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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Endless Field - Alive in the Wilderness (Biophilia Records, 2020) ****

Not protected like a National Park, National Monuments in the US are nevertheless meant to protect special areas from development and can be created by proclamation by the President. In 1996, President Clinton created Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an expanse of high desert that contains absolutely stunning landscapes and geological features in the southern desert of Utah. One of the earliest acts of the Trump administration was to start dismantling these national monuments, Grand Staircase-Escalante direct in his mendacious glare. So why mention this in a music review? Because the music created by the guitar and bass duo Endless Field (Jesse Lewis, guitar and Ike Sturm, bass) was recorded on location in the mountains and chaparral of southern Utah, music inspired by the location, notes hung in the dry desert air. Aside from the aesthetic choice, there is a political dimension as well, as all proceeds from the record will be donate to the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is fighting to preserve the land.

Putting the politics aside for just a moment, the music of Endless Field contains big, sweeping vistas. Just two musicians, but the sonic territory they cover is impressive. Recorded in the field, the duo pushed the limits to bring this luminous album to life, lugging a solar-powered recording rig as well as National Geographic photographers and videographers to document - providing  videos for each track (I haven't seen the videos, but I'm including a picture here to help build your impression). Throughout the tracks, Lewis' acoustic guitar rings loud with a mix of hearty strumming and blistering finger picked arpeggios, while Sturm's bass playing is expansive, providing a firm grounding and perpetual motion. The album is about one half freely improvised and the other composed pieces. 

(Photo Credit - Christopher Georgia)

The opening track, 'Life on Earth', is a burly, but sensitive, tune. The bass line is deep and thrumming as well as lithe and melodic, while the guitar work throbs with rhythmic pulse - like a lumberjack sitting on the stump of a majestic tree he just felled, tears running down to his axe. On some tracks, nature is the third musician. A running waterfall, providing a light wash of ambiance, works it way into the follow up 'Wind', a short improvised interlude. The textural and contrasting track is a solo bass passage accompanied by some light percussion, which then segues into 'The Well', which contains the same background ambiance, as well as the lush tones of Lewis' guitar. I feel some connection to guitarist Steve Tibbett's acoustic work here in the organic drones, long melodic sighs, and natural flow of sound. Tracks like brief syncopated improvisation of "Fire" and the intricately composed "Zim" offer yet a different approach. Especially on the latter, which is a conscientious nod to Zimbabwean musical influences; however, Endless Field's roots are in folk, less so in world music.

Of note, the record is coming out on Biophilia Records, which release physical/digital releases. The physical products contain no actual CD, but rather an intricate 20 panel origami-like piece containing extensive artwork and a download code. These cases are all made from sustainable materials and inks. The idea is to provide the tactile object that downloads alone lack - something that I totally understand.

As you astute readers may have picked up, I have very personal feelings about southern Utah. Visits with my brother over the years, hikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, mountain biking the famous Slick Rock Trail (which was also recently threatened by attempts from the current administration to open the area to mining - can you read my swelling anger?!), and surreal walks through Goblin Valley, left their mark, and I'll use any excuse to show my support for preserving this area of the world. 

Give a listen to the recording, it's at times gentle, maybe even too melodic for some of the more hardened listeners out there, but it is genuine, heartfelt music. Buy a copy and know that you did a little bit to help protect something unique. 


Keith said...

Really dig the motivation behind this project that you tie it in to your experiences in Utah (no wonder you asked me what parks we were visiting earlier). Will have to try this out. I know of a few such recordings, but I think I can always do with more recordings from mountains, canyons, caverns, groves, etc. Playing with the wind, creaking trees, or the cathedral-reverb of caves is supermajestic.