13 August 2010

Various – Guitar Series Volumes 3 & 4

From: The Wire
By: Terry de Castro
Date: 13/05/09 (issue 303)

Various – Guitar Series Volumes 3 & 4 (Table Of The Elements 10×LP 2008)
Etchings by Savage Pencil

It was through a long history and a complex string of circumstances that I came across the ten one-sided LPs that comprise Guitar Series Volumes 3 & 4. The LPs were released by renegade label Table Of The Elements throughout 2008, and I recently found myself gazing at the entire lot of them on my lap. It was like staring into portals to both the past and future. The records reminded me of a time when album artwork was something to engage with, touch, turn over and disappear into. I flipped through these records for a solid half hour, mesmerised, as they are objects of undeniable beauty.

The records have no artwork per se, because each one is packaged in a clear, plastic sleeve. The records are the artwork. Laser-etched with illustrations by graphic artist and The Wire contributor Savage Pencil, the LPs’ flipsides contain unique, elaborate designs circling them: strange, twisted creatures that, on a closer look, are actually animals from the Chinese zodiac. Lee Ranaldo is the snake, Andrew Burnes is the horse, David Daniell is the ram, and Fennesz is the monkey, with fangs, claws and enormous testicles. They are dangerous creatures, and these gorgeous designs pull you into their world, one of mystery, myth and portent – where an LP is both an objet d’art and a subject of study. But they also depict a world where art and object are one and the same, and where our ideas about music are constantly transmuting and evolving.

The first two volumes of Guitar Series were a collection of 7" singles featuring both avant and rock guitarists from Thurston Moore to Keiji Haino to Loren Mazzacane Connors. Table Of The Elements wanted to include a young, unknown artist as well, and back in 1993, that unknown was Jim O’Rourke. The packaging on this first half of the series was also elegant and striking. All in dark grey and white, the folds of the sleeves opened up like matchbooks. The singles showcased wildly interpretive and truly innovative approaches to guitar playing, exploring the parameters of what guitar music actually is, while the medium of the 7" single imbued the series with an air of rock ’n’ roll tradition.

In part, the design of Volume 3 & 4 pays tribute to Lee Ranaldo’s first solo record, 1987’s From Here To Infinity (which Savage Pencil also illustrated), and it represents one of the ways that the Guitar Series peers into and honours the past. But the recordings are far from retro, and these later pieces have moved so far away from advances in guitar playing that they don’t even sound like guitar. The recognisable twangs, fret buzzes and occasional strum are secondary textures adding to the overall effect of the compositions, which vary wildly from aggressive feedback drone to swirling, melodic, aural elegies. They are forays into what a guitar can say given its own voice, while running it through the processes of time, technology and interpretation. It’s guitar, not guitar player, which is the main character here, and it has hundreds of unrecognisable, ever-morphing faces.

If the pieces in the first half of Guitar Series were way out there, the compositions in the second half are even more so. Almost all of these recordings sound like they were produced on anything but the guitar, and they juggle expectations to such a degree that just listening to them is consciousnessaltering. In fact, the entire experience of the records themselves is transformative.

The initial reaction to how substantial and lovely they are as objects is enough to be getting on with, and if you wanted to, you could stop there. The design and the physical presence of the objects is enough to make the aesthetic senses vibrate and hum. But for those of us who don’t collect vinyl, even the act of putting the records on the turntable and changing them is an experience which harks back to a time when we engaged with music in a more interactive and sensual way. Guitar Series pulls you completely into its world, one of dangerous beauty, tradition, myth and innovation. It’s past, present and future all pressed and etched exquisitely onto vinyl.

Terry de Castro plays bass for The Wedding Present.

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