Album Of The Week: Mark McGuire Along The Way
If you’re old enough to actually remember the 1980s, there’s a particular sound — a ticking arpeggio, a guitar made to sound like a synth or a synth made to sound like a guitar — that probably conjures an instant stomach-flutter excitement in you. It’s what you hear on the intro of the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius,” or Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger.” It’s that rippling echo, that shiver before the screaming guitars and triumphant shout-along lyrics come in. Sometime during the decade, that sound became a sort of cultural shorthand for “some shit is about to happen.” You’d hear it, and you sometimes still do, during NBA-team introductions. It would play while a team of attendants carried Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and his leather-jacketed pet komodo dragon to the ring during the 1989 Great American Bash. And more than what followed it, that simple sound would create this pavlovian goosebump effect. With “The Instinct,” the best song on his new album Along The Way, Mark McGuire has taken that sound and made an entire 12-minute epic out of it. That bubbling stays throughout, and it never quite loses its anticipatory on-the-edge quality. But when the screaming guitars come in — and they do, eventually — they’re deep in the mix, and they’re not the focal point. Instead, McGuire uses that sound to stretch out, to blur, to fade. In his hand, it becomes a gummy, aquatic bliss-out. He keeps layering sounds on top of it, but the build is so gradual that you almost don’t notice the song becoming this towering Boredoms-worthy freakout. While “The Instinct” is playing, it might not occur to you that the song is 12 minutes long, since it all seems to unfold so naturally. And when it’s over, it doesn’t leave you with that “something is about to happen” impression. Instead, it leaves you with the slow-dawning realization that something just happened.
Some background on McGuire: He’s not the baseball guy. He used to play guitar in the Cleveland trio Emeralds, probably the single friendliest and most approachable musical entity on the entire synth-drone underground. (Their 2010 album Does It Look Like I’m Here? worked as a gift for those of us who didn’t, and don’t, quite get Oneohtrix Point Never.) McGuire has been releasing his own music for years, too, playing ambient sheets of guitar through delay pedal after delay pedal, building an audience among the sort of people who hear the phrase “the wire” and think of the magazine instead of the TV show. He left Emeralds about a year ago, and the group called it a day shortly thereafter. McGuire, meanwhile, has been moving around a bunch — Cleveland to Portland, Portland to L.A. — and he played guitar on a few songs from the forthcoming Afghan Whigs reunion album. Somewhere along the way, he realized that there was more he could be doing musically.
“I was just working on solo guitar music for years,” he tells FADER. “And it’s cool to have a thing like, ‘Oh, that’s your thing that you do,’ but there’s a whole world of sound out there.” For Along The Way — if you can read that title without mentally pronouncing it in Bob Marley Voice, you’re stronger than me — he’s written a long narrative to go along with every piece of mostly-instrumental music, but that narrative didn’t come with my promo copy, so I haven’t read it. Still, I don’t need to read a story to know that Along The Way is the sound of someone embracing a whole world of sound, pushing his musical voice in as many directions as possible, building entire cities out of notes and tones.
The first sounds we hear on Along The Way are strummed acoustic guitars, and we hear more of them throughout, but this isn’t a guitar record. Instead, McGuire piles on the layers: Guitars, synths, mandolins, drum machines, sighed vocals, sounds that could be any of those things but could also be bird noises or whatever. It’s a mellow, contemplative, staring-longingly-through-your-window-on-a-sunny-day kind of record, and it’s way too aggressively pleasant for anyone to seriously call it “drone.” When the drum programming clicks in, you could almost be listening to pastoral ambient techno, except that the focus is never really on the beat, or on anything else for that matter. The parts with vocals (processed, flat, multi-tracked, conversational, often wordless) can sound a bit like solo Panda Bear. Other times, it’s like the score to Friday Night Lights if Peter Berg had been into Fennesz instead of Explosions In The Sky. And because it sounds like all these things while simultaneously sounding like none of them, Along The Way practically feels like its own genre of music, a new hybrid that calls out for a name like Balearic Blues or Astral Noodle or Ambient Sunburst Glop, or maybe even something that isn’t terrible. What I’m saying is this: It’s a home run. (Sorry.)
Along The Way is out now on Dead Oceans.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Broken Bells’ extremely produced sophomore effort After The Disco.
• Bombay Bicycle Club’s tricky, inventive, deeply likable Brit-rock forward-leap See You Tomorrow.
• Isaiah Rashad’s reflective, conversational, generally great Southern rap debut Cilvia Demo.
• Marissa Nadler’s spectral folk seance July.
• Ceo’s fluttery pop exploration Wonderland.
• Behemoth’s majestic post-cancer black metal comeback The Satanist.
• Xiu Xiu’s grisly art-pop wallow Angel Guts: Red Classroom.
• Sunn O))) and Ulver’s experimental metal collaboration Terrestrials.
• Gardens & Villa’s lush dance-rocker Dunes.
• AAN’s ambitious, blown-out indie rock debut Amor Ad Nauseum.
• +/-‘s kind-spirited indie-pop return Jumping The Tracks.
• CYMBALS’ insistent synth-rock debut The Age Of Fracture.
• Be Forest’s woozy, dreamlike Earthbeat.
• Coliseum’s in-concert LP Faith and Curses – Live.
• The star-heavy love-song-covers comp Sweetheart 2014.
• The Vampire Academy soundtrack.
• Mas Ysa’s Worth EP.
• Cassorla’s Amigos EP.
• Secret Colours’ Positive Distraction Part I EP.
A programming note: We haven’t forgotten about Sun Kil Moon’s masterful new album Benji, but that album had its release pushed back a week, and it won’t be out until 2/11. It’ll be in contention next week.