Dustin Wong Mediation of Ecstatic Energy

[Thrill Jockey; 2013]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: guitar loops, live pop performance, shred
Others: Ponytail, Ecstatic Sunshine

Looping pioneers like Terry Riley, Fripp & Eno, and Manuel Göttsching recorded their live input onto a segment of repeating tape to establish a foundation that could hang and evolve in the mix behind lead improvisations. Dustin Wong, decades later, uses a Boss RC-2 Loop Station to catch his riffs, melodies, and progressions, and send them spinning back to him in seamless 1- to 16-measure intervals. As the mechanism that enables self-accompanying performance shrinks from a reel-to-reel tape deck of substantial mass and technological requirement into the foot-friendly chassis of a guitar pedal, Wong distills his predecessors’ live-layered explorations into shorter passages of harmonious “pop” or “rock” guitar music. But with a live process of incremental loop development informing his songwriting decisions, Wong doesn’t quite conform to conventional pop structures. His compositions manifest as densely nested reiterations of interlocked guitar or vocal phrases that linger from a few moments (and/or minutes) earlier: [Part A] → [Part B w/ (A)] → [Part C w/ (A+B)] → [Part D w/ (A+B+C)] → [Part E w/ (A+B+C+D)], etc., with some songs stretching in this pattern all the way through the alphabet. If this seems on paper like a recipe for a predictable or monotonous loop-pedal jam session, a Dustin Wong live performance plays out as a series of concentrated moments in defiance of that expectation.

Mediation of Ecstatic Energy, Wong’s third solo album, presents 14 narrative arcs crammed to capacity with anthemic melodies and tonal juxtapositions. After populating his arsenal with pick-and-pedal strategies over years of experimentation, Wong has fully exploited the limitations of his current live-looping procedure — to the point that he has claimed that Mediation marks the end of this chapter of his solo output. Envisioned as the final entry in a trilogy of solo guitar albums that began with 2010’s Infinite Love, the album contains songs that Wong began composing immediately after he completed 2012’s triumphant Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads. The proximity between the two albums informs Mediation’s gradient of atmospheres, from the Dreams Say-like kinetic pep of “Emerald Atmosphere,” to the contemplative first half of “Cityscape Floated,” to the skewed rhythms of “The Big She.” Despite their diversity, Wong’s decision to knit these compositions into a cohesive sequence of moods and tones, literally conjoined by cross-fades at beginning and end of each session, elevates Mediation into a song cycle of emotional depth to match his physical dexterity.

Album opener “The Big She” contains the most pronounced deviations in rhythm and harmony that we’ve heard in Wong’s solo catalog: bursts of pick-scraped noise, moaned vocal passages, and an overdubbed drum machine pounding out a rhythm on the offbeats of the base loop’s grid. These disruptions oppose Wong’s usual mission of consonant loop construction, sinking the track into an ambiguity of atmosphere somewhere between twee hyperactivity and queasy dissonance. His next decision to splinter into an a shorter looped stutter exemplifies what sets Mediation apart from earlier entries in his guitar trilogy: a willingness to obstruct a loop session’s skyward trajectory and challenge the audience’s expectations of structure and resolution. Wong caps off “The Big She” with one of his most distortion-fried lead passages, stopping the loop’s recording and allowing his tones to air out over the clatter of a bare base loop before they sink into the next session.

The juxtaposition of distorted and clean tones provides narrative motion to carry Wong’s songs through a series of conflicting emotional spaces. While the distorted chug that begins album highlight “Liberal Christian Youth Ministry” competes with clean-tone arpeggios, Wong continues to add phrases into the loop that support both sides of the battle: tumultuous bass rhythms and upper-register wails on the side of chaos; squeaked major-key melodies on the side of consonance. It’s clear which side has won by the song’s halfway point, when he begins strumming chords behind the din, recasting previously disruptive elements as accents above an uplifting progression. In another example of Wong’s refined sense of resolution, the chords here don’t serve as the foundation for further climactic shredding, but rather the climax itself, planted in an understated position in the mix, as the gathered tones from the previous four minutes carry through to the conclusion.

Wong’s bag of performative tricks has always run deep, but the songs on Mediation utilize his virtuosic technique in service of more striking compositional payoffs than ever. With a Boss DD3 delay pedal in the chain on either side of his loop pedal, he can both multiply individual notes before he records them and multiply the sum-total of his looped tones at any given moment, allowing him to control the pace and complexity of the phrases already recorded into his looper. Album centerpiece “Speeding Feathers Staring” features a central riff that Wong can alternately rocket into improbable speed or dip back into single notes with the toggle of his post-looper delay at crucial moments of the song’s development. Another strategy Wong previously used to bring the house down at the four-minute mark of Dreams Say’s “Toe Tore Oh” animates “Speeding” and half a dozen other tracks on Mediation: the sudden onset of a bass phrase made more massive with an octave pedal. Wong also employs a new tactic on “Physical Consciousness Went In,” recording a lengthy base loop that cycles through four keys as he layers harmonically corresponding phrases into each of the four segments. The result is one of his most structurally confounding sessions, with a chordal grid that tumbles back and forth between keys as more melodies layer into the loop.

Wong mirrors the emotional and technical sophistication of his compositions with an acute focus on the stereophonic positioning of his tones. In an interview I conducted, Wong explained the role his gear plays in the spatialization of his mixes:

Being able to switch between different pickups allows me to do a lot. I want to use every frequency and sub frequency, like piercing highs. Even if I’m playing the same melody in the same range on the guitar, if I change the pickup, the frequency range shifts. [The tones] lay on top of each other, and it’s really nice. By using the octave pedal and the distortion pedal in combination with those pickups, I can really maneuver around from the lows to the highs really easily. Then I can really work from the blackest black to the whitest white.

We hear this process in action throughout Mediation, but “Japan” demonstrates it particularly well: an introduction that overlays a phrase onto itself with the subtle variations of toggling between pickups; the addition of mid-range chord figures and accent melodies; the arrival of octave-down bass frequencies in conjunction with a gradual climb up to chipmunk high tones; the blurring of all these elements across the spread with the onset of delay. As the phrases Wong chooses unfold in alternately somber, playful, minor- and major-key emotional zones, they cover an equally wide spectrum of frequencies. On the right sound system, Wong’s solo output contains as much punch and PA-rattling presence as a full band performing on multiple instruments.

If the goal to maximize his solo performances paints Dustin Wong at face value as a megalomaniacal figure shouting “More power!” over a boiling stew of loops and solos, the true humility and simplicity of his practice could not deviate more from this image. By compressing the extended performances of forebears like Fripp and Göttsching from a state of cosmic abstraction into his own short narratives, deliberate in their moods and emotional turns, Wong channels a potentially extravagant looping process into a means to relate with listeners on an intimate level. His technical dexterity, instead of dazzling us into submission, reaches us as the natural language through which his mind processes his life’s events: moving back to Japan after the earthquake in 2011, meeting Takako Minekawa and collaborating on Toropical Circle (and Mediation’s gorgeous closing track “Tall Call Cold Sun”), attending Christian day school as a child in Tokyo. With these memories informing its creation, Mediation succeeds not only as a stunning instrumental performance, but as an hour of personal storytelling. If the album marks Wong’s last exploration of solo guitar looping, listeners can always access some incarnation of his life, in full filmic detail, through the loops and the grooves of the records that make up this trilogy.

Links: Thrill Jockey


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