The Nels Cline Singers – Initiate – Cryptogramophone CG143, CD 1: 63:58; CD 2: 71:28 ****:
(Nels Cline – electric & acoustic guitars, voice, electronics; Devin Hoff – contrabass, bass guitar; Scott Amendola – drum set, percussion, mbira, live electronics, loops, treatments; guests on CD 1: David Witham – electric piano (tracks 4 & 9), organ (track 10); Yuka Honda – synth (track 13); guests on CD 2: Greg Saunier, Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich– percussion (track 8))
The only thing someone can expect with a new Nels Cline Singers release is to have expectations blown right out of the door, up into the sky and straight into space. It is not for nothing that the multi-hyphenated Cline has been dubbed the world’s most dangerous guitarist and is considered one of the foremost guitarists of any genre (he’s worked in country, jazz, avant-garde, rock, pop and experimental modes).
Anyone who knows Cline’s long-standing career – the self-taught musician emerged as part of the Los Angeles musical underground in the late 1970s – understands how difficult it is for Cline to surpass previous achievements. But with Initiate, the fourth Nels Cline Singers presentation, Cline has managed to create something that boasts many firsts. This is his first double album, split between studio recordings on the first disc and a live show on the second disc (the first time The Nels Cline Singers have issued live material, although Cline has been featured as a guest or a collaborator on other live records). It’s Cline’s first Cryptogramophone project not engineered or produced by Rich Breen and label boss Jeff Gauthier. Vocals (wordless, but nevertheless voiced) appear for the first time. And Devin Hoff uses electric bass for the first time on a Nels Cline Singers outing.
The studio side – which clocks in at 63 minutes – is a complex and contrasting 13-track collection that ranges from lyrically lysergic (ambient opener “Into It,” likeminded closer “Into It (You Turn)” and the Latin-lozenged “Grow Closer”) to groove-grazed fusion (the early 1970s-influenced “Floored,” which sounds like The Tony Williams Lifetime jamming with George Clinton).
Heady grooves get even more goosed up on “King Queen,” where Cline lets out his inner Carlos Santana. Guest organist David Witham does his best Greg Rolie impression while Cline replicates Santana’s patented sustain and intensive six-string spirituality.
Contrast and comparison are given the Yin and Yang treatment on the two “Mercy” tracks, both inspired by the passing of Joe Zawinul. “Mercy (Supplication)” is a short and gentle memorial featuring Cline’s solo overdubbed guitars. “Mercy (Procession)” starts with an equally melodic movement but over the song’s seven minutes Cline, Hoff and Amendola amplify an unrelenting tension akin to Metallica: aggression mixed with melody.
Cline’s senses-severing overdrive is on full display during the 71-minute live set, cut at San Francisco’s Café du Nord in September 2009. The eight-minute “Raze” is an ear-oscillating piece filled with distortion, feedback and evolving electronics sure to please fans that live for Cline’s most agitated improvisations. Cline turns his tribute to Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, the alt-rocker “Thurston County,” (from Cline’s 2009 release Coward, reviewed here) into an ebbing and flowing enterprise highlighted by Hoff and Amendola’s rhythmic contributions. Yet, here too, The Nels Cline Singers present moments of undistilled beauty. The pensive interpretation of Carla Bley’s little known composition “And Now the Queen” contains a jazzy overtone similar to Pat Metheny’s wilder escapades. Cline dedicates the abstracted “Blues, Too” to Jim Hall: while the cut does not swing Cline nonetheless exemplifies Hall’s harmonic richness and carefully crafted statements. The live set ends with another Zawinul homage, the lively and lengthy Weather Report classic “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” a jazz-rocker with a fertile pulse and cadence due to the addition of three guest percussionists.Engineer Ron Saint Germain perfectly captures The Nels Cline Singers’ textures, sonic divergence and personality, from reflective exposition to forceful rumbles, all the while retaining the artists’ vision. Attaining this kind of duality is not easy and Saint Germain has ably assembled, mixed and delivered solid results that can appeal to both rock and jazz audiences.
1. Into It
4. You Noticed
5. Red Line to Greenland
6. Mercy (Supplication)
7. Grow Closer
9. B86 (Inkblot Nebula)
10. King Queen
12. Mercy (Procession)
13. Into It (You Turn)
2. Fly Fly
4. And Now the Queen
5. Blues, Too
6. Thurston County
7. Sunken Song
8. Boogie Woogie Waltz
— Doug Simpson