Ken Camden is a relatively little-known guitarist who shares his hometown of Chicago with Kranky, the label that’s releasing this debut record. The album, entitled Lethargy & Repercussion, features 49 minutes of panoramic, heavily processed, and largely improvisational guitar compositions that share common ancestry with a laundry list of contemporary and bygone musical traditions: modern minimalist composition, Krautrock, kosmische musik, and contemporary ambient musics among them. In a recent interview, Camden explained that his interest in these various influences is united largely by a concern for musical transcendence and the ability of forms like drone, for example, to “take the listener away to a different place.” Now, these are not exactly earth-shattering notions — anyone who has even casually experienced work from any of the aforementioned genres won’t have their mind blown apart by Lethargy & Repercussion — but Camden does manage to carve out some fertile ground for himself, and the record repeatedly demonstrates his keen textural awareness and technical skill.
Camden’s work is distinguished particularly by his process. Nearly all of the songs on Lethargy were recorded in one take, using only a single guitar and with relatively little compositional predetermination. Camden prefers to record at home, and on some of the tracks his cosmic timbral aspirations are interestingly coupled with little modest intrusions — performance hiccups, string noise, assorted clicks and bumps and rustling. In fact, the album’s very first sounds are of this category. It’s an atypical approach to the musical modes from which Camden derives his various points-of-departure, and it serves his work well. Much of Lethargy is unusually intuitive, organic, and playful. And while the album certainly feels like a sort of topographical survey of some distant alien landscape, Camden seems born of the homegrown, Wallace & Gromit school of space travel rather than those of big-budget NASA laboratories or fantastic technologies of the distant future. His rocket ship might be made of wood, and his moon might be made of cheese, but the journey is definitely more soulful and exciting for it.
Lethargy begins with a trio of excellent performances. The first is ”Birthday,” a crystalline tangle of burbling arpeggios, unraveling over a bed of waxy, white-hot waves of drone that emerge and recede throughout the track’s seven or so minutes. It’s the album’s sprightliest and most economical affair, and a good way to get the blood moving. The second track, “Raagini Robot,” slows down the pace but amplifies the dynamic range, featuring an ambling, strobed guitar development that slices along methodically for its first three minutes before building to a blinding peak of wriggling, harmonic-heavy bowed sounds and more galloping, dexterous fret acrobatics. Focused and meditative, “In Your Ears” occupies the album’s third slot. The track features a bouquet of distilled, honey-thick guitar tones that are each released to bristle with electricity and tension before Camden reigns them in at what feels like a hair’s breadth from the point of implosion.
The record starts to lose steam in its back half. “Raga” and “New Space” are the first tracks on Lethargy where I actually feel an awareness of their seven- and eight-minute running times. They feel much more compositionally aimless than the other songs on the album, a fact that isn’t helped by their forays into Eastern themes that border on camp. Both tracks are anchored in droning sitar emulation, and the first, in particular, features a good portion of snake-charmer-style noodling that, while technically impressive, finally feels more goofy than anything. Even these tracks, however, feature a feast of guitar tones to marvel at, and Lethargy recovers decisively with its final track and crowning jewel, “Jupiter.” It’s a bottomless, majestic, 12-minute drone odyssey that quietly melts from moments of downright terror to moments of ecstatic, sun-baked joy with near seamlessness. It’s hands-down the most satisfying drone effort I’ve heard in a long time, and it’s a trip well worth an investment in Lethargy & Repercussion all by itself. The first time I listened to this track loudly on big, snazzy speakers, it left me in a total puddle on the floor of my attic. Congratulations, Ken. Transcendence achieved.