The strange, spiritual album that is Umbra Sumus is one of the more interesting items released in 1998. Bassist and composer Jah Wobble creates strangely compelling soundscapes that draw textures from a variety of ethnic traditions without explicitly evoking any one of them. The first cut, "Il Jevedro il Oblanco," sets the pace with a duet for what sounds like a toy music box and fuzz bass, but suddenly becomes a lush electronica-pop track as vocalist Amila Sulejmanovic begins singing in Bosnian. Elsewhere, Natacha Atlas croons in Arabic over a texture not of ouds and doumbeks, but of synthesized percussion, keyboards, and Wobble's own throbbing bass, and it sounds perfectly natural.
After he'd been a fixture of the British new wave/punk/underground/alternative scene since the late '70s, 1994's Take Me to God marked Jah Wobble's first major commercial success as a solo artist, reaching number 13 in the U.K. The use of numerous guest musicians (including Can drummer Jaki Leibezeit) gives this a feel of a rotating collective, with Wobble (who plays several instruments here in addition to the one he's most known for, bass) the constant. Quite a few singers contribute, giving this more of a song-oriented feel than some of his other work, some of the more celebrated including Gavin Friday, Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries, Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal, and top world music artist Najma Akhtar. The 66-minute length of these sprawling excursions almost inevitably means the program will drag at times, according to your musical inclinations. Lyrically, too, it's so varied as to make it difficult to connect with a pronounced attitude or viewpoint, the concerns ranging from the almost indecipherably frivolous ("Yoga of the Nightclub") to the numerous references to God that pepper the song titles.
The second album by Jah Wobble's Invaders of the Heart continued the bassist's exploration into ethnic fusion, merging together music from different world traditions with pop production and his own dub-influenced bass guitar. Fans of Wobble's earlier work with Holgar Czukay and Public Image Limited might be surprised and a bit dismayed at first by the glossy production and pop nature of some of the tracks here; one would never have guessed that Wobble would come up with something as commercial as the Latin pop of "Ungodly Kingdom." However, much of the music is remarkable and on each listen seems to contain something new. Wobble is far more interested in experimentation than simply adding world sounds to pop music. The tracks with Middle Eastern influences, including the amazing "Everyman's an Island," are quite remarkable and most feature the fine talents of Natasha Atlas. Meanwhile, the trance-like opener, "Visions of You," which guests Sinéad O'Connor on vocals, is absolutely beautiful. On the title track, Wobble even returns to his past, with he and guitarist Justin Adams bringing the sound of early PiL forward ten years.
Here's the deal: Brian Eno does soundtrack bits for one of British filmmaker Derek Jarman's final productions, "Glitterbug". Then Eno turns over said tracks to dub/world-meister Jah Wobble for further tinkering. Result: amazing! This is one of those instances where the mysterious and elusive 'third mind' that so many have spoken of in quality collaborative work has come out in force and created something that's perhaps a bit beyond the scope of either of the two participants, taken alone. The 'action' here keeps moving, in a very cinematic manner, throughout the tracks that make up this release, and you get the feeling of being drawn along in a complex musical journey through spaces that seem at once familiar and suddenly very alien.