To the layman, the large hadron collider is the world’s largest high-energy accelerator, and is attempting to recreate the effects of the moments immediately following the Big Bang. To the music fan, it is also the image featured on the CD booklet which accompanies the Nels Cline Singers’ new double-CD, Initiate. And, to be sure, when experimental music of any shape and form—down to its smallest proton or nuclei—is ubiquitous, recorded and fucked-over by anyone in any area of earth space these days, the image of the large hadron collider on the CD booklet could be a symbolic link to the oblique eccentric meanderings of a creator.
Wilco’s Nels Cline plays guitars and effects with the occasional primal moan/scream/lyrical voice on this collection. David Hoff plays contrabass, electric and acoustic bass, while Scott Amendola rounds out the trio on drums, percussion, mbira, live electronics, loops, and treatments. The studio disc is bookended by “Into It,” ambient looped bliss, and a beautiful sample of Cline’s more controlled ideas within a simple frame. “Floored” goes the balls-out funky wah-wah pedal route before “Divining,” a patient journey through a downtempo jazz groove with Cline initially playing more like George Benson than a jacked-up Jimi Hendrix. The tune eventually gains momentum and resonance with an extraordinarily tight and warm circular jam near the coda. A winner.
As if the work by the veteran avant-garde guitarist, and his expert bandmates, has reached an early peak, Cline introduces subtle new colors to fine effect on “You Noticed,” which, along with “B86 (Inkblot Nebula),” features David Witham on electric piano. “Red Line to Greenland” is a nine-minute recording console knob-tweak, experimental, but not self-indulgent. Somehow, the trio finds a way to get weird without forgetting the outside world—interior monologues at a frantic pace, no doubt, but some truly epic soundscapes are pondered and reshaped, as well, before the three-minute mark when the trio suddenly takes a left turn detour out of hyperspace, and jams the fuck out of a very simple Middle Eastern riff. Another winner. “Mercy (Supplication)” continues a bit of the slow jazz, which would appear like filler if it didn’t also reflect how Hoff on bass can counterpoint Cline’s guitar without littering the audio field with too many notes.
“Grow Closer,” features sublime acoustic meanderings from Cline, and, again, appears equally at home in the West, as it would in the distant East. Cline has an innate ability to assimilate influences, and push them back out with his own identity stamped on the tune, and that is also quite apparent on “Scissor/Saw,” which is all post-Pink Floyd wackiness collected within a lumbering beat, which haunts the headphones as if a faraway alien monster is stalking, but walking in place, and never quite approaching to inflict pain.
“King Queen” is for the raging headbanging trance for hipster jamheads where repetition is the Royal Key to the Universe, and to groove within the same clenched circle of rhythm is critical to keeping and enhancing one’s internal buzz. Oh, and the song, which features Witham on West African-meets-Jamaican-Santana organ, includes an outlandishly wild, yet controlled stretch of guitar work from Cline. A killer track on a dense, large album.
The first disc was recorded between March 23 and March 25, 2009 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The second disc is a live recording from September 3, 2009 at Café du Nord in San Francisco. And after the studio half of this twin set, one almost feels like the additional offering is a bit superfluous. I mean—why fuck up a great album by offering even more oblique eccentric meanderings? Why, indeed. The live set is impressive because it actually focuses even more attention on the experimental improvisations, which are, obviously, a bit more considered on the studio disc. For example, “Forge” turns a riff inside out, and the band goes ape shit all over “Fly Fly,” before the mid-section slows everything down into a bass solo, guitar shadings, drum beats and rolls, and a patient re-building of the scattered remnants of the piece. Pure weird utopia and a gem. “Raze” is punk rockabilly through a well-executed blender motif. Great white noise.
“And Now the Queen,” a cover version of a Carla Bley tune, is a sweet mid-disc breather, while “Blues, Too,” is dedicated to “the genius who happens to play improvised music, Mr. Jim Hall,” and it is also a more melodic and accessible turn after the cosmic chaos. “Thurston County” returns the band and the audience to some sort of extraterrestrial Rockzilla Meets Mothra on Forbidden Planet vibe, and is a headphone pearl. “Sunken Song’ begins with Amendola sounding like he is playing his drumset while falling down the side of a mountain. Eventually, the tune sinks its teeth into a cool funk rock groove. “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” a Joe Zawinul tune featuring Greg Saunier, Satomi Matsuzaki, and John Dieterich on percussion, finishes the live disc, and the entire two-CD package with a mind-melting 14-minute journey through about a million little galaxies. Large hadron collider, or not, the Nels Cline Singers, a trio fashioning new breed noise out of old tools, doesn’t need to recreate the universe right after the Big Bang. They just need to find a purpose within its realm. And they certainly accomplish that goal here.