Rhys Chatham claims he hasn’t made an album like The Bern Project since his Die Donnergotter work in the 80s. That bold statement only approximates the connection between the pioneer of electric guitar minimalism’s broad body of work, but he’s right that this album is the freshest music from Chatham, as he’s muscled his way back into some kind of spotlight in recent years with a run of great work like A Crimson Grail (For 400 Guitars) and Guitar Trio Is My Life!
For a composer known and loved primarily for the massed orchestral guitars upon which he built his reputation, The Bern Project is most notable for the way Chatham foregrounds the brass, both his own trumpet (which he’s played since 1983) and the trombonist he’s enlisted. In his past work, it’s often been difficult to distinguish his distorted horn from distorted guitar, but here the brass not only sounds like itself, it rules the school. “War in Heaven” opens with a drone like a high-pitched didgeridoo and a classic Chatham metronomic beat, before a swelling complement of horns blossoms around the 6:15 mark into a huge, rippling wall, underpinned by an insistent yet gradually more abstract rhythm with cymbal splashes reminiscent of Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. It’s like the track was frozen mid-note and stretched into oblivion.
The other towering 10-minute-plus highlight, “Scrying in Smoke,” comes off like an evil march across a dessicated, barren planet, the fractured, flattened doppelganger of classic Isaac Hayes widescreen soul epics like “Walk On By.” “A Rite for Samhain” sounds more guitar-focused, appropriately, rolling forward at the unhurried pace of unholy ritual on gloomy dynamic swells. “My Lady of the Loire” takes another tack entirely, based around a gentle piano chord progression with an array of what sounds like tape effects in addition to guitarish squiggles and supporting horn lines. The difficulty of matching up the sound in your ear to a precise instrument, on this song most of all, is a testament to the great mixing of the entire set.
Chatham then openly interrogates his own legacy on “Is There Life After Guitar Trio?,” a nod to the masterpiece that brought him together with these musicians (for a 2008 performance of Guitar Trio in Bern) in the first place. Beginning with the classic E-string drone, the piece rises into another towering edifice of sound, sonically easier to pick apart than its predecessors with its washes of guitar harmonics and feedback beneath the guiding pulse of the horns. The only real stumble is closer “Under The Petals Of The Rose,” a live rendition of a series of floundering scratches and squawks. At four minutes, though, it’s the briefest track here, and while its inclusion is puzzling, it barely distracts from the majesty of The Bern Project’s high water marks.