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Friday, October 10, 2014

Brandon Seabrook – Sylphid Vitalizers (New Atlantis, 2014) ****

By Julian Eidenberger

As far as avant-jazz is concerned, guitarist Brandon Seabrook’s main claim to fame is probably his involvement in Black Host, a band that has received due praise on these pages. However, his contributions in Black Host are not really representative of his approach as bandleader or solo artist; the constraints imposed by that band’s highly structured group improvisations bring to the fore an unusually subdued side of his playing. In order to give an inkling of what to expect on this solo record of his, it is perhaps better to point to his trio Seabrook Power Plant. Under this moniker, he blends the punk-based eclecticism of The Minutemen with New Music, some jazz and even the aggressive (hairspray-fuelled?) virtuosity of 80’s guitar “shredders” – a blend that’s weird even by the standards of NYC’s avant-rock scene.

Another characteristic trait of SBPP is Seabrook’s use of a tenor banjo, and indeed, that’s the first thing you’ll hear when playing Sylphid Vitalizers. Ballad of Newfangled Vicissitudes starts with a blizzard of notes that doesn’t sound particularly rustic, recalling the nearly impenetrable flurries of German guitarist Olaf Rupp instead. But just a couple of minutes in, the differences start to show: Unlike Rupp, Seabrook is not completely averse to conventional melody, and he likes to counter-balance density by introducing less crowded sections. In Ballad, the otherworldly drones of what sounds like a violin (but is in all likelihood Seabrook playing bowed guitar, Jimmy Page-style) interrupt the stream of notes, only to give way to the stomp of a faux-archaic dance towards the end.
Mucoidal Woolgathering follows a similar trajectory, as Seabrook once again tempers an insect-like swarm of notes with spacious droning, proving his mastery of multi-tracking in the process.

Apart from these banjo-based tracks, there are two cuts in which Seabrook relies exclusively on electric guitar. Selfodomized Poltergeists may have a few things in common with the much-maligned “shredding” alluded to above, but on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that instrumental dexterity is equalled by mental rigor here. It’s a track that proceeds in fits and starts, alternating between discordant high-velocity runs and stuttering electronic noises, like an unreliable motor that won’t ignite on one day but that’ll howl like a race-car engine on another. Cabeza Spasms & Aural Championships’ double title is mirrored in its structure, as dissonant fret-board athletics à la Mick Barr soon give way to an extended exercise in minimalism, redolent of Glenn Branca, and perhaps even Charlemagne Palestine. For the fifth and final track, Lurid Clusters, Seabrook returns to the banjo, reinforcing the minimalist connection without hiding the instrument’s rustic connotations, which makes for intriguing cognitive dissonance.

Dense, yet remarkably accessible, these guitar compositions will come back to haunt you like a curiously pleasurable idée fixe.