I wonder what the best way of gauging progress in the context of improvised music might be. Perhaps it comes pegged to the aptitude an artist displays in handling their instrument? Maybe it rests on the audience’s reaction? Or possibly even that sense of accomplishment after a performance? Whichever abstract meter is employed, progress is generally perceived as positive, regardless of one’s worldview; whether looking forwards or backwards in time, the results of a work often lead to greater degrees of appreciation when consensual progression is detected. On Alan Licht’s latest album, Four Years Older, our argument is diverted somewhat through emphasizing elapsed stretches from one conceptual version to another, as opposed to formalizing a platform for aesthetic comparisons between each track. This leads to an objective tracing of unconscious stylistic preferences, enabling both “Four Years Earlier” and “Four Years Later” to be relived through single takes — no overdubs, please — as they stand, four years apart, and as aesthetically divergent as one might care to imagine.
The album is stifling and incessant at its core, channeling a linear development of the non-linear in a feverishly defunct and hapless take on the passage of time. Aural fragments manifest upside a cesspool of vibrant noise, courtesy of Licht’s dangerous fingers, where his flawless handling of the guitar is injected with pace, guts, and agility. He unravels the influences within his own music while demonstrating admiration for them in a destabilized crash course of tonal shifts — his early veneration for Glenn Branca is juxtaposed with a fascination for Steve Reich, the results of which meld throughout the album in tight and penetrating swarms. Such reference points are illustrated in the space of a few seconds, before the ground is ripped out from under one’s feet and a fresh trapdoor of haphazardry buckles in the form of a new section. It’s a breathtaking experience that captures the very essence of live improvisation; it comes channeled through artistic confidence, the performer’s esteem for their craft and the boldness to present an uncompromising mess at ear-splitting volume.
Only in this case, that mess bears a distinctive substance, an idea embedded in its hacked-up grate. Across the course of both tracks, Licht takes on a number of styles and personas, the reflection of a career working with some of experimental music’s most interesting practitioners. His admiration for artists as diverse as Jim O’Rourke and Eddie Van Halen shine through equally here, while his work with Loren Mazzacane Connors proves more of an accurate entry point than other unconventional efforts, particularly his 2008 collaboration with Aki Onda. Similar expositions come nestled in the artist’s personal preference for live recordings over studio output, which stems directly from documentary film projects such as Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps. This quirky and unexpected range of influences, conscious or otherwise, may appear unfocused and perhaps even detrimental at the outset, yet it seethes beautifully into the rich flow of both pieces, building an atmosphere that comes framed in the context of spellbinding performance.
Those harsher motifs are brought to the fore on the initial recording, which is a ferocious homage to noise, strangled by its own lack of restraint; Licht goes berserk with manic carrier signals and tripped-out harmonics, all of which are processed at breakneck speed through an abundance of units and pedals. It’s an arresting piece that utterly remolds any preconceptions about what improvised guitar performance might encapsulate, permitting the basis of comparison between tracks to become so much more intriguing. There is little doubt that a discussion concerning progress would make for a curious approach in contrasting each version, but it’s stylistic differentiation that seems to be the ultimate preoccupation here. “Four Years Later” resembles a return to a more generally anticipated guitar sound, brimming with wild hooks; an incredible, melodic mid-section; and a number of gut-wrenching riffs. The latter track is therefore easier to digest, but it admits an equally compelling argument as to why Alan Licht is one of the most exciting guitarists of the age. In his 1997 essay “An Epistolary Monomachy Between the Editor and a Gentleman of Letters,” Licht referred to order as a subset of chaos, which allows Four Years Older to take on the sonic embodiment of predilections past — the album is a grand realization, a magnificent accomplishment that is often difficult to swallow, but never lacking in imagination.