Steven R. Smith: Crown of Marches, Oren Ambarchi: Triste

Steven R. Smith
Crown of Marches
Catsup Plate

Oren Ambarchi
Southern Lord


Somewhere out in L.A., Steven R. Smith is no doubt wandering beyond the city limits amid the brambles, guitar in hand, about to record a new album. Smith covers a lot of ground as a key member of California's Jeweled Antler Collective and its numerous offshoots, his work drawing on the extended guitar meditations of Robert Fripp and Keiji Haino as well as Eastern European (read "Gypsy") folk modalities. Ofttimes, he records outdoors in forest clearings and fields, imbuing his sound with natural ambience. For Crown of Marches, his eleventh solo release and first for renowned handmade label Catsup Plate, Smith has wandered even further out.

Crown's opening peal of guitar feedback resounds like a shepherd's horn in the open air. Like early Flying Saucer Attack, Smith conjures an acerbic yet hazy tone that flares up and settles uneasily, neither developing nor unfurling further; it just exists. Throughout the 40-minute piece, Smith is content to stay seated in this clearing (note the black-on-black cover of mountaintops). Ever so subtly, he clouds the glowing embers of guitar with rarefied instrumentation such as Noah bells, hurdy-gurdy, xaphoon, and bowed psaltery, all allowed to just drift past.

The approach resembles that of Oren Ambarchi's last record, 2004's Grapes from the Estate, wherein his electric guitar's cycling harmonic was interchanged with Hammond organ, Tibetan chimes, and ringing piano chords. The Australian composer-guitarist-drummer has collaborated with heavies like Britain's Keith Rowe, Austria's Powerbook noise set, and American minimalist Phill Niblock (not to mention a spazz-core past with John Zorn and Japanoize folks). On Triste, Ambarchi's guitar seeks solitude and open spaces, far out on the ocean.

A complete live performance recorded in Holland and first released on vinyl in 2003, Triste's overtones bead up and drip off the strings like globules of some fine oil, slowly amassing sparse notes into something more portentous. Some 30 minutes in, the original guitar notes are swallowed up by blue whale-sized bass frequencies, and Ambarchi's wavering melodies get pressurized until all sounds fissure and begin to shriek. It's this crushing gravity that most resembles the type of sludge-metal that the Southern Lord label usually dabbles in. Maybe that's why Ambarchi has been inducted into the slooooow druid-drone of Britain's SUNN O))) for their next album. Such viscous noise reverberates anywhere in the world.

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