Mystery is an extremely rare thing to find in modern music — no matter if one hasn’t encountered a particular record or artist before, somebody out there has, and in all likelihood the share-blogs or message boards have spilled the arcane beans with an obsessive amount of detail. Collector types still scour the bins for un-mined sounds, often privately pressed, but it has gotten more difficult to source material that is both predominately unheard and actually worth listening to. So the task for some follows a classic adage: “if it doesn’t exist, you might as well make it yourself.” Despite being associated with some of the most well-regarded names in underground music, both from a label and a production standpoint, Chicago multi-instrumentalist and DJ Dante Carfagna is able to obscure much of the means and most of the hype around his solo work, released under the titles Express Rising or Rising Express since 2003.
Express Rising received cultish acclaim for an album and several singles released via Memphix, but as that material is currently out of print and has become rather collectible, it looked like the project had been put to bed. Over a near-decade of silence, Express Rising has shifted a bit in focus. Whereas the first album, also self-titled, was a collage of veiled samples and original sounds loosely aligned with downtempo instrumental hip-hop, the latest eponymous album was constructed with a bit more analog flair, using guitars, keyboards, and drum machines across 11 instrumental vignettes. It seems important that the new disc is self-titled, as its intent is refined enough to require self-definition — still hazy, the pieces feel toothier, sharply buzzing guitars awash in a gooey cloud, loosely supported by canned beats. When funk appears, it’s in weird and equally dreamlike relief to the atmospheric library psych that permeates the disc.
To be sure, Carfagna’s hip-hop pedigree does mark some of the tunes, such as in the scumbled motorik of “Leland Sprinkle,” but it’s from a nodded-out beatbox that owes as much to oddball Krautrock as it does to vibrant, schizoid breaks. The following “Horse Opera” is awash in gentle, clambering plucks; broad synthesizer washes; and the blown swing of Maya Tone, landing somewhat between Popol Vuh and country psych. “A Treasure Smile” takes this even further, mating banjo and expansive twang with lanky, top-heavy beats.
The LP is committed to a continual shift between atmospheric and taut instrumental comedowns and bizarre steppers; “Worry Your Time” is appropriately minimal and haranguing, centered on dance-floor lock grooves with occasional keyboard strokes providing grinning respite. While the uptempo tracks are enjoyable and divide the record’s mood effectively, the unsettled breeze of the album’s vaguely darkwave psychedelia may be more lasting. Second-side opener “Daniel Fern” is one of those (and the longest piece on the set). With incisive, layered guitars and keyboards, it presents an economically lysergic sprawl. “Answering Echo So Near” hangs in midair with distant strands of Hawaiian electric guitar against a lilting homemade thump, programmatically referential yet angular and meaningless.
It stands to reason that this LP will far outlast the internet and ultimately someone may encounter Express Rising vinyl in the field, knowing nothing and with scant information available. These 11 tracks, melding psychedelia, folk, and funk in a uniquely cobbled fashion with both aridity and warmth, were made for such an encounter. That said, Express Rising has to be dealt with in the now, and in that regard, it remains an album of mystery, sonically attractive yet scant and ephemeral. And considering how far astray this set leans from previous work, it will be interesting to see how Carfagna’s oeuvre shapes itself.
[Note: Express Rising is self-released and there is no website for Carfagna or the project. The album is distributed by Numero Group.]