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Saturday, October 17, 2015

White Out with Nels Cline - Accidental Sky (Northern Spy, 2015) ****½

"Free sound for the daring few!" - White Out

For the last 20 years NYC's White Out have been operating in the margins between more readily identifiable areas of 'Free Music'. Documented on a modest number of very fine LPs, Lin Culbertson (analogue synths, autoharp, flute, mystery electronics and otherworldly vocals) and Tom Surgal (drums, devices, celestial bells etc) have created a unique sonic space both open to the possibilities of 'Sound' and the input of their collaborators, and yet established and identifiable as their own. 

Of their 6 prior recordings, only 2011's 'Asphalt and Delay' finds them operating as a duo. Elsewhere longstanding associations with the likes of Jim O'Rourke, Thurston Moore and C. Spencer Yeh have yielded releases ranging from full burners to nuanced thinkers, always rich in timbral detail and high on quality. Accidental Sky sees White Out alongside Nels Cline, a collaboration stretching back over a decade which has only now been committed to disc, and finds the trio navigating considered gradations. Over the course of around 40 mins, the troika move through seven relatively brief tracks (the longest clocks in at 6:45) and countless ideas. Set out in their mission statement, the emphasis here is very much on the 'Free' and on the 'Sound', spontaneously constructed sonic statements which demand to be understood on their own terms. 

The manner in which Culbertson's deploys the array of instruments at her fingertips feels unique and, on occasion, almost alien. Its easy to forget that she is often playing keyboard instruments given the range of untempered sonorities she coaxes and moulds. Cline, a versatile guitar player active in a wide range of differing groups, almost entirely eschews melodic material in favour of the expanded palette of sounds and effects he explores less thoroughly in other contexts. Surgal (the man behind the recently funded 'Fire Music' documentary film), has a dexterity and lightness of touch which means that even at its most tightly packed, the percussion feels expressive and responsive. 

Other than a loose tonal centre which grounds a couple of tracks, there is very little in the way of recognisable concordance here. In fact it is only on the record's final track where Cline chimes out a couple of ringing chords, eliciting kosmische twinklings from Culbertson's keys, where the group can be judged by any criteria other than their own.

Two decades and seven offerings in White Out consistently manage to achieve the seemingly antithetical, to arrive at a place of genuine freedom and possibility by sheer belief and doggedness of approach. In a world where many will release countless recordings every year, the infrequency of White Out missives means they are something to be eagerly anticipated and cherished on arrival. Accidental Sky is both these things and more. 

Listen here