Gordon Ashworth: S.T.L.A.
Orindal Records

Portland, Oregon resident Gordon Ashworth, also known as Concern (now retired) as well as the vocalist-guitarist for the black metal band Knelt Rote, puts some degree of distance between himself and his ambient-drone contemporaries by working banjo playing in amongst his at times noisy psychedelic settings—not that that's necessarily Ashworth's driving concern. There's no denying, however, that S.T.L.A. does stand out from the crowd for the highly personalized sound design Ashworth brings to its forty minutes. Issued in vinyl album and digital formats, the five-track release arrives courtesy of Chicago-based Orindal Records and is, significantly, the first album Ashworth's released under his own name.

A surprisingly plaintive overture, “Norma” emerges from dust armed with sparse banjo plucks and the evocative rustle of field recordings before bleeding into the creeping industrial smelter of “Upbringing” and its convulsive murk of sheet-metal creaks and itchy noise (apparently the material derives in part from field recordings Ashworth collected while working at night as a taxi driver). Being the album's shortest pieces, the two tracks work in tandem as scene-setters for the longer trio on the horizon.

The first of the three is “Suite For Broken Sex,” which announces a dramatic shift in tone when a reverberant blur of piano cascades kickstarts its eleven-minute flow. But, cued by the style of the opening pieces, the listener anticipates that things won't remain the same for long, and sure enough the chiming piano patterns gradually get sucked into an electrified black hole whose seething buzz is so consuming the piano disappears altogether. The activity level intensifies within the crackling mass as vestiges of recognizable sounds, voices and clanks among them, struggle in vain to extricate themselves from the whole before decompression sets in, the battle apparently over. Though field recordings act as a bridging point, “To Be the Man I Want to Be” introduces another shift, the material now moving away from noise collage to high-velocity banjo picking more emblematic of backwoods Appalachian folk and American primitive forms—a startling marriage of folk twang and musique concrète. “Desperate and Indebted” closes the album on a wave of emotion, with the regret and melancholy of its opening acoustic strums eventually morphing into triumph and determination.

That Ashworth opted to release S.T.L.A. under his own name can be interpreted in a number of ways, one of them being to read it as a sign of increased self-confidence or self-acceptance. But based on the material as presented, it's hard not to see the recording as an expression of liberation, as if Ashworth's elected to throw all his cards onto the table, so to speak, and boldly embrace the opportunity to present his work in its most direct and unveiled form. “Take it or leave it: this is who I am,” this always compelling album seems to be saying.

April 2014