I remember years ago watching The World According to John Coltrane, a 1990 documentary on John Coltrane that posited his wide, influential reach into psychedelic (Byrds, Quicksilver Messenger Service) and minimal music (La Monte Young, Terry Riley). This influence was not only in the seemingly endless exploration of modes, but a profound searching quality that found musicians engaged in a form of playing that was open and communicative, peeling back the layers of consciousness to find new levels of interaction. Few rock musicians in the heyday of San Francisco’s psychedelic rock scene would claim to be on the same musical level as jazz musicians — The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane admired the abilities of Coltrane and Miles from afar — but that doesn’t invalidate their search. Of course, as improvised music, electronics, and rock music have all had decades to grow since Coltrane’s death in 1967, the boundaries between each have folded inward somewhat and the search has ceased to be genre-defined.
Washington, DC’s Matta Gawa is, for all intents and purposes, a heavy psych, free-rock duo. Consisting of Edward Ricart on guitars, pedals, and loops and Samuel T. Lohman on drums, Matta Gawa presents an extraordinary range considering the fact that the group is “just” two people. It’s not just an issue of numbers, though — it’s an issue of scale and orchestration. Their conception is certainly interactive, in that the music grows out of phrases and rhythms in response to one another, but they are able to telescope that into a range of pure sound, haunting and massive landscapes that almost seem to be using Ricart and Lohman as vessels. Not as raging as the Blue Humans or Ascension (the Stefan Jaworzyn outfit), the closest thing I can think of to their aesthetic is a less din-centered Bob Thompson-Doug Snyder Daily Dance (New Frontiers, 1972), shot through with the confoundingly gauzy precision of The Chicago Underground Duo. This fuller sonic environment is a leap forward on Tambora, the follow-up to their 2009 debut bA (Engine Studios).
The eight-piece set starts off inauspiciously enough with “Navagraha,” shuffling time met by Ricart’s stuttering pedal-actuated erasure, but a couple of minutes in, one can feel the Elvin Jones/Rashied Ali whorls build in Lohman’s kit as Ricart’s overlays become more complex and his progressions veer and increase in weight. Bluesy gobs and stark peals pepper the guitarist’s phrases, redoubling on themselves in a gallery of microtonal flecks and jagged shorts in a rather full six minutes. “Position” enters at a toothier clip, Ricart seemingly dueling with himself through a series of pedal-actuated palimpsests and rewrites, limber and thrashing percussion supporting a wiry displaced mass. Indeed, displacement is an interesting facet of Matta Gawa’s orchestration — the way that Ricart uses pedals to both scumble his phrases and spatially reposition them is complex enough to render stereo separation useless. This approach gives one a feeling of being surrounded and confused in relation to where sounds are coming from. It’s too amorphous to be cube-like or three dimensional (à la Bill Dixon), rather a sharp and continual refraction of light that is almost disorienting. If this can happen on a home stereo, just think of what Matta Gawa must be like in performance.
The title track is a 20-minute opus, expanded to include fuzzed and looped bass lines snaking through pummeling, explosive drums and unsettling high-register runs stretched like Ax Genrich after a “Diamond Sea” binge (and this is only the first five minutes). It would be easy for music like this to become diffuse, but more on the part of the listener — there’s so much information that one has to process in a short amount of time that it can be overwhelming. That’s not to say that Matta Gawa’s music isn’t clear or direct, but that the amount of sonic stimulation is great enough that it becomes a vibrational wash. In that sense, Ricart has quite a bit in common with his forebears in modern jazz and free improvisation (it’s no wonder he’s recently begun playing with figures like saxophonists Evan Parker and Paul Dunmall). And that’s where Lohman comes in, playing hairy rock beats and waves of triplets that ensure forward motion, even when one is faced with a canvas of near-stasis.
Almost as a programmatic cue, Tambora seems to take a break, engaging slower-paced and more stripped-down improvisations, or at least those easier to parse. The somewhat delicate “Sky” overlooks from a modal plateau, shimmering and roiling cymbals the only accompaniment to a gauzier element of Ricart’s guitar work, while still retaining tension. “Ephemerides” is spare and nearly wistful at the outset, cottony overlaid plucks and gentle fuzz supporting press rolls and soft surge, though it soon unfurls in glassy tremolo and loose, stabbing time, Ricart building a dense aggregate of runs, dives, and high-pitched pattering wails that bolster his classic rock bona fides. Cleanly recorded and with almost every sonic nuance audible, Tambora is an excellent place to start with the Matta Gawa journey. It’s a very full album — not necessarily over-full, but certainly requiring stamina and commitment from listeners. But that should not deter anyone interested in exploratory improvisation and modern-day heavy psych records, in which Matta Gawa should hold an estimable place.