At the risk of prematurely blowing my journalistic load, this is a great record. And that’s the bottom line for any review really. It’s not, perhaps, a record that fits with Rhy Chatham’s reputation for Glenn Branca-baiting massed guitar works. Outdoor Spell is nothing like 2005’s Crimson Grail, at least in terms of instruments – trumpets, vocals, percussion for this record, rather than his better-known battery of guitars. What is residual from his massed guitars is the meditative quality of the work – tracks swirl around repetitiously drilling into the ears, loops inscribing sprawling overtones onto the memory.One of the first things that struck me about this as a great record was the length – a very polite, unimposing 40-odd minutes. No unnecessary frills or superfluous solos, just four tracks which wander in, politely state their case and leave. It has, for me, that quality of being a recording which hasn’t been laboured over painstakingly. That’s not to say it’s a slack, throwaway piece, but there’s little here suggesting it’s a ‘high concept’ record.
Moments of Outdoor Spell reminded me of some of the sorts of early minimalist figures with whom Chatham is oft-associated – La Monte Young or – especially given the heavy brass content – Terry Riley. But unlike those two, there’s a real sense of Chatham operating without a particular concept – it feels more like a series of fortuitous loops, rarely coalescing comfortably but burring and burrowing away elegantly. The third track, “Corn Maiden’s Rite,” with its looping trumpet parps and unfathomable percussion repetition is a track with loops so dense and complex that it becomes almost exhausting to follow – but rather than being irritating, I found it to be an entirely immersive experience. For me, it has that ineffable quality of leaving the air lighter when it closes, suddenly and momentarily annihilating its acrid, smoky sprawl.In terms of reference points for this record, they’re difficult to provide – at a push I’d say there’s elements of earlier Supersilent or No-Neck Blues Band‘s Letters from the Earth, but neither are particularly close fits. Both are groups with a heavy improv presence, and while Chatham’s record may be improvised, the heavy loops make it sound far more meditative, or controlled. The guitars that do poke their head through the fog, (courtesy of Jean-Marc Montera) sound closer to the slinky runs of Eugene Chadborne than the more familiar Chatham guitar tropes. The only real presence of a central drone, in the title track, comes from multi-tracked vocals , leaving more of a feeling of the overtone swamp of Buddhist chant than of 60s American minimalism.
It’s almost a shame that Chatham is best-known for his guitar soup records – great though they are, Outdoor Spell shows that he’s by no means a one-trick pony, but is a pony with plenty more tricks up his sleeve and strings to his bow, ploughing fresh furlongs in a field of his own. NB – I apologise profusely for that car-crash of mixed clichés – but in my defence, it’s a record deserving of a welter of hyperbole. Recommended.