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"The only truth is music." ~ Jack Kerouac

Album Reviews

Tongue Depressor and Gateway Wander Into the Desert

Album: flashes on the past partition
Artists: Tongue Depressor / Gateway
Rating: 8.5/10

I’ve talked at great length here on MIMC about my fascination with Richmond, VA free jazz ensemble crazy doberman. In the course of my interview with bandleaders Tim Gick and Drew Davis, however, I learned just how deep a well of experimental musicians resides in Virginia’s capital city. Over the past year since then, I’ve become more acquainted with the shockingly stacked roster of Davis’s Richmond-based imprint Working Man Lay Down. Each new release cements the label as one of the finest in the modern American underground, one committed to sharing an unusually specific (and potent) Midwestern experimental ethos.

WMLD’s catalog of physical releases is eclectic, impressionistic and exploratory. Offerings from smaller groupings of members of crazy doberman are scattered among a wealth of other unique characters, sounds and ideas in their orbit. Whether you’re an experimental music aficionado or barely dabble in the genre, it’s immediately, immutably clear that the work of WMLD occupies a world, narrative and sonic universe all its own. Although sounds and styles can vary widely from release to release, its artists are united by a common musical language and cadence, one that evokes a very Midwestern sort of industrial decay and noise-laden landscape.

It’s fitting, then, that the artwork of flashes on the past partition – a split LP between duos Tongue Depressor (Zach Rowden & Henry Birdsey) and Gateway (Jason Filer & Tim Gick) – depicts the etchings of contour lines. The record reads as a roadmap, or at least a lay of the land into the strange open plains and free-sound void dissonance of the finest that WMLD has to offer. Both pieces contain shades of crazy doberman’s work in the most literal possible way – three of the four players on this record are band members – but these meditative, daunting walls of sound enclose uncanny territories all their own.

Tongue Depressor and Gateway

Side A holds never saw’m, Tongue Depressor’s extended improvisational sojourn into the wasteland. Low, mournful tones ebb and flow, folding and shifting like dunes of sand drifting on desert winds. Birdsey and Rowden slowly but surely construct a cryptic, layered tapestry of stringed instruments, but there’s little to be found in the way of symphonic flourishes or neo-classical compositional clichés. Instead, the duo builds (or, perhaps, taps into) a spectral, droning mirage of vibration that bends and folds into the distance.

This mostly ambient, string-driven approach calls to mind a few more accessible points of reference; the doom-metal fan in me immediately thinks of Earth’s stately string arrangements, for instance. Also, perhaps it’s a bit no-shit, but I can’t help but think that this music (or really any WMLD work) would lend itself fantastically to cinema. It has the instrumentation and weather-beaten quality of a Western, and the harrowing, exploratory nature of the darkest of art-house films. But the piece defies simple explanations as it spirals inward upon itself. There is no sweeping grandeur, no easy answer; only further and further into the earth.

Perhaps I’d be checking my watch if the music were in less capable hands, but Tongue Depressor never once lulls or flags. Across an entire side of vinyl, they maintain and even deepen the spectral pull and mystique of these sounds. This may not be “ambient” music per se, but I can easily get lost in my own thoughts while adrift upon the ebb and flow of strings. I can also intently focus, closely following the slow, steady journey of the piece further and further into the distance until it’s a dot on the horizon.

Gateway’s contribution on the flip side, why should not my spirit be troubled?, charts a markedly different course; it’s the perfect counterpoint to the more subdued side A. We begin with a warped tape of a garbled voice saying the titular phrase and a choir sample looping into a spiral before being overwhelmed by waves of synthetic electronics. Jason Filer constructs a digital soundscape while Tim Gick does his usual universe-bending horn-and-reed work. The ghostly sounds and jazz textures will be familiar to seasoned vets of the crazy doberman/WMLD oeuvre, but the emphasis on electronic manipulation and sampling above all else puts Gateway into a universe of its own.

About a third of the way into the piece, the groove suddenly peels back like a layer of old wallpaper, revealing a universe of garbled speech and choir samples behind it. The methodical, subtle movement is still there, but it’s awash beneath crashing waves of overlapping recorded voices. A rising torrent of digital noise suddenly sweeps the whole thing away like a tornado, as Filer and Gick once again tear down and rebuild the piece in the last third. This final movement is more electronically driven, but Gick’s high reeds flit in and out of earshot like poltergeists throwing around boxes in your attic.

I’m continuously impressed by the abilities of both duos to take their specialized palettes of sounds and instruments – strings for Tongue Depressor, electronics and reeds for Gateway – and arrive at a similar place by markedly different means. The way they mark these barren vistas and landscapes shows an incredible amount of restraint, and a vision that goes beyond the human eye. flashes on the past partition is another fantastic multitude-containing record from Working Man Lay Down, one that embodies the collective’s creative ethos while simultaneously pushing it in new directions. The result is a wilderness-infused, meditative journey into the inner ear. Within these strange and harrowing mirages of overgrowth and rust lie the secrets to the universe. Listen closely and carefully, and with an open mind, and they will be made known to you.

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