Music for 8 Blessedly Servile Guitarists

On 8 Guitars (Quecksilber), the music chugs along like a minimalist locomotive. It builds steam within minutes, and then maintains its pace intently. Fans of the monastic repetitions of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, not to mention of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars, are sure to recognize here a pop-music analog to those composers’ late-period classical inventions. As in their work, 8 Guitars functions as a Western gloss on Eastern conceptions of space and sound — a realm in which melodies and tunes and linear development are given over entirely to timelessness. But instead of Glass’ opera orchestrations and Bryars’ chamber arrangements, we have the iconic tool of rock’n’roll: the electric guitar. And we have it in large amounts. The name on the album sleeve is that of Scott Horscroft, though he doesn’t play any of the guitars. (Horscroft is probably the guy pictured on the record cover seated at a mixing board.) The eight guitarists — among them Oren Ambarchi and Brendan Walls — play with such selfless devotion to the mantra rhythms assigned them by Horscroft, that their interlaced patterns often suggest as many as a dozen more guitars. The sounds chime and shimmer, they huff and whir, so many strings working individually and collectively — not according to the organized flight pattern of an orchestra’s string section, but with the tightly controlled mayhem of a hive mind in action.

Now, the guitar symphony, for that is what this is, is nothing new. Glen Branca organized them as early as 1979, and groups as distinct as the Allman Brothers, with their Southern-rock jams, Judas Priest, with its hard-rock twin leads, and Sonic Youth, which inherited Branca’s New York art-world torch, have done much to promote the sound of guitars working in unison. Horscroft owes these folks a debt of gratitude, and not just for their having suggested such an experiment; there’s a naturalness to the sound on 8 Guitars that has to do with it simply having come long after these other musicians had broken new ground, and then let the ground settle. It goes without saying that the electric guitar served rock well, but it can be refreshing to hear it in a different context. And the difference between Horscroft’s intent and that of, say, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young is clear. In the traditional classic-rock song, the peak moment is a uniform and consensual resolution, a single instance primed by a standardized sequence of alternating verses and choruses, shared by all listeners at the height of a given riff. On 8 Guitars, an epiphany may occur at any moment — and, if the listener’s ear and mood are so attuned, for an extended moment.

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