Michelin Stars Served on Dub Plates: Khruangbin’s Hasta El Cielo

Will Hagle lets the bass thump on his evaluation of the Houston band's newest release.
By    July 18, 2019

We’ve been rolling on dubs, and we’re not talking about driving cars with rims. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Will Hagle has a Ziploc baggy personally autographed by Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Hasta El Cielo (Con Todo El Mundo In Dub) is the only full-length Khruangbin album that can’t be called “genre-defying,” because the genre is right there in the title. It’s a dub reworking of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo: the recorded stems remain the same, but they’ve been rearranged and layered with effects in a style akin to the legendary Jamaican mixing engineers who created the subgenre in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Universe Smiles Upon You drew upon Thai funk from the same era, and Con Todo El Mundo broadened the band’s scope of influence to include Middle Eastern music, but both of those albums succeeded in their ability to transcend traditional definitions of genre distinction, while still introducing listeners to their specific influences. Hasta El Cielo, more so than either full-length predecessor, is a specific exercise in emulating a certain sound.

In the press release announcing the album, Khraungbin claimed that Laura Lee “learned to play bass by listening to Scientist Wins The World Cup.” In a 2018 interview prior to Con Todo El Mundo’s release, Lee expanded upon this story, stating that she learned “by playing along to the Roots Radics, Serge Gainsbourg, and classic Motown records. I can easily attribute my feel to that of dub reggae, my tone to session players in Serge’s records, and my love for pentatonics to [James] Jamerson.” Like Paul Simonon infusing Jamaican influences into The Clash’s punk sound, Lee’s bass playing provides a vital undercurrent to every Khruangbin release. When the band delves into dub and lets their explorative low-end section rise to the forefront, Lee’s appreciation and emulation of Errol Holt of the Roots Radic’s style (as mixed by Scientist) is exponentially more apparent.

Khruangbin has dabbled in dub before, but never on such a grand or ambitious scope as Hasta El Cielo. The album features an entirely new track list, the titles of which all contain slight riffs on or references to the original. Although many elements of Con Todo El Mundo remain in place, the tone is completely different. Reverb, delay, and echo are used to create a deeper, fuller, slowed, spacey texture. Played back to back with the source tracks, as on classic dub LPs like the Scientist reissue Junjo Presents: Wins The World Cup, it’s easier to appreciate the artful choices made in the mixing booth. Some might miss the shiny treble of Mark Speer’s guitar carrying the tracks, but having two versions of each of these songs is definitely preferable to just the one.

Elements of Scientist’s influence on Hasta El Cielo’s mixing are evident everywhere: from the ringing out of the snare on “Sunny’s Vision” amidst a percussion section that drops in and out, to the wobbly ringing squeaks layered over the groove at the end of the most upbeat, least traditionally-dub track, “A La Sala.” Scientist himself mixed the album’s two bonus tracks, “Rules” and “Còmo Te Quiero.” Without the credit, it might have been difficult to tell that a legend added his hypnotic touch to the band’s files. His mixing choices are different and generally more subdued than the band used throughout the rest of the album, with Lee’s bass on “Rules” actually taking a backseat to the other instruments. Those missing Khruangbin’s guitar will find what they’re looking for with the final two bonus tracks; but not before Scientist throws them through a dizzying array of effects.

People love to call Khruangbin “genre-defying.” It is impossible to write about their music without using that phrase, or otherwise mentioning that their style doesn’t fit neatly into established conventions. While true, this rehashing of a simplistic descriptor ignores the important role that genre does play in the band’s sound. Like Brockhampton meeting on Kanyetothe, Khruangbin formed over a shared love of this blog that uploads old Thai cassettes. Each member of the band is deeply educated in specific niche styles of recorded music, as well as the broader historical contexts that surround those genres. Hasta El Cielo plays like a graduate-level music school introduction to dub, the genre Scientist and others invented. Khruangbin simply prefers to teach by showing rather than telling.

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