Oren Ambarchi: Audience of One

I especially like Oren Ambarchi's Audience of One for the contrasting turns it takes as it makes its way through its four vinyl sides: the first's vocal-based setting is far removed from the instrumental throwdown that blazes across sides two and three, and the closing side follows a nuanced moodscape with a—wait for it—Ace Frehley cover, of all things. One of the things that elevates the project is Ambarchi's openness to the collaborative input of others, whether it be the vocal presence of Paul Duncan or the jazz-styled heat stoked by the virtuosic drummer Joe Talia on the thirty-three-minute “Knots.” Interestingly, though Ambarchi's reputation in part stems from his guitar playing, Audience of One largely de-emphasizes it for ensemble playing and doesn't suffer as a result. The set's a remarkable and wide-ranging addition to an impressive discography the Australian multi-instrumentalist has been building over the course of many years.

As mentioned, Paul Duncan (from the group Warm Ghost) guests on “Salt,” which he co-composed with Ambarchi. It's a relatively short piece, though its five minutes is still long enough to leave a strong impression, especially when Duncan's distinctive, multi-tracked baritone appears within a beatless arrangement heavy on guitar, strings, and piano. Ambarchi shows off his textural side in crafting a quiet bed of guitar plucks and atmospheric keyboard tones for Duncan's voice, a base nicely supplemented by the caress of Elizabeth Welsh's violin and James Rushford's viola.

“Knots” is to some degree an exercise in simmering slow-burn as it devotes a good amount of time sketching out the terrain before catching fire. It's Ambarchi, whose droning guitar shadings are initially atmospheric, and Talia who set the scene, with the latter's insistent cymbal patterns the driving force. The glacial development of the opening ten minutes gives the piece an improv-styled feel, as if the in-studio players are monitoring each others' moves and collectively preparing for the lift-off they and we know will eventually come. After the bluster of the French horn moves to the forefront, Talia intensifies his attack by augmenting the cymbals with aggressive drumming, fills, and crashes. Other instruments take their place at the frontlines, too, including cello, autoharp, and guitar, until the freakout, in the form of Ambarchi's wild, distortion-heavy electric guitar solo, arrives. It's the detonating element that threatens to shatter the material, but Talia somehow manages to keep things on track throughout the episode until horn and string tones emerge to add an additional stabilizing presence (credit for which should extend, in part, to violinist Eyvind Kang who not only plays on the track but is also responsible for its arrangement of strings and horns). The drums gradually disappear altogether, leaving strings and horns to comment reflectively alongside fragmented guitar strafings as the piece winds down.

Side four's “Passage” couldn't be more different by comparison. Minimalistic and textural by design, the peaceful meditation largely downplays guitar playing for an arrangement whose focal points include Jessika Kenney's wordless vocalizing, Crys Cole's contact microphones and brushes, Kang's piano, and Ambarchi's organ and wine glasses. A quick segue into “Fractured Mirror” by Kiss guitarist Frehley (an instrumental track on his 1978 solo album) brings the album to a satisfying close, with Ambarchi playing guitars, bass, mellotron, and percussion and Natasha Rose helping out on acoustic guitar. Heavily reliant on a repeating fingerpicking pattern, Ambarchi's interpretation of the tune is faithful enough to the original to be read as an homage while personalized enough that it comes across sounding as Ambarchi-authored as anything else on the project. It makes some kind of natural sense that he would choose to end the album on such a quietly audacious note, a characterization that could apply as easily to the album in its entirety.

November 2012