Artist: Cousin Silas
Title: Twang One
Release Date: 2014 Dec 21 (reissued 2 June 2018)
License: CC BY-NC-ND
Unsheep We Are All Ghosts
[Ed. Note: The Unsheep netlabel disappeared, and the Twang! releases were lost until re-issued by We Are All Ghosts, with new artwork. This review has been updated to reference the new release.]
I mentioned in my article on the
Unsheep netlabel [Ed. Note: The article has been retracted.] that Cousin Silas Twang was in my review queue awaiting it’s turn. There was a reason that I held off on it for a bit, I knew that this wasn’t going to be like the previous Silas releases I’ve reviewed. You could think of this as kind of a “busman’s holiday” for the ambient guitar master.
That Cousin Silas Twang
Cousin Silas re-discovered the work of Fred Firth a few months ago. More specifically, some of the more experimental and improvisation based work that Frith has recorded for the last 50+ years of his career. This stirred up the desire in Silas to break out of the mold that he has been putting himself in for the last 10 years. The result is that Cousin Silas Twang, a release of fifteen guitar improvisation tracks, all done in one take and with no overdubs.
The difference in this approach to making music is clear from the very start of ‘Black Clouds Over The Paper Mill’. While the release opens with a dramatic string sound that sets the mood and then seems to melt into the background, the guitar line is anything but a straight compliment to the strings. Instead it wildly spirals upwards and whips around like it’s inside the black clouds of the title.
And this release doesn’t tone itself down from there. ‘Broiled’ finds Silas using his guitar to play a range of sounds that you would not think could be coming from a guitar. And ‘Dallyance’ stars with a series of broken tones or “bleeps and bloops” that is hardly characteristic of Silas’s ambient work.
And yet given the improvisation and “instant” composition that is going on in these pieces, they manage to be pretty listen-able. Yes, there is a real challenge in these pieces. That challenge was in finding ways to set up environments in which to work, in which to allow the musician to stretch out and not be restricted by the conventional confines of form and structure. And yet, there is also a need to create works that have an internal consistency. Find a way to make them have a feeling of being complete without resulting to some cliché to find a way out. And this is exactly what Cousin Silas does.
This isn’t to say that all of the tracks on this release are so experimental that the Cousin Silas you know and love is completely gone. ‘Digging a Hole in the Lake’ and ‘External Evidence’ have the feeling of Cousin Silas’s ambient works. And, ‘F-hole Shennanigans’ despite being a prepared guitar piece has a definite bluesy groove, and sounds really cool.
Still, there are some places where this work might be less accessible is on pieces like ‘For Fred’, and improvised piece dedicated to Fred Frith, ‘Lost in a Cacophony of Rhubarb’ and a couple more. But improvisation and experimentation are the name of the game on this release, so some “really out there” works are expected.
That Cousin Silas Twang is not the same old thing from Cousin Silas. He stretches his mastery of the guitar in as many directions as he can. Some of the works are more accessible than others, but this is a good thing. Artists need to stretch out and try different things, they need to study different music and musicians in order to learn and grow. As a listener and as a person I find it enlightening to be exposed to different was of thinking, different ways of approaching an idea. In this situation Cousin Silas has more than succeeded in providing a release that has enriched my life, and hopefully you will let this release do the same for you.
Tony Bennett commented once that he learned something from every singer he ever worked with, including from Luciano Pavrotti. Personally, it’s my hope that Cousin Silas will find more reasons to go out and experiment with his craft, and document what he’s learned in his travels for us.