Black Access/Black Axes by Black Spirituals

Release date: July 6, 2018
Label: SIGE

Reportedly the final Black Spirituals album, this is an enormous evasive evocative monument to their experiments in tone and rhythm. From the duo of Zachary James Watkins on guitar and table-covered-in-boxes-and-cables, and drummer Marshall Trammell, Black Access/Black Axes presents a wide terrain to explore between percussive rattlings and rhythmic surveying, and the vast minimal scope of manipulated, distorted and amplified guitar tone.

Across the double record there’s lovely thick fuzz, and its this that opens the music, a tone like warming your hands over a roasting synthy buzz, like a forcefield or aura of crackling energy, like you’re being plugged into the floor and the pre-thunderstorm frantic air and feeling it all rumble and vibrate with urgent and unpredictable energy. Most of the tracks are combinations of omnivorous curious revolving question-posing clatters around the drum kit, matched with interval-and-tone extrapolations on the guitar that aren’t quite riffs, refusing for the most part straightahead progression cycles or easy rhythms in favour of serious and rigorous experiment. Which is not to say its dour and unenjoyable, but that the occult science set forth here demands and rewards a fierce concentration. Concurrent with the cerebral engagement though is the pure physical joy of beautifully made and beautifully recorded sound: the hits and rattles coming out of the different kit elements, and the warm air hums and sizzles that come out of the alchemically treated guitar are wonderfully clear while thickly material. It sort of made me wonder what the opposite of retrofuturism would be… rather than old-fashioned surpassed visions of the future, instead what the past will sound like from the next century, the organic, profoundly analogue dial-flickering bwwwwmmmmppphhzst…

The first track ‘Inference’ has an airport heat haze drone of work, psychedelia and fatigue, and over the next few tracks I’m put in mind of bladerunner spinning off-angle knives of light and shadow. ‘Condition’ is brought in with insistent skittering, while the guitar portrays machine whir breaths or scanner sweep before nailing a searchlight drone to the sky. There are a couple of tracks where the instrumentalists part company temporarily, in industrial ambient hum  where the drone is rounded and weighty but gritty enough to get deep into the concrete and tarmac and spread out under the floors, and in one case a drum solo which is the best example of that phenomenon I’ve heard in a while. Across the whole expansive double-record set there is a strict consistency of sounds while at the same time a powerful and joyous sense of turning the dials, searching the frequencies, testing the possibilities, while also sending out a tightly intense transmission, encoded for the most distant of recipients.

Oddly it put me in mind of a moment in a bus station in Kathmandu where a guy came up to me with two enormous buckets of honey, still with bits of bees in… a sort of traversal of the senses where the delicate intricacy and power buzz of the insect gets translated into the mouthfuzzing taste of honeycomb. In this record it’s perhaps about the ambivalent translation of or transition between radical ideas and experimental sound, foregrounded by the militant emphasis on blackness in the band name referencing a black musical tradition and perhaps the misappropriations and misunderstandings of it; by the title of the record Black Access/Black Axes (the second part of which could itself have the double meaning of axes in terms of the weapons, but also the plural of axis- lines and balances of force, alliances…); and, perhaps more obliquely, in the track titles such as ‘Treatment’, ‘Dissension’, ‘Reconciliation’… But more insistent than this language is the music. From a duo of drums and guitar (the former subject to racist associations of black people with rhythm, the latter perhaps to racist disassociations where black electric guitarists’ contributions have been downplayed), this is powerful sound which compels rigorous intellectual commitment, physical-material-sonic engagement, exuberant enjoyment and radical freedom.

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