This is an extraordinary piece of work: a new suite of tracks from an artist previously new to me, which had me pressing my headphones to my ears on repeat plays, hungry for every morsel of sonic detail, and enveloping me in a shifting atmosphere of both delight and dread. Absolute required listening.
Daniel Bachman is associated with the ‘American Primitive guitar’ genre. (I’m somewhat addicted to this music, and hope to write more widely about it in the near future. For now, I will have to over-simplify and generalise wildly…) I believe the name of the style (coined by pioneer John Fahey) is a little misleading. Its origins are in America, but practitioners hail from all regions – and the ‘Primitive’ tag seems more to do with its unadorned, minimalist approach, than any implication at all that the music is somehow easy or basic.
(Below, see Bachman play ‘Blenheim’ – a recognisably American Primitive solo performance.)
However, taken together those words also have additional power – much ‘American Primitive’ music evokes a mystical weird world that entwines surreal legend with the country’s complex past. Emerging in the sixties, you could see it as kindred with nascent links between folk-horror and folk-rock in the UK, and a touchstone for the eerie alternative Americana of the 90s and beyond. The name of Fahey’s debut recording – ‘The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death’ – puts you instantly into the right headspace.
Broadly speaking, an ‘American Primitive’ musician will have at least one or two albums of instrumental, solo acoustic guitar to their name. Again – giving the lie to the ‘primitive’ tag – these records are often inventive, exhilarating and virtuosic, exploiting various tunings to allow for multiple simultaneous melodies, rhythm and lead, live to tape. However, this approach is potentially so limiting that many artists use it as a springboard for further exploration. Robbie Basho and Jack Rose – both sadly longer with us – saw and pursued the hypnotic/ritualistic link with Far East and Indian styles. Veteran songwriter Michael Chapman has built up an unpredictable ‘dual’ back catalogue of solo instrumental work with more traditional band sessions. Ben Chasny (of Six Organs of Admittance) invented an entire system of composition (‘Hexadic’). The magnificent Gwenifer Raymond (on her latest disc ‘Strange Lights over Garth Mountain’) has deliberately blended a blues style with inspiration from her Welsh folk roots to create a full-on, even at times furious sound.
However, Bachman is travelling even further out, bridging the gap between his earthy, chiming guitar and something resembling sonic art or music concrete. On the face of it, it’s hard to think of two greater extremes: ‘unplugged’, flowing musicianship at one end, electronic assembly of a sound collage at the other. But there is genius at work here, and the joins don’t show. You’ll be amazed (especially through a good pair of headphones) by how completely integrated the entire set feels, as if the situations it evokes were playing out in real time. Time we possibly don’t have.
Through his titles and sleeve notes, Bachman is not shy about ‘Axacan’ functioning as a concept album. The references to his native Virginia are loaded with meaning. ‘Axacan’ itself refers to a lost colony in the region, its brief history drenched in blood. It encapsulates the more widescreen view of the overall suite, of how unworthy and unsuitable we are as custodians of our own home (region or planet).
Some of the track names refer to ideas that walk the tightrope between speculative thought / philosophy and scientific fact: ‘Transmutation’, our potential need to evolve to survive; ‘Deep Adaptation’, the movement warning that civilisation should be ready for a complete environmental collapse rather than a gradual deterioration. The centrepiece of the album, ‘Blue Ocean 0’, looks ahead to a posited future event where no ice cover – and as a result, no protection from the Sun’s warmth – remains in Arctic waters. This tension between the possible and actual mirrors perfectly the balance Bachman maintains between the emotional (coping with the potential nightmare, mourning the devastation) and scientific (facing the facts, taking proactive steps) and the authentic, acoustic ‘real instrument’ soul with the systematic, electronic, ‘ghost in the machine’ found sounds.
But the real achievement of the record is to blend all of these complimentary / conflicting ideas into music that makes you think and feel everything you need without lyrics. (It’s as much a tone poem as concept album.) Over the hour and a quarter running time, the situation builds before your ears and – with the apparent magic of great art – the doom-laden themes made bearable by the listener’s exhilaration at how skilfully the sound is realised.
(Below: ‘Coronach’, from ‘Axacan’)
‘Blues in the Anthropocene’ would in itself be an compelling guitar piece, but we only hear it relayed through a kind of transistor, with mounting creaks and oppressive rain building around it before cutting it off. ‘Year of the Rat’ starts in more conventional mode, with Bachman picking increasingly urgent circular figures, before gradually subsiding against an ambient backdrop (breeze, crickets), which move to the foreground in ‘Ferry Farm’ as the collage of oppressive noises build in frequency and volume. Something is closing in, and we hear perhaps the only human in the vicinity make their escape in a vehicle. These tracks are followed by the monumental 17 minutes of ‘Blue Ocean 0’, which begins as pure collage, ocean waves skewered by an electric buzz, then overlaid by harmonium, as if a near-catatonic Penguin Café Orchestra were sinking to the sea bed. Somehow, this is still folk music, as a fiddle adds stately harmony to the ceaseless drone of the harmonium. Bass notes are manipulated to create almost an illusion of a riff, intensifying in a way Sunn O))) fans could definitely get on board with.
‘Blue Ocean 0’ perhaps takes the concept past its tipping point, with much of the album’s second half mirroring its first through the lens of disaster. ‘WBRP 47.5’ picks up on the earlier transmission atmosphere of ‘Blues…’, but with tantalising snatches of survivors’ words. ‘Coronach’ joins ‘Year of the Rat’ as one of the more recognisably ‘American Primitive’ tunes: the Gaelic name means funeral song or dirge, and as such begins with an elegiac gentleness before launching into a bravura fast passage that conjures up the dignified celebration of a wake. ‘Transmutation’, which closes the album, seems to imagine that our necessary change is taking place, with the intense machine-like hum gradually ceding the audio space to a slow, exploratory guitar tune that – unlike ‘Blues…’ – is crystal clear, no longer distorted through a broken radio. Organic noises, a new type of nature, punctuate the melody.
Clearly, ‘Axacan’ deals with issues that are unsettling, even upsetting. It is not comfortable, but it is beautiful. Notwithstanding its sadness and anger, it’s a vibrant, exciting listen. It’s an important and – yes – worthy release, but by definition, never preachy or self-absorbed. At double-album length, it is lean and purposeful. If you are interested at all in sound and how it can be used to its full potential, you should get this without delay. For your first couple of plays, you will want to just take the broad picture in: but the harder you concentrate, the deeper your dive, the more you hear, and the more apparent the scale of Bachman’s achievement. I’ve no doubt this will be one of the instrumental albums of the year.
‘Axacan’ is widely available on CD and double-vinyl.
You have the option of buying directly from the label, Three Lobed Recordings, on Bandcamp. Postage costs might be high for physical copies if you are not in the US yourself, but if you want digital, this is the best place to purchase: https://threelobed.bandcamp.com/album/axacan