December 1, 2023

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Oren Ambarchi: Shebang Album Review

Shebang thrives on tension—between pulse and drone, repetition and variance, and, particularly, between the naturalism of the musicians’ playing and the artifice of the mix. The piece reaches its first climax some five minutes in, as Ambarchi’s percolating guitar is engulfed in a cloud of almost Stereolab-like ahhhhs. Paring back the thicket of guitars, a Hammond-like thrumming rises from below; steady cymbal taps announce the arrival of Talia’s drums. Then the soundfield stretches and smears as Sam Dunscombe’s bleating bass clarinet tugs against a snare flam, and dissonance leeches into the background, suggesting a momentary flash of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock.

A succession of players each gets time in the spotlight. In part II, pedal-steel player BJ Cole—a session veteran whose credits include Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as well as records with T. Rex, Cat Stevens, and Björk—paints on a slow, patient melody that drifts untethered to Talia’s stuttering groove, whose brisk hits and wandering pulses mirror the pointillism of Ambarchi’s playing. Part III belongs to pianist Chris Abrahams, of Australian improvising trio the Necks: While Ambarchi’s frequent collaborator Johan Berthling sketches out a dub-techno bassline on upright bass, Abrahams lays down staccato chords with his left hand and lights into a ruminative, searching solo with his right. Finally, in part IV, Julia Reidy turns their 12-string guitar into a fistful of icicles, emphasizing the brittleness of Shebang’s 16th-note groove. It’s anyone’s guess what else is going on in the finale, as the sound thickens and churns; Abrahams’ piano is in there somewhere, along with Cole’s pedal steel, both a liquid presence presaging the melting tones of Jim O’Rourke’s synthesizer in the minute-long denouement.

On a measure-by-measure level, Shebang is an embarrassment of riches. Talia’s supple clockworks suggest that he’s a machine made of flesh; O’Rourke’s playing, however brief, is so expressive you could build an entire album around it. But as gripping as any solo highlights may be, they’re always folded back into the whole. The evolution of the piece is so gradual that it may come as a shock to realize that the opening section is in a completely different key than the bulk of the piece. The groove is endless, the focus constantly shifting. Even when Ambarchi’s instrument is hard to pick out, his vision is unmistakable. He once described his interest in the pursuit of “sound as a landscape”; on Shebang, armed with a kaleidoscope in place of binoculars, he takes us further into the wilderness than ever before.

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Oren Ambarchi: Shebang


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