Imaginational Anthem, v. 3 – various artists
Tompkins Square Records 1905
If an instrument can be a true extension of a musician's character, then perhaps no agent of musical creativity is more capable of meeting head-on the distinct and idiosyncratic nature of a musician's brain than the guitar. It can bend and shape itself quite adeptly to the endless variations in a musician's creative consciousness. A guitar will never know creative finality because it occupies a world unbound by shores. Its strings can emulate the intonations of a person's soul if the right hands touch it. If you question these observations, Imaginational Anthem, v. 3 just might lead you to a different conclusion. As they have done in the past, the good people at Tompkins Square (namely Josh Rosenthal) have put together a veritable master-class of American primitive guitar in a compilation that covers more ground than one might expect from such a small corner of the music world.
When compared to the rest of the album, Richard Crandell's "Zocalo" (the opening track) is uncharacteristically traditional and classical in nature, but takes a liberty with technique (particularly the way he slides and bounces off the strings) that sets it apart from more baroque guitar pieces of the past. It is a bit tepid when compared to the rest, but still manages to be dramatic, playful, steady, and infused with lyrical movement all at once, even though it stays cloaked in a traditional fabric. "Sleep Architecture" by Vermont resident Greg Davis is an altogether different beast. It fleshes itself out in a free time stomp of finger picking flourishes that speed up and slow down in a cascade of notes that are at times beatific and peaceful, but always infused with a rebelliousness towards conformity. Traditional ideas are present here, but Davis simply touches them for a moment and then diverges down a new path. This piece is also audacious because it incorporates a waterfall of ambient drones, voices, crackles, organ noises and altogether psychedelic tones in its final moments that will leave you shaking your head at the unexpected wonder of it all.
Guitar would have likely gone extinct from the popular landscape without the blues. So it is no surprise that the genre is incorporated here — and in fine fashion, too. Nathan Salsburg's "Bold Ruler's Joys" stands out on this compilation more than any other, partly because it is incorporated among the more orchestral and out-of-bounds pieces, but also due to the fact that it is relishing so astutely in the exultation and self-discovery that can come from playing a guitar — which is in part what any guitar compilation should be striving to achieve. The song's playfulness is certainly its most pleasing factor but is hardly its most enduring quality. It has a buoyant lilt and dexterity that makes it swing while also having a complicated set of chordal voicings that infuse it with maturity and great finesse.
German guitarist Steffen Basho-Junghans' "Blue Mountain Raga II" is a nearly 15-minute opus of 12-string playing that requires a certain aptitude for ambition, improvisation (either real or imagined), and unconventionality in order to appreciate how astounding it really is. Known for long-form pieces that chart the uncharted, Junghans uses short, low-note bends, harmonics, and precisely picked surges of energy that are both enduring and baffling to the ears. The countenance of his playing feels like the wind, moving slowly one moment only to gust suddenly the next. Junghans has an elaborate language to draw from, yet maintains a fiercely noticeable sound that sounds as close to hammer dulcimer as any guitar ever has. If you are familiar with Leo Kottke, then perhaps you might be able to fathom Steffan Basho-Junghans. Perhaps. On a much shorter note, the just-over-a-minute piece "Sean Cycle" by Matt Baldwin is a clever little rag. Its dreamy, free-form opening sequence quickly bounces into a bluegrass-tinged orgy of hammer-ons and devilishly quick finger picking that, at least from a compositional point of view, strays none too far from tradition, but undoubtedly emerges as a masterful example of primitive guitar.
Banjo makes a pleasant and altogether unprecedented appearance here in the form of "Goblins" by George Stavis. Although the texture of the sound is resoundingly that of a finely picked banjo, it fits squarely among the unconventionality of these primitive guitar players of today. It uses standard bluegrass and old-timey techniques in a boundless form of playing that turns it into a banjo song from another universe entirely. "High Tower Bells For Loren Connors" by resonator guitarist R. Keenan Lawler is perhaps the most ambitious and ethereal piece of all. Utilizing a slide and a bow, Lawler confounds the ears with squeaks, hums, poundings, and chimes that are captivating and beautifully cacophonous. It stomps its way along into truly bizarre territories, challenging the listener beyond most people's threshold. Eastern sounds emerge through piercing, vibrato-heavy quivers along with more Western rhythms and chords, infusing it with a world music quality that sets it apart from the rest. To some it might sound like noise, to others it will sound like a purposeful piece of other-worldliness seemingly bound by nothing.
Few players attempt the sounds heard on this compilation, and for good reason. You can most likely hurt yourself trying these things. It takes unreal commitment and desire for endless interpretations and configurations to achieve heights such as these. It takes a mind that can bend and then bend some more. Imaginational Anthem, v. 3 is not necessarily an album strictly for guitar players, but if you are one, you’re guaranteed to become more resilient to the whims of your creativity.