 was released in 2002, and re-released on Bandcamp in 2020.
Each album has its own character, but if you listen to the entire series back-to-back the albums can blend into one another almost seamlessly.
My first impression, starting with the 38-minute “Psychic and UFO Revelations in the Last Days,” was that it was a trippy, space-y, and bass-y ride. Nothing really changed that impression through the rest of the series.
You have to wade through some filler to get to the good stuff, though. “Angel Tech” on Psychonavigation 1 is a bit blippy and distracting. At more than 10 minutes it’s the shortest track on the album.
“The Fate of Energy” on Psychonavigation 2 has more groove to it and a little more structure. “Infinum” on the same album is the shortest track in the series. Checking in at 1:49 it’s fast-paced and makes me think of church bells, if you piped them through a synthesizer.
Psychonavigation 3 breaks things up a bit with seven tracks and nothing that exceeds the 20 minute mark. “Telepathy I” reminded me a little bit of the Blade Runner soundtrack by Vangelis. Ambient synth brings swells and thrums with some background and hard to distinguish vocals. Doesn’t quite have the same menace as the Blade Runner work, though, and is poorer for it.
Theremin whale songs
My notes for “Mind Transference Control” include the phrase “Theremin whale song.” I stand by that. It’s catchy and pleasant, very repetitive. Actually it’s probably not a Theremin, but a similar instrument called a Trautonium, which Namlook is credited with on the 5th album. Unfortunately I don’t have good liner notes to go with the albums so who played what is a bit spotty.
The most Material-like cut in the series is “Mind Over Energy” (track 4). I really enjoy the bass on this one and I’d probably pull this one into playlists.
I’ve marked down “ENTIB 2060” on Psychonavigation 4 as “harsh and crashy” though I got good vibes off the rest of the album.
The final entry in the series has a four-part “Cryosleep” series that’s good background music if you like things in the drone/ambient category. Things move along just enough to keep it interesting. If you want it to be. Put on low it’s good background noise. Wearing headphones or putting it on a bit louder you can get into a groove and appreciate how each track evolves.
Along with the drum programming, Laswell throws in some simulated (I think?) gongs and other spicy noises that keep Psychonavigation 5 from being ponderous and boring. Track 4 (“Cryosleep Part 3 – Holy Man”) has some nice and chunky bass with more vocals and an upbeat, almost frenetic, vibe.
The Psychonavigation series is a must-have for Laswell completists (and, presumably, Namlook completists as well…) and might appeal to folks who are really into ambient, electronic, dub music. It’s a journey somewhat in the vein of early Pink Floyd without quite so many dynamics or Syd Barrett’s guitar or Nick Mason’s drums to bring it closer to contemporary rock music. But if you dig early Floyd, you’re primed for Psychonavigation.
I’ll probably bring these out from time to time, but doubt they’re going to wind up in heavy rotation. Laswell and Namlook have a few other collaborations I plan to give a full hearing, like the Outland series and The Dark Side of the Moog VII.
Short version: If you already know and like Laswell, give these a shot. If you don’t, start with a more accessible work like Hallucination Engine.