Wire’s classic first stretch is so iconic, and the group’s solo activities and subsequent reunions so under-heralded, that it’s easy to overlook the post-1980 output. For me, the first time I heard a non-Wire side project was a revelation, and it happened to be one of The Grey Area’s Dome reissues. These records were darker, looser, and more experimental than any of the Wire tracks I had heard, yet they still hung together as distinctly musical explorations.
Attempting to disentangle Dome from other Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis collaborations would be silly, as Gilbert himself said in an interview last year. It’s not hard, however, to say that pretty much everything these guys touched from 1980-1985 is absolutely fantastic. Even, or maybe especially, the non-Dome releases on Dome Records (A.C. Marias, Michael O’Shea, Desmond Simmons) are striking in how they create truly beautiful moments from wedding the cold, detached Blackwing Studios sound to vaguely traditional musical styles. A 5-LP box set of Dome material may seem monumental, but it’s a small part of a much larger creative vision.
Dome 1-4 + 5 collects everything that Gilbert and Lewis have recorded under the Dome name: the first three Dome albums released on Dome Records in 1980 and 1981, Will You Speak This Word: Dome IV, released on the Norwegian Uniton label in 1983, plus Yclept, a compilation consisting of material recorded in 1989 for a Michael Clarke ballet along with some additional pieces recorded in the late ’90s. I haven’t heard the vinyl version of the box set, but Rashad Becker cut it at Dubplates & Mastering, so it likely sounds terrific.
The goal of the duo’s post-Wire output, as described by Gilbert, was to “explore the notion of how far one could go with improvisation and studio technology and have it still be described as music. Pretty straightforward stuff really: make things, no rules, but be quick.” Again, it seems somewhat futile to draw hard distinctions between albums, as many of the same ideas and impulses pop up throughout. Except for the nonsense funk that comprises a healthy amount of Dome 3 and the side-long modern classical goof “To Speak” on Dome 4, the first four Dome albums are fairly interchangeable, which isn’t meant as a slight. The albums all approach non-musical noise in a similar, rhythmic, absurd way. Imagine Remko Scha’s machine guitars, twisted by Blackwing Studios’ electronics, with senses of humor.
Indeed, lest you think a group that performed with giant paper tubes over their heads took things too seriously, the lyrics reveal the project’s playful, surreal tone. “Keep shoving those double-thick slices of electric salad down my throat,” Lewis belts on “And Then.” “Rolling Upon My Day” traffics in Talking Heads-esque paranoia, but it’s too silly to actually create dread: “I feel it in my fingers / I feel it in my toes / I feel it on my breakfast / And even in my clothes / I feel it in my sofa / I feel it in my chair / I feel it in my toothbrush / And sometimes, sometimes in my hair.” When juxtaposed against the lyrics, even the darker instrumentals lose their menace. This is all for the best: experimental, “industrial” music doesn’t get much more fun than Dome.
In this context, Yclept can’t help but seem like an afterthought. The same spirit is present, but Blackwing’s technological upgrades remove much of the murk. There’s also a full-on song, “Because We Must,” which sounds more suited to a Wire or He Said album. It’s a fine track, but it certainly doesn’t jibe with the rest of Yclept, let alone a box set of Dome’s complete recordings. Regardless, the rest of the set is so good that it works as an added bonus.