This week, the Graun attempted some Daily Mail style Twitter-trolling by running a feature asking if guitar music is dead, and for readers to submit a coupla hundred words in the affirmative or negatory.
Guitarist, Scotsman and all-round hero Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai responded by pointing out the obvious gaping chasm at the very heart of this; an atrocious attempt at crowdsourcing masquerading as music journalism, by tweeting the succinct, four-word question that is: "What is guitar music?" Bra-fucking-vo, Stu. My cap is doffed.
So this put me to thinking about the place of the humble (and according to some, 'past it') guitar in the context of this column. A hell of a lot of what I have written about in the past few months has been orchestral, or field recordings, or heavily synthesized in some way. Aside from the occasional mention of an obscure hardcore band or two, I've laid off it. This must change. So here are three musicians who, in my mind, are taking the guitar to the limits of what it can be used for, with spectacular results. Pushing boundaries like Ween be Pushin' Daisies. Or something.
Oren Ambarchi is a Sydney-born guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. His approach to music is to transcend conventional instrumental approaches. I know this because it says so on his website. His solo work often revolves around stretching out longform pieces, often live, and completely blurring the boundaries between what is guitar and what is electronic. In doing this he forces us to re-evaluate how we perceive these two tools for creating music, and we are challenged to lose any notion of how either should sound, by focusing on how he is making them sound. Cool, huh. Check out this semi-live take from 2007 (yeah, that's all guitar apart from the percussion), it's a great example of his work:
Another great thing about Ambarchi is how prolific he is as a collaborator, having made records/played live with Fennesz, Sunn O))), Damo Suzuki, Jim O'Rourke, Boris… I could go on. But won't. As a collaborator, Ambarchi exhibits some of the most complementary aspects of live musicians playing together – he gauges moods, tempos, feelings, and enhances what is happening simply by being there. 'Onya, Oren.
Mark Morgan (Sightings)
Now for something a little more… Horrifying. Sightings are an NYC noise rawk band seven albums deep, and vocalist/guitarist Mark Morgan creates the kind of murky squall that gives Steve Albini a tremble in his boxers and the rest of us lucid nightmares. Think unnatural pitch bends, clanking industrial sheets of feedback and buzzsaw fuzz. It's wonderful.
In my mind (and probably the mind of other lazy hacks like me) Morgan's guitar work is the logical conclusion of Blixa Bargeld's (Einsturzende Neubauten/Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) trebly power-drill slashes with the aforementioned python-hider Albini's impossibly metallic dissonance in Big Black. It's a sound that reminds us just how far past the use of pure volume, distortion and aggression we are to make a guitar sound deathly. I mean, he obviously uses copious amounts of both those things, but it's the extra-attention to textural detail that makes him sound just that bit more forward thinking, and makes you want to shit your kecks just that bit more.
I promised some Japanese stylings on Twitter a while back, so here it is. Boris have genre hopped and transcended quite a bit over their 20-odd years and 17 albums (not to mention collabs, splits, bootlegs, live releases…), even going a bit J-rock in their latter years. I feel I should talk about how that represents how diverse they are as a band, and how adept Wata is at adopting styles and making them her own. But fuck that, I want to talk about 'Feedbacker'.
Now, In terms of guitar playing, for most of 'Feedbacker' Wata isn't exactly reinventing the wheel – a downtempo slowcore-esque intro period gives way to some high-camp and melodrama that is never lacking in Japanese rock, and this goes on for an enjoyable headbang of a half-hour or so. But then, when everything finally implodes (and I mean really implodes) the listener is left to bare witness to some of the most phenomenal uses of guitar-as-sonic-warfare as you're ever likely to encounter on record. The harsh, brittle, blanketing walls of noise emanating is almost crippling, and if it wasn't for the unbelievable build-up, you would be able to escape it, but you can't. Then follows the most bitter-sweet use of noise-as-melody, as Wata coaxes not-quite-pitch-perfect squeals to play the track out. Uh, right. Now I'm going to stop before I sound like I'm pitching this article to Mojo.
So there are just three that I wanted to highlight. There are many more, and I want to write about them all, but can't – Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Ichirou Agata from Melt Banana, Eluvium, Michael Morley of The Dead C etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc… And to return to the beginning, the Guardian question could almost be answered with a terrible Schrödinger's Cat metaphor – is guitar music dead or alive when no one can see it? Well, plenty can see it, all it takes is the simple task of opening the fucking box.