Weird New Pop, Volume 7: The Problem of Bass in America

Photos: Stephen Mejias. Design and animation: Todd Steponick, Nice Looking Designs

Track 31
"Everyone on the web forum wakes up to find a jagged crack up the length of their bathroom mirrors." —Carmen Maria Machado, "Especially Heinous," Her Body and Other Parties

Track 32
It made no sense. The situation could not be sustained. Halfway through the third song of their set, I steeled myself for the awkward walk through the tight, tense crowd at Warsaw, the rock venue within the old Polish community center in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Dozens of eyes seemed to question my slow and deliberate movements. How could I? Where was I going? This was Boris.

As I made my way from the center of the hall to the adjacent merchandise area and dimly lit bar, the atmosphere changed dramatically, as though I was racing through seasons or rising from hell. The temperature dropped. The air quality improved. The intense and unmistakable scent of long-neglected bodies slowly dissipated and was replaced by the far more pleasant aromas of grilled onions, steamed pierogies, and smoked kielbasa. Extracting myself from the crowd at last, I went not for beer but water.

Moments earlier, I had tried unsuccessfully to find a relatively safe place within the suffocating crowd—some sort of bubble or cocoon that might protect me. I wondered if I had somehow wandered into a particularly offensive room mode. Was I surfing a standing wave, perhaps? I leaned back, bent forward, tilted side to side, attempted to duck from the onslaught of sound, but it was no use. My nostrils and pant legs flapped in unison, my chest vibrated and snapped like a snare. I was becoming one with the incredibly heavy bass.

This could not be safe.

Track 33
My fascination with doom metal began almost exactly a year ago. Something terribly unexpected had happened. I went to bed praying for a miracle, woke hoping that it had been a nightmare, checked the news to learn that it was indeed real and true: Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.

I grabbed my phone, plugged in earbuds, opened the Tidal app, and searched for sounds that would match my mood. I found what I was looking for in doom.

It's funny or not funny at all. Maybe it makes perfect sense: Before my own privilege was threatened, I didn't pay much attention to politics or race or the mystery of my ethnicity or the strange and abusive relationship between my country and my family. Now it's inescapable.

To suggest that music and audio are somehow immune from politics and race is as horribly irresponsible as single-issue voting, whether it's abortion, gun control, tax reform, same-sex marriage, the legalization of marijuana, education, climate change, or whatever. In this respect, politics and hi-fi are exactly alike: Everything matters. It may have always been this way, but it is especially so now, especially so now. Days before meeting Ron Carter, I told myself as much—I whispered it to myself, repeated it in the shower and again in bed at night, prepared myself for the most important questions of our interview, and still I failed.

Before we began shooting, I even tried to lay a foundation for the discussion. "Mr. Carter," I said, "I think we're living through an especially important time in our nation's history, so I've tried to come up with questions that will not only explore music but also its relationship with race and politics."

Although we sat just inches from one another, Ron Carter didn't look at me while I spoke. Instead he looked straight ahead—at what, I don't know—and so I continued, hoping that I was making sense.

"But," I ventured, "if I ask any question that you'd prefer not to…"

"Oh, you'll know," he interrupted me.

"…I'll completely understand..."

"No you won't understand," he replied. "Unless you mean that you'll understand no."

In that moment, Ron Carter and I, despite our physical proximity, were not close at all.

Immersive sound with remarkable bass: PSB's Alpha 1-100 Powered Media System gets you closer to the music without increasing the national debt

Track 34
The desktop audio system is now exactly as it should have always been: immersive and compelling, capable of tight, full-bodied, pant-flapping bass. When I listen to Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement's "Beyond the Yellow-Spotted Bamboo," for instance, I'm startled and amused by the sheer amount of low-end weight, impact, and power inherent to the recording and effectively communicated by the system. It wasn't always this way. In fact, before I added PSB's SubSeries 100 to the matching Alpha PS1 powered desktop speakers, "Beyond the Yellow-Spotted Bamboo" sounded far gentler, significantly less threatening, and not nearly as thrilling, with relatively muted bass color and less precise imaging, the latter perhaps due in part to inferior stereophonic cues in the high frequencies.

