Tom Carter Monument

[Kranky; 2004]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: psychedelic folk, New Weird America, minimal folk
Others: Charalambides, Fürsaxa, Double Leopards, Jewelled Antler Collective

Atonal and dissonant, Tom Carter's Monument is probably closer to a pure ambient record, in the strictest sense of the word, than anything else that's out there. The album, a Kranky reissue of a 2001 release initially limited to less than sixty copies, consists of nothing more than instrumental lap steel guitar, along with a variety of slides. Carter utilizes only a bare minimum of effects in his guitar playing -- a simple distortion pedal along with a smattering of reverb. Stark, skeletal, and simplistic, this is ambient mood music for people who dream of cobwebs, dusty attics, and black coffee rather than the sterile chrome and glass trappings of postmodern culture. It's highly to Kranky's credit that they have begun substantially branching out and releasing a great deal of Charalambides' (and related artists) impossible-to-find back catalogue. The output by Charalambides released by the label stands in stark contrast to the usual Kranky fare, and Kranky's recent diversification is to be commended.

Monument consists of two tracks. The first, a two-minute opener, "Monument 1 (Memorial)," is quiet almost to the point of inaudibility. During my first listen to the album, I thought that perhaps my CD player wasn't reading the track properly. Other than a tiny amount of barely discernable guitar scraping, there simply isn't much to the track. While this piece is something of a teaser, it is the second track, "Monument 2," that makes up the vast bulk of the album. Clocking in at 47 minutes, "Monument 2" tests the limits of what a lap steel and a visionary guitar sound sculptor can do. The piece is essentially a 47-minute expressionistic guitar solo. Though Kranky's press kit indicates that Carter's sole instrument on the record is a lap steel, it may as well have been any instrument -- it could have been a recording of a treated piano or samples of modern classical for all I could tell. The instrument itself is merely a vehicle Carter utilizes to create a wholly improvised and hauntingly otherworldly organic ambient soundscape.

One thing that makes Monument such an intriguing record is the vast array of sounds Carter manages to squeeze out of just a guitar, an amp, and an assortment of implements used on the lap steel. At times, "Monument 2" gives the listener the impression that there is an organ accompanying the guitar; at others, the guitar sounds like a Japanese shakuhachi flute; and yet at other times, the listener can almost discern ghostly human wails beneath the drone. The metallic scrapings caused by the glass slides and screwdrivers (yes, Tom Carter uses a variety of Craftsman screwdrivers on his guitar) add an additional layer of depth and mystery to the piece. Furthermore, Carter's mastery of the use of controlled feedback causes dense layers of harmonics and feedback to pulsate and swell, adding a sense of ambient drone to the guitar playing.

Monument is an eerie record, and is as beautiful as it is dark. Tom Carter has demonstrated an uncanny ability to push his guitar playing to unearthly limits, while still retaining a spare simplicity that, while unusual and unorthodox, never ceases to remain completely engaging and steeped in majestic beauty.

1. Monument 1 (Memorial