/A, “Offstrings: Inventions for Guitar” LP
June 14, 2011
By Bobby Power
Complacency’s Offstrings compilation is a true gem of a collection that celebrates the label’s love of an instrument, but what makes it most special is the genuine adoration for the guitar and the seemingly endless possibilities of results achieved by each artist’s unique playing style and background.  The label’s head honcho, Daniel Burke, appears to have also acted as musician, photographer, art director, and overall curator of the project.
Travis Bird and Burke himself open the collection with “Breaking the Ice Before Winter Sets In,” a sparse and dark affair that mixes uneasily picked notes with a foreboding line of percussive clatter.  The piece plays on for several minutes, not quite directionless but not really evolving or existing with any intent.  It’s a subtle introduction to the calmly schizophrenic rest of the compilation.  Bird and Burke continue their deceivingly aimless routine with “Dark Matter,” but introduce random bits of recorded conversation.  Snippets of speech bubble up alongside cross-fading guitar tones, a persistent bass line, and unstructured percussion.  Michael Vallera starts off his “Arm of the Sun” simple enough with a line of complimentary notes (really, just a couple notes), but he quickly brings in a chorus of drones and flickers of light to create a monster of a track.  Vallera effortlessly channels both Eno and Fripp on their classic No Pussyfooting collaboration in an uncanny way.  It’s all there: glimmering shards of feedback and sustained notes, harsh shards of distortion and low-end rumbles.
David Daniell loves his guitar. I mean, adores it.  Whether captured on Daniell’s solo material, as part of the under-appreciated San Agustin trio, or participating in any number of one-off collaborations, the guitar is celebrated in a way that no other player seems to have achieved or really even attempted.  For the most part, Daniell’s playing style consists of coaxing out the slightest melody or chord progression from a series of improvised strums and plucked notes.  Daniell understands the limits of his instrument, and even seems to appreciate its “comfort zone.”  The overall effect is entrancing and has been conveyed many times both on record and in a live setting.  Daniell’s own contribution to this compilation, “Strobe,” falls in line with his recent improvised experiments both solo and with Douglas McCombs.  A sparse melody plays itself out over an unsettling, shimmering drone much like his work on Coastal, but eventually morphs into a noisier wall of sound.  Bright tones and organ-like chords howl and hum in harmony for a completely expansive sound.  The noise retreats far too soon, leaving only the lone guitar melody played cleanly in a wide open space that’s somehow equally as expansive as the storm you just experienced.
Mark Shippy’s brand of haunted Americana is on full display with his “x-Involucrant-x.”  The tune is drenched in an echoed-out fog, but not with an echo pedal or anything.  Shippy’s guitar sounds like it’s been strummed without mercy deep within a cavernous mansion hall with marble floors, ceilings and walls.  The guitar itself seems larger than life and shimmers like James Blackshaw’s own ax.  Shippy packs enough twists and turns in his several minutes to score an entire film.  The album notes state that the track was “performed and recorded in one take in Chicago,” which is something that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.  It sounds like an army, or a band, of skilled musicians practiced with absolute dedication and delivered the piece with military precision.-foxy digitalis
Complacency Productions

Around the turn of the century there seemed to be a wave of guitarists versed in experimental and electronic musics who sought out ways of drawing new sounds from their instrument of choice; the likes of Fennesz, Tim Hecker, Keith Fullerton Whitman (on his still-superb Playthroughs album), Sebastien Roux and Christopher Willits were among the most notable artists in this movement, and now, at the start of a new decade, this excellent album strives to highlight the work of five emerging guitarists from Chicago with similar designs on re-imagining the guitar's timbral landscape.  Travis Bird & Daniel Burke contribute the first two tracks on the album, arriving with a brand of subtly constructed music that owes something to the lulling melancholy of Loren Connors.  The duo pluck a mournful, electrified path through opener 'Breaking The Ice Before Winter Sets In' and subsequently drift through a freetime soundscape of volume-swelling chords and frayed, jangling frequencies on 'Dark Matter'.  Venturing in a more abstract direction, Michael Vallera's 'Arm Of The Sun' reshapes the guitar's tonal range into something more akin to an analogue synthesizer, pulsing through tidal drone motions.  Here, the guitar doesn't actually sound like anyone's actually playing it.  There's no expression in the performance as such; instead the instrument is used as a tone generator, incrementally building up to an incredible, intense crescendo.  David Daniell's contribution, meanwhile, is just utterly breathtaking. Daniell has recently been found touting his wares in collaboration with Christian Fennesz, and on his piece here, 'Strobe', an underlying tremolo figure and organ-like sustaining tones provide a dramatic background context for swathes of stirring, soundtrack-ready six-string manoeuvres.  The poise and magnitude of all this seems to reach far beyond the normal parameters of purely guitar-generated music, yet your attention isn't particularly drawn to the presence of post-production or processing.  Daniell's definitely one to keep tabs on.  Mark Shippy closes the album wielding his steel-strung acoustic on 'x-Involucrant-x', which to a certain degree brings to mind John Fahey's Table Of The Elements-era output.  On a purely harmonic level, Shippy's piece might be the most involving of the bunch, taking you through dissonant cascades of ascending/descending runs that rumble and reverberate between the speakers in a commanding fashion, to some degree translating the spirit of bluegrass into a new, modernist language.  Limited to 500 copies on 180 gram coloured vinyl (100 white vinyl, 100 translucent blue, 100 clear, 100 clear & translucent blue, 100 white & translucent blue), complete with digital download coupon, redeemable directly from the label. Very highly recommended.--boomkat