Christoph Bruhn: Chandelier
Dibson T. Hoffweiler: Oakland to Sebastopol
Gavin Prior: All Who Wander
Charlie Ulyatt: Dead Birds
At a time when it's never been easier for independent recordings to be produced, solo guitar albums are appearing, it seems, with ever greater regularity, and these four recent ones testify to the genre's current robust level of health. Of the four, it's Charlie Ulyatt's that's the outlier, simply because it's a collection of solo electric guitar pieces in contrast to the acoustic focus of the others. The cryptically titled Dead Birds is the first album release by the Nottingham, UK guitarist and was recorded, so we're told, “in an old potato warehouse and mastered in the wilderness of the Outer Hebrides.” There's much to recommend about the recording. Ulyatt's not out to dazzle the listener with technical virtuosity; instead, he uses the instrument to evoke the vast rolling flatlands of Lincolnshire. Not every space is filled, either; he allows room for the guitar's ample sustain to emerge between the melodic expressions (never better exemplified than during “Breathing Space”), and each setting takes on the character of a story with a dusty folk tale to tell. On a representative track such as the meditative drone “Like Dust When it Rains,” he admirably resists the urge to squeeze a solo into available spaces, implicitly demonstrating in doing so confidence in the impact the composition will have when presented in its unembellished smolder. There's also an appealing, slow-burn quality to “Hanging of the Light at Dawn,” and on this otherwise instrumental collection, the title piece mixes things up in featuring a spoken word turn by the guitarist, with a Greek poet's musings on Icarus punctuated by a raw e-bow flourish. At eight tracks and thirty-six minutes, Dead Birds presents a concise and flattering portrait that's no less appealing for being free of flab.
Of the three acoustic guitar-based recordings, it's Christoph Bruhn's sophomore full-length Chandelier that's the most unadorned. On his fine follow-up to 2013's Weekends on the Frontier, Bruhn performs ten original compositions using nothing more than six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars. Uptempo tunes and sombre ballads rub shoulders on this thirty-five-minute set that Bruhn self-produced and laid down in St. Paul, Minnesota. Song titles such as “Steel Beam Graveyard,” “Old Kentucky,” and “Rocking Chair Waltz” convey the recording's tone all by themselves. His impressive fingerpicking execution and the compositional folk style of the material gives the recording a timeless quality, and the music's wholly acoustic guitar presentation also strengthens that impression; a folk reverie such as “Rocking Chair Waltz” could have been written in 1956 as much as 2016, and that's in no way a bad thing. While some pieces jangle and chime radiantly (e.g. “Junk Planet”), others are rather ponderous by comparison, so much so you could be forgiven for contemplating the skies above when a meditation like “Nebula” fills the air. One also would have to have a hard heart indeed not to be charmed by the quietly joyous “Old Kentucky,” as sparkling a tune as one might ever hope to encounter.
Issued on Full Spectrum Records' sub-label Editions Littlefield, Dibson T. Hoffweiler's Oakland to Sebastopol goes hand-in-hand with Bruhn's in hewing almost entirely to an acoustic guitar format. Hoffweiler mixes things up in an interesting way, however, by working Sarah Stanley's flute and Andrew Weathers' synthesizer playing (as well as field recordings and found sounds) into a couple of tracks. As the title indicates, one-half of the set was laid down in Oakland in the San Francisco Bay Area; the other was recorded following the fingerpicker's move to Sebastopol, a small rural town in Northern California. At the start, bird chirps and guitar plucks give the upper-harmonic exploration “Enneagram Study” a suitably pastoral air, but it's the sparsity of Hoffweiler's playing that's most striking in suggesting that the forty-minute recording isn't out to dazzle the listener with blinding flurries of guitar work. That said, the music does often impress, not so much for virtuosic flash but for the radiant effect imparted by multi-hued guitar tapesties such as “Laguna Rising,” “Another Sunday Dinner,” and “The Goat Water Moon.” Elsewhere, the splendid “The Cricket and the Wizard” kicks out the folk-blues jams, and a few quieter settings give off a powerfully wistful scent (“A New Room is Old Again,” “Five Years A Home”). I'll confess that when Stanley's flute first appeared alongside the guitar at the start of “Eastern Coastal Crumbs” (the two also team up on the closing improvisation “Walking from MacArthur”), I felt like I'd been thrown back to a time when Gentle Giant and Curved Air roamed the land—not that such a move's objectionable to this life-long prog devotee.
Our last recording emphasizes acoustic guitar playing, too (though not exclusively so), but on this one field recordings play a more critical role. On many a release, they're used as window dressing; on All Who Wander, they function as an integral part of a given piece's character, so much so that each one feels as if Dublin-based Gavin Prior (Tarracóir, The Primal Barber Trio) recorded his guitar playing at the locale in question. In some cases that turns out to be true; in others, some degree of sleight-of-hand is in play as field recordings captured at one location are coupled with instruments recorded in studios on other continents. Regardless, a convincing sense of audio vérité is established by the recording, and the image of Prior as a guitar-wielding flaneur is easy to visualize. The album title, by the way, originates from a J.R.R. Tolkien poem, specifically the line “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost,” that Prior happened to see on a bumper sticker whilst traveling to Burning Man on a Labour Day weekend.“Between Breaths” opens the release strongly with delicate acoustic shadings, electric treatments, bird chatter, and the whisper of a string instrument or two. Those creaking sounds in “The Old Claddagh Swings” are, literally, swings Prior recorded at the setting as an accompaniment to his own instrumental scene-painting. If there's a nostalgic and melancholy tone to the piece, it's perhaps understandable given the circumstances of the recording process: he captured the swing sounds using a mini-disc as he didn't have microphones on him at the time; when he returned with actual mics, he discovered the swings had been cleared away. On one track, a cat's meow and traffic noise (captured during a night-time stroll through Incheon's Chinatown in Greater Seoul) appear alongside Prior's acoustic reflections, whereas “August Clouds,” with slide treatments added to the finger-picking mix, exudes an appealingly raga-esque feel. Most of the tracks emphasize the importance of field recordings to the project; in fact, they're so key to All Who Wander, it often feels as if Prior's guitar playing is operating as a soundtrack to the real-world activity happening alongside it. That's not, however, true in every case: “Pangolin Blues” eschews field recordings altogether, leaving only the bare-bones sound of an acoustic guitar to be heard.