Thursday, February 18, 2010

ALAN LICHT "YMCA" (Family Vineyard)

I've worshiped at Alan Licht's altar ever since Matt St. Germain sold me a cassette of one of his live shows out of the back of a van almost 10 years ago. It was a duo performance with saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi and it was (and still is) one of the most hellacious slabs of buzzsaw guitar noise horror that i'd ever heard. Licht's guitar was absolutely vomiting distortion, belching it up in a thick endless stream, an ocean of Turbo Rat puke that stretched into forever. That cassette changed my life and i sought out everything i could from Licht, eventually stumbling on the equally life-shattering "Plays Well" which still has the distinction of being one of my favorite records EVER. Alan Licht's recordings changed the way i thought about guitar and and music in totality and helped me approach my own compositions in a freer, more open way. It was one of the most important discoveries of my musical trajectory, equal to my experiences with both Burzum and Birchville. So yeah, i love Alan Licht. The guy's a genius.
"YMCA" is his first solo outing in several years, since dropping the epic 2CD sprawl of "A New York Minute" and his first in a long time to be totally derived from guitar. "A New York Minute" was a monster of sound exploration, a massive dissertation on the hypnotic power of minimalist repetition combined with the fucked-upedness of psychotic cut and paste techniques, using live guitars and the usual assemblage of found sounds and pilfered vinyl grooves to devastating brain-clouding effect. The last few years have been spent moving away from that space and retreating into more minimal provocations in both solo and group work, and not all of the groupings have been successful. While his performances with Loren Connors have never strayed far from their slow-burning warmth other pairings have been grating and pointlessly challenging, as though Licht needed to remind everyone that he's an AVANT-GARDE guitarist.
So it comes as a welcome surprise that he chooses to return to solo guitar. This is where Licht has always shined for me, whether it's the overdriven Bardo Pond level onslaught of "Rabbi Sky" or the simple, head-nodding deluge of feedback and disco beats on "The Old Victrola." He's pretty much without peer as a practitioner of guitar maximalism. But every true artist must grow and every approach must change, right? Well, yes and no...this album shows Licht working both sides of his musical personality and while the results are at times both lovely and harrowing the overall result is something slightly less impressive than the career-defining works that came before. "YMCA" is one continuous 45 minute piece split into two distinct movements by the limitations of the vinyl format (and again, i have to ask, what the fuck? what purpose does interrupting the flow really have other than the boutique collector's appeal of wax?) and occupies two arenas well-quiet and loud. Side A is the former, as Licht starts slowly, building crystalline loops of neon-bright guitar spotlights out of feedback and looped drones. It's icy and austere and quite beautiful, like standing in the middle of the Antarctic continent on a windless, moonless night. The drones build a bit in thickness and some slowly picked arpeggios are introduced, giving the illusion of a chord progression. Before you know it, 20 minutes have gone by. Flipping over to Side B finds the piece picking up where it left, with the arpeggios eventually giving way to the trademark Licht roar of distortion. What i found most interesting here was the actual tone of the guitar-whereas earlier albums were drenched in uncontrolled throbbing fuzz the tones here seem borne much more of traditional metal, super compressed and hyper-processed, like the ridiculous tightness of Megadeth's "Countdown to Extinction" tone crafted into rainbow colored building blocks that Licht tosses against each other until they spit and grate and circuit each other out. Behold the awesome power of electricity indeed. Afterwards things wind down and Licht exits the stage to a smattering of applause.
I know from all the adjectives that i'm tossing out it seems like i think this is some sort of masterpiece. By any other guitarist, it would be remarkable, and it's a pretty awesome display of mastery over the instrument and its residuals. It's just that Licht is so good at this stuff, he can do performances like this in his sleep, and i just don't see anything being pushed here the way it is on previous works. I hope this is a reinvigoration for Licht, a renewed interest in making the guitar roar again. It's a decent start.

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