It's interesting: In the hi-fi hobby, we often attempt to identify and rank the relative sonic value of any particular component, saying, for instance, that a change in speakers or a change in phono cartridge or a change in the condition of our power will have a greater overall impact on the sound of a system than, say, a change in cables or amplification or DAC. But we rarely mention subwoofers.

Our oversight isn't so much an oversight as it is a prejudice, or, at best, an opinion held well beyond its expiration date. We dislike subwoofers because they are impure, because they cause more problems than they solve, because their merits are relatively minor and fleeting—small bandages over large and bloody wounds.

But improvements in the low frequencies can have a meaningful impact to all areas of reproduced sound. And, if you're merely looking for a change in perspective or mood, there are few things that can accomplish it like a subwoofer.

As I mentioned in "The Entry Level" (March 2014), PSB's SubSeries 100 is designed and engineered, inside and out, to complement the company's Alpha PS1 desktop speakers. That is, when used with the PS1 speakers, the SubSeries 100 should look and sound its best. It measures 6 3/8" wide by 6 3/8" high by 7 7/8" deep, and shares the PS1's flawless, high-gloss black finish. Overall build quality is outstanding for any price, let alone its relatively modest MSRP of $249. A small front-panel LED is centered below the 5 1/4" drive-unit; this glows green when in use and turns red when the system is in standby. Around the back, there's a two-position Phase switch, two knobs of exceptional "knob feel" (one for Volume and one for Crossover frequency, with positions from 50Hz to 150Hz), a single pair of RCA inputs, and a USB power port. Sort of ironically, I connected the SubSeries 100 to the Alpha PS1s using a cheap RadioShack subwoofer cable, an act that, one might imagine, should elicit ridicule from my friends and colleagues at AudioQuest.

Cheap cables aside, the sound was magnificent. PSB recommends that users begin with the Phase switch set to 0° and the Volume and Crossover knobs at their midway points. Now, as back in 2014, I found that these were excellent suggestions. However, with some particularly bass-heavy tracks, such as the aforementioned "Beyond the Yellow-Spotted Bamboo" or that old, reliable measure of bass wallop, James Blake's "Limit to Your Love," the recommended Volume setting resulted in way too much bass, transporting me not to audio heaven but instead to Warsawlian hell.

The trick with subwoofers is to find a setting that delivers more and better bass than could be achieved without the subwoofer, but in such a way that the subwoofer seems to be doing nothing.

Does that make sense?

Track 35
Possibly the Most Important Question I Failed to Ask Ron Carter
Mr. Carter, you grew up in and around Detroit. I grew up in Newark. Detroit and Newark are two beautiful cities that have come to exemplify our country's enduring struggle with racial injustice. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the racially driven rebellions that erupted in Detroit and Newark during the summer of 1967.

What have we learned since then? What have we failed to learn? What role does music play in expressing our country's pain and healing its wounds?

Track 36
Of course I didn't mean to suggest that I could possibly understand Ron Carter's life experience. What I meant was that I would absolutely accept his decision to address only the questions that he felt were appropriate or interesting. I don't understand what it's like to have been Ron Carter any more than Ron Carter understands what it's like to have been me.

But it doesn't always have to be this way.

Track 37
While I was still standing there in the middle of the hot and putrid crowd at Warsaw, my nostrils flapping uncontrollably, I wondered whether the experience would have been any more pleasant had Boris simply turned down the volume or adjusted the bass levels on their amps.

Possibly. But would the effect have been the same? Would Boris' art and intention be preserved?

Probably not.

Boris had wanted to make me feel sick, as though my health were at risk, and it had worked.

Track 38
But there's nothing—really, nothing—in their recorded material that would suggest this would be the case. I was wholly unprepared for the volume, bass output, and the unremitting sonic devastation of their live performance. It was like waking up on a Wednesday to learn that Donald Trump had been elected President of the United States.

WTF? Seriously, WTF? This can't be real.

Track 39
That awkward walk from the bass-worshiping crowd to the nearly empty bar was longer and more challenging than I would have liked. At home, however, from the relative comfort of my desk, I merely have to reach down to the SubSeries 100's rear-panel Volume knob and turn. I've found that if I set it to the 9 o'clock position, I get to experience all or most of the bass I could ever want, along with all of the other perks—specifically, improved stereo imaging and staging effects—without ever having to think about the subwoofer's existence.

It's like it's not even there: perfect.

On "All Blues," Ron Carter's bass is communicated with a remarkable combination of passion and purpose: perfect.

With hi-fi, I have a greater degree of control over my relationship with music: perfect.

Track 40
I'm not the type of person that has managed to avoid regret. I've made mistakes. I've failed to capitalize on far too many opportunities. I've said and done things that have caused me to lose sleep at night. I'm really sad about the questions I didn't ask.

Hi-fi and life are alike in some ways, but not all. I regret living so long without the PSB SubSeries 100—it makes listening more fun—but walking out on Boris was undoubtedly the right thing to do.

We live to listen another day.

Weird New Pop, Vol.7

  1. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: "Positive Comment About Opponent"
  2. Ibeyi: "No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms"
  3. Ziur: "U Feel Anything?"
  4. Aldous Harding: "Elation"
  5. Helena Hauff: "Gift"
  6. UMFANG: "Where Is She"
  7. Pan Daijing: "Phenomenon"
  8. Felicia Atkinson: "Adaptation Assez Facile"
  9. Coucou Chloe, featuring WWWINGS: "Stealth"
  10. Chelsea Wolfe: "Spun"
  11. Fatima Al Qadiri: "Spiral"
  12. Sharon Van Etten: "Passion and Love"
  13. Tony Schwartz: "Airport Public Address System"
  14. Endon: "Born in Limbo"
  15. Visionist: "Value"
  16. Ben Frost: "A Sharp Blow in Passing"
  17. The Body, Full of Hell: "Farewell, Man"
  18. Emptiness: "Your Skin Won't Hide You"
  19. Cavernlight: "A Shell of One's Former Self"
  20. Khemmis: "Three Gates"
  21. Elder: "Thousand Hands"
  22. Loss: "All Grows on Tears"
  23. Oneohtrix Point Never: "Hospital Escape/Access-A-Ride"
  24. Laurel Halo: "Who Won?"
  25. Richard Nixon: "Resignation"
  26. Mount Eerie: "When I Take Out the Garbage at Night"
  27. Spectral Voice: "Lurking Gloom"
  28. Colin Stetson: "Like Wolves on the Fold"
  29. Blanck Mass: "The Rat"
  30. Couch Slut: "Snake in the Grass"
  31. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: "Fam/Famine"
  32. Monarch!: "Diamant Noir"
  33. Phoebe Bridgers: "Killer"
  34. Pallbearer: "Heartless"
  35. Spirit Adrift: "To Fly on Broken Wings"
  36. Ex Eye: "Xenolith; the Anvil"
  37. John F. Kennedy: "Civil Rights"
  38. 21 Savage: "Nothin New"
  39. Forest Swords: "Free"
  40. Moor Mother, featuring Mental Jewelry: "Matter of Time"
  41. Gaika, featuring Miss Red: "Battalion"
  42. Kelly Lee Owens: "Keep Walking"
  43. Coucou Chloe: "Stamina"
  44. Kamixlo: "Bloodless Y"
  45. Boris: "Absolutego"
  46. Hell: "Machitikos"
  47. Xiu Xiu: "At Last, At Last"
  48. Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement: "Beyond the Yellow-Spotted Bamboo"
  49. Lyndon B. Johnson: "On Signing of the Civil Rights Bill"
  50. Ron Carter: "All Blues"
Weird New Pop: The Mega-Mix (Tidal Version)

Weird New Pop is also available in CD-quality sound from Tidal, making the doom even doomier.

jimx1169's picture

I could absolutely do without the animation (eye pollution) at the top of the page. Nice article, though. I've started to listen to some of the tracks. Some I like, others not so much, but it's always good to discover new music.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
This way the people who enjoy them, like me, can still enjoy them.
ssorg's picture

For some nicely recorded doom/death, Vainaja and Inverloch are excellent (both on bandcamp, Vainaja has two masters available).