Label: Northern Spy Records, 2019
Personnel – Nate Wooley: trumpet; Mary Halvorson: guitar; Susan Alcorn: pedal steel; Ryan Sawyer: drums.
American trumpeter-improviser Nate Wooley writes cleverly configured music for a new experimental ensemble featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer, who doubles on vocals. All three compositions on Columbia Icefield (the album was titled for the largest area of interconnected glaciers in the Rocky Mountains) run between 10 and 20 minutes. The quirky quartet builds structural blocks according to Wooley’s arrangements, in a demonstration of versatility and imagination. The bandleader pictures the inaccessible ice field as a metaphor of man’s relationship to nature, many times suggesting sonic mystery.
“Lionel Trilling” starts off with concurrent guitar ostinatos filled with acerbic atonal intervals and subtle chromatic shifts, a relentless cadence sustained by a sort of obsessive thrust. As the tune progresses, surprising rhythms erupt, bringing Sawyer’s unpredictable drumming to the forefront. You must wait around for controlled moments of chaos as well as intervals of reflective stillness. Both invite us to picture vast hyperborean landscapes in our minds. Rasping, vibrating slides on the guitar and vocal effects help to magnify the milieu, which, near the final, shapes into a waltzing, electronic-like passage with rhythmic patterns atop.
Refraining the dynamics, the group embraces a certain languidness for most of the duration of “Seven in the Wood”. Alcorn and Halvorson combine their quirky sonorities, weaving a serene tapestry over which Wooley pronounces crisp lines with descriptive properties. Sawyer creates uncertainty in his interventions, and the reverent care for nature seems to emerge from a solemn folk source. This hushed instrumentation lingers until Halvorson turns on distortion and Sawyer takes his drums to thunderbolt heights for a torsional indie-rock flutter.
The title “With Condolences” doesn’t mislead, considering that the music resembles a requiem. However, on occasion, the dismalness is cut out by the tribulation that results from layered instrumental entanglements. Sawyer’s narration is done in conformity with the tenebrous understructure.
The music orchestrated by Wooley might not move a mountain, but has the power to shake it.
02 - Seven in the Wood ► 03 - With Condolences