Rock’n’roll instrumentals vaguely intimidate me; it’s like my mind doesn’t know what to do without words guiding the way. Which is kind of weird on the one hand, as I don’t usually listen too closely to the words of a song in the first place. I guess it’s that I like the sound of words with music versus music without a human voice in the mix. This is all to say that when it comes to instrumentals, I have even less of a thought process for selecting something to feature than usual. Occasionally, for reasons I can’t explain, one breaks through my awareness and says “Pick me,” and so I do.
And so here is “Amber Eyes,” from the NYC-based guitarist Juan Torregoza, which launches without fanfare into a deliberately plucked, 11-note electric guitar melody line, repeated with one variation on the final three notes, set against an itchy drumbeat. The personality and intention seem immediately appealing. After this settles in, some scrunchy guitar noises interject, with additional personality. This turns out to be the warm-up for the second lead guitar to add its counter-melody to the persistent 11-note through-line, beginning around 0:47.
If I had to guess what hooked me for good I’d say it’s probably that interval described when the second guitar kicks in, which sounds like a 7th (always an attractive interval). That 7th interval becomes a persistent thorn in the side of the first melody, in an aurally satisfying way. This goes on for a minute and a half or so, at which point (2:29) the second guitar retreats into 20 seconds of the scrunchy stuff, before returning undaunted to the opening interval. After 20 more seconds, the enterprise shuts itself down, having gone on long enough to register its ideas, and then knowing when it’s time to go.
“Amber Eyes” is one of six tracks on Torregoza’s EP Agimat, which was created and produced in April under quarantine conditions. You can listen to the whole thing, and buy it (for $4) via Bandcamp. The guitarist is currently part of two different musical projects in New York—the experimental ambient duo Dovie Beams Love Child and the band Subtropico Militia, which self-identifies its genres as reggae/dub/metal/hardcore. MP3 via the artist.
The overall effect is a singular type of unsophisticated sophistication—it feels both homespun and skillfully assembled.
The oddly inviting instrumental “Home Shore Highlights” intermingles the organic and the electronic with idiosyncratic aplomb. Listen, for instance, to how the synthesizer takes the lead at some moments, a homely glockenspiel at others. The overall effect is a singular type of unsophisticated sophistication—it feels both homespun and skillfully assembled. On the one hand, the song is little more than a variety of recurring, related melodies on top of an unhurried tropical beat; on the other hand, things feel ongoingly off-kilter and endearing. As different sounds take turns in the spotlight, one consistent underlying element is the hands-on percussion, mixed with a bashy spaciousness that adds three-dimensionality to the aural landscape.
What might be the song’s signature moment, if not an actual hook, is that repeating place in the unfolding melody in which we get an even-tempoed march up the scale: a full, eight-note ascent that, in fact, occurs in pairs—when it happens once, it happens again a few seconds later (first at 0:43/0:51). Once this progression gets in your head, you tend to anticipate it in a variety of spots in which it doesn’t show itself. This makes its final appearance, at 3:04/3:12, seem particularly gratifying
“Home Shore Highlights” is the first single available from Rain Patch, the second Rewilding album, which is due out in April. Rewilding is masterminded by the Philadelphia-based musician Jake McFee, who wrote and recorded the bulk of the album in Glacier Bay, Alaska, where he decamped for a few summers starting in 2017.
You can pre-order the album (digital, vinyl, cassette) via Bandcamp.
Feighan constructs his tunes by mining old records for sounds to cut and paste together, and you can surely hear bygone decades in the instrumental tones—those saxophones all but scream 1940s to me, in the most delightful way.
And then there are sounds I’m so fond of that I love a song from its opening notes, and willingly follow it wherever and however it goes. If you want a more detailed idea of what Monster Rally is about and why I like this so much, you can read what I wrote when I first featured the project back in September 2013. All still holds true for me, despite the years that have passed and the dismal situation we find ourselves in since then. Though I suppose here in 2019 there’s an added air of escapism attendant to the tropical amalgams served up by Ted Feighan, the singular musical brainiac behind Monster Rally.
In any case, listen to this and just enjoy the heck out of it, from the funky tropical groove (those splat-y bass notes from what sounds like a tuba are priceless down there at the bottom of the mix) to both of the two lead melodies (the upward/downward swing of the saxophones; the smooth-as-silk answer from the trombone), to the clunky thump of percussion holding it all together. Feighan constructs his tunes by mining old records for sounds to cut and paste together, and you can surely hear bygone decades in the instrumental tones—those saxophones all but scream 1940s to me, in the most delightful way.
“Menagerie” is the lead single from the new Monster Rally album, Adventures on the Floating Island, coming in September via Gold Robot Records. Note that the project’s previously featured song, “Orchids,” also made its way onto an Eclectic Playlist Series mix (5.07, September 2018), for those keeping score at home.
The classic-rock familiarity of his sleek and fiery guitar tone is “Lady Rose”‘s fearless center and ongoing inspiration.
Dramatic, and dramatically old-school, “Lady Rose” is an electric-guitar-driven instrumental, with castanets. I love castanets. I also love little time-signature tricks such as what you’ll hear in the opening melody, the alternating 6/4 and 4/4 measures that give the guitar line an asymmetrical bit of juice. And if that particular trick soon disappears, as Maurizio Parisi pretty soon dives too far into his pyrotechnics to worry about changing time signatures, oh well. The castanets stick around, so you should too.
Parisi, using the performing name of Red Morris, is a guitarist from Brescia, in northern Italy. He claims the likes of Santana, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Cream as inspirations. What I think I’m enjoying most of all is the sonic space in which he enfolds us, a steadfast march that develops as a kind of theme and variations: first we hear the grounding melody, then Parisi goes increasingly to town with his fingers and hands. The classic-rock familiarity of his sleek and fiery guitar tone is “Lady Rose”‘s fearless center and ongoing inspiration. Electric guitars may be going the way of the dodo bird in popular music but that’s just about trends and fads, not truth; there’s no reason to be finished with the electric guitar any more than we should ever be finished with the piano or the violin.
“Lady Rose” is the title track of Red Morris’s debut album, released back in September. MP3 via Insomnia Radio.
Unlike almost any other electronic creation I have heard to date, “Orchids” sounds like something that might have been conceived in three dimensions and played in real time and real space.
An instrumental of pure invention and relentless groove, “Orchids” is an unusually cogent example of 21st-century song-as-assemblage. Monster Rally master mind Ted Fleighan mines sounds from old records, re-imagining them into sonic environments with their own logic, momentum, and—this is the strange part—organic vitality.
Listen here to the two main interacting motifs—a jazz-guitar-y lead riff, with its syncopated flair (heard first at 0:31 and repeated throughout), answered by a downward melody (0:34 et al.) described by the jittery strumming of some exotic stringed instrument or another (I’m afraid I’m not entirely schooled in exotic stringed instruments). Theirs is a simple but intriguing conversation, accompanied by the easygoing percussive sounds of a tropical lounge combo; add the recurring “conclusion” of sorts (0:47 et al.) from the jazz guitar, subtly undergirded by strings, and this is our whole song. A fan neither of mash-ups nor claustrophobic laptop rock, I find myself unaccountably charmed by the alternative acoustic reality created by Feighan’s unfathomable fabrications. Unlike almost any other electronic creation I have heard to date, “Orchids” sounds like something that might have been conceived in three dimensions and played in real time and real space, and while some might consider it a failure of imagination on my part to admire this condition, I consider it a failure of humanity to overlook it. We remain flesh and blood, despite the wires and wavelengths that connect us.
Feighan is from Ohio but is now based in Los Angeles. “Orchids” is the first available track from Return to Paradise, the third Monster Rally full-length release, due at the end of October on Gold Robot Records. You can download via the link above, as usual, or via SoundCloud.
Rich, warm acoustic guitar instrumental, in the spirit of John Fahey.
I’ve never been too excited by the inarguably impressive work done by the late, legendary guitarist John Fahey, for any number of not very good reasons, most prominent among them my aversion to twanginess. Some of the twanginess I hear in Fahey’s guitar-playing—which can seem brittle and unforgiving to my ears—is simply part and parcel of his so-called “American Primitive” style, but some of it has also to do with older recording limitations. This may explain why I feel more attached to the Fahey-inspired work of Leo Kottke—his recordings, especially beginning in the later ’80s, are suffused with a warmth (not to mention humor) that I haven’t discerned in Fahey.
Which brings us to Glenn Jones, whose “Bergen County Farewell” is as rich and warm as a finger-picked Fahey-esque song is ever likely to be. Brisk without feeling rushed, dynamic without any ostentation, “Bergen County Farewell” covers its bittersweet core with a jolly-ish skin—melodies skirt up through the bright and kindly higher strings but always fall downward towards the buttery lower strings. Jones’s impeccable preciseness is tempered by a lovely touch with what I think are called “rolls”—when the fingers are playing a chord, but in a slightly staggered fashion (simple examples at 0:22, 0:31, 0:34, et al; more complicated instances at 1:43, 1:54, and 2:37 among others). The song alternates two basic tunes, each of which offers up one musical twist (tune one: 0:14; tune two: 0:52), and each of which leads into the same resolution (first heard at 0:21). This “resolution” section feels much less like a chorus than a closing out of a musical thought, and is a lovely thing an instrumental can do that a song with lyrics maybe can’t.
“Bergen County Farewell” is a song from Jones’s new album, My Garden State, which was written under somewhat unusual circumstances. Jones’s aging mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and he and his older sister began taking turns caring for her for a few months at a time, in the house the family had moved into in Bergen County, New Jersey back in 1966. Jones wrote the songs that became My Garden State while taking his caretaker turn. He has said that he sees the album as “a corrective to Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey”—a musical vision of beauty and serenity which does not at all resemble the image many people have of the Garden State. The album is Jones’s fifth solo release, following seven studio albums released with the instrumental band Cul de Sac (one of which, 1997’s The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, was recorded with John Fahey himself).
My Garden State was released last month on Thrill Jockey Records. Thanks to
Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
Persistent and satisfying, without calling undue attention to itself.
So the theory is that a good rock’n’roll instrumental should present the perfect balance between repetition and novelty. Which is to say that I just made that up. But it sounds reasonable, right? Repetition in an instrumental gives ears otherwise accustomed to hearing words something to hang onto. Too much repetition, however, is stupefying. That’s where novelty comes in. And note that novelty does not have to mean crazy wacky outlandishness. The novelty on display throughout “Young Ends” is pretty darned subtle all in all—an interesting change in a rhythmic pattern here, an unexpected additional sound there. I think that’s what makes this song so compelling, in fact. It’s doing its thing, in repetition, and yet without its arms and standing on its head still manages to feel like a satisfying journey.
The misleading guitar line in the introduction—misleading in terms of fitting with the time signature—sets the stage for a song that wants to stick with one basic melodic motif but still slyly hold your attention. The next sneaky trick is how the main melody shifts in space between its first and second iterations. This is going to be clunky to describe, but if you listen closely to the disciplined bass and drum, you’ll see that the melody aligns one way against that rhythmic accompaniment the first time you hear it (0:21) and a different way the second time through (0:42). I wouldn’t call this profound but it’s pretty compelling; it’s something you can sense without quite being able to put your finger on it. Sounds are used in similarly subtle ways, whether it’s the slightly higher than usual register of the bass (you can hear it in particular when it emerges in a clearing at around 0:40), the offhanded infiltration of the xylophone-like sound at 1:04, or the entirely unexpected arrival of what sounds like a harmonica at 1:54, which works itself more thoroughly into the soundscape a little later. Somewhere along the way, the tenacious bass finds a more upward-oriented line to play and the entire song feels opened. By the time the voices arrive (3:24)—as ever, subtly—something like redemption seems to be at hand.
Elias Krantz is a multi-instrumentalist from Sweden. “Young Ends” is the sixth of nine tracks on his second album, Night Ice, which was released on the Stockholm-based label Country & Eastern last year. A vinyl album has been more recently released. MP3 via the artist.
Combining the subtle flavors of electronic texture with the deep allure of simple melody. An instrumental, but no apparent relation to the old Fleetwood Mac instrumental with the same name.
“Albatross” – North Atlantic Drift
The musical fine line between dull and hypnotic is never as evident as when venturing into the uncharted territory of the rock’n’roll instrumental. With no words to guide us, an instrumental often makes no effort to engage the conscious mind at all; there are, indeed, any number of thriving sub-genres in which obvious melodic movement takes a big backseat to texture and ambiance. Such sub-genres, alas, do not typically register with me. My conscious mind is a demanding beast. I happily go about my life pretending that ambient music doesn’t really exist.
Every now and then, however, an odd hybrid slides into my field of awareness. Each of the two gentlemen in Toronto-based North Atlantic Drift has a background in electronic, “post-rock” music, and they surely love their processors and loops and all those digitally manipulative tools of the trade. They are not out here to thrill you with their intricate melodies. They are here to captivate you with mood and texture. And yet they bring a secret weapon: archetypal melody. “Albatross” is grounded in one three-note, minor-key descent, played on a reverbed guitar. Note how offhanded the melody’s entrance is, at 0:12, how it emerges shyly from the gently pulsing mist. Note too how slippery the middle note is, and will remain—we hear it only in slurred combination with the previous note. The song develops patiently from the ground of this slightly blurred three-note motif, itself just an inversion of the two-note bass line, with the middle note filled in. The motif is repeated four times, without hurry, before the a higher, slightly varied descent is heard, leading to one last repeat of the original melody. The song involves four repetitions of this “verse,” with three short interstitial sections in between. Subtle layers are added via percussion, guitar, and synthesizer. The whole thing passes like a dream, like a forgotten thought, like a stately idea; I find it hypnotic, never dull, and pin its success on the musicians’ willingness to combine the subtle flavors of electronic texture with the deep allure of simple melody. Your mileage may vary.
“Albatross” is from the debut North Atlantic Drift album, Canvas, which was released digitally in March, then with a limited run of CDs in June. It bears no obvious relation to the classic Fleetwood Mac instrumental of the same name, but perhaps there is a subtle connection nonetheless.
Cheery and off-kilter, a semi-angelic and vaguely extraterrestrial instrumental.
Why does this song attract me so? There seems a magnetic pull here. And there was me just a few weeks ago talking about how no one knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. This one is an entirely different animal than the Dirty Three song, arriving all cheery and off-kilter, semi-angelic and extraterrestrial (or at least Star Trekky), churning through the ether with its chimey, upturning melody. And yes, it’s not strictly speaking an instrumental in that there are vocals here, but they are wordless and choir-like. And so, to me, an instrumental. (Typically, the band does employ vocals with lyrics, via singer/multi-instrumentalist Tamar Kamin.)
The time signature—the ear-grabbing yet awkward 5/4—is central to its appeal. When the rare someone comes along who can harness 5/4’s freakishness into a flowing piece of music, we pay attention. And “Solar Crosses” does it without relying on any kind of swing or in-between beats that 5/4 and 7/4 songs often employ to sound agreeable. What we get instead is a straightforward five count and an open-ended chord progression that gives the melody an Escher-like sense of climbing ever upward. There is no time to catch one’s breath, the music just keeps piling on itself, with bonus flourishes and fluctuations along the way. I like the four-second, two-chord guitar burst at 1:37 and the factory-like drumbeat that takes over at 1:50, to name two.
The Van Allen Belt is a four-person experimental ensemble from Pittsburgh featuring music written and produced by Benjamin K. Ferris. Ferris began writing avant-garde material in the late ’90s and the band coalesced through the ’00s into its current lineup. Everything about the outfit’s background and music is too complicated to sum up succinctly; even their discography (two full-lengths and one EP to date) is muddled by the fact that the EP and their most recent album were released on the same day in January 2010. Their titles are generally too long to mention. “Solar Crosses” has a similarly involved back story, being a song featured on one of four seasonal compilations released in 2008 on the Vancouver label Peppermill Records. Bands participating had seven days to record a song, the title of which had to be taken from a headline in the news that week. (There’s more to it than that but I’m running out of space.) How it came to my attention here in 2012 is yet more complication, plus a dollop of serendipity. Let’s just be happy it did. Thanks to the band for the MP3.
Not necessarily an easy ride, but there’s something endearing about this chunky, intermittently unsteady instrumental. The Australian trio Dirty Three return after seven years.
Let’s be honest: no one really knows what to do with rock’n’roll instrumentals. Yes, I realize that in rock’n’roll’s first decade, instrumentals were, well, instrumental in establishing the popularity of the nascent genre. There’s “Sleep Walk,” “Apache,” “Walk Don’t Run,” yada yada yada. But those tended to be short and melodic, typically featuring an atmospheric and memorable lead guitar line. And but for a last gasp by organ-oriented Booker T. and the MGs in the latter half of the ’60s, instrumentals became novelties at best, before, a half decade later, in the hands of the prog-rock colossi, mutating into patience-testing exercises in baroque noodling.
“Rising Below” is neither novelty nor incisive burst of melody nor bombast. It’s a chunky, initially unsteady piece that sneaks in through the side door: guitar and violin motifs enunciate themselves as afterthoughts while drummer Jim White slowly ponders the variations open to him for pounding out the first three beats of each four-beated measure. Listen to what happens after the minute and a half mark—it’s as if he’s now taking the pause in which he leaves out the fourth beat to plan his next rendering; you can almost hear the new idea arrive at the end of each successive measure. And when he gets a really-new versus a subtly-new idea, the instruments follow his lead and change their own courses. The most prominent change happens as the song churns past the three-minute mark. First, White incorporates a couple of snappy rolls into his playing and then, yikes, all hell breaks loose at the drum kit (3:13), prompting the violin and guitar to follow with their own disciplined eruptions of dissonance and noise (especially the violin). Then, around 4:10, the drumming reverts to the simple pounding pattern he had been using at the beginning, the one-two-threefour rhythm that gives us four hits but leaves out the actual fourth beat. It’s like he’s saying, “Okay, calm down now.” And they do. Only it’s a fake-out, since White breaks rank at 4:45 and we get a final 45 seconds of ordered craziness before there is, apparently, nothing left to say. This is not necessarily an easy ride but there’s something endearing about it.
Dirty Three have been doing their inscrutable thing since 1992. “Rising Below” is a song from Toward The Low Sun, the Melborne trio’s ninth album, which was released this week on Drag City Records. It’s been seven years since the last Dirty Three album, and sure enough, they were here then too.
photo credit: Annabel Mehran