Monday, December 31, 2007

Looping guitars

I've always felt a strong connection between the electric guitar and loops. Starting with the pioneering work of Fripp and Eno's 1973 album No Pussyfooting, many different artists have used guitars and loops to support many different creative styles. In the ambient vein, guitar artists like Andrew Chalk, Jeff Pearce, or the group Stars of the Lid have manipulated the guitar with nearly infinite sustains and created slow blissful drones that completely mask their origins in six strings. By contrast, the Swiss group Pedaltone puts the physical aspects of playing the guitar right out front, capitalizing on the vocabulary of the electric guitar to create an album that is both rhythmic and unruffled. The two-person group, Michael Bearpark and Bernhard Wagner, play guitars, effects and loops on their 2005 self-titled album, composed of two long multi-part suites, Overwritten and Der Doppelgänger.

Overwritten opens with a short, gentle melodic fragment that almost instantly is transformed with various rhythmic distortions. Sustaining tones appear in layers through the drifting ambience, occasionally with an attack, but mostly soft entrances in a cloud of notes. It builds using various rhythms, vamps, using melodic and harmonic fragments to tell its story, eventually fading out with relatively vigorous chords.

Der Doppelganger's opening gesture is a riff that lasts almost ten seconds, alternating between two suggestive harmonies that will color the rest of the piece. Ethereal melodies intertwine with the languorous rhythms as they slowly recede into the background, leaving only the harmonic underpinnings. One of the performers solos without any looping or echo processing underneath all the layers a couple of times during the suite. The overall tone becomes a bit more abrasive and buzzing as the suite progresses, but the harmony is almost always present while the rhythmic underpinning mutates into a pulse with soft accents, probably from tapping on the guitar body.

One of the most appealing aspects of this album is its tactile nature, that you can imagine two people playing it. It has a live, improvised quality that doesn't sound like most computer-based work, where the instruments are often no longer recognizable, and players seem to be mysteriously absent. Although there are occasional solos, most of the time the performers build slowly evolving textures with understated rhythms and enough of a suggestion of a primary loop to hang the suite together. The recording keeps all of the different layers clear and impeccably captures the performers' interaction, both live and through subsequent studio manipulations. Pedaltone is an excellent album of guitar-based ambient music, balancing drifting with rhythms and distortion with clarity.

Pedaltone is available directly from its label, Burning Shed.

1 comment:

jakehildreth said...

Your description of this album makes me wish I wasn't in a self-imposed "budgeting period." :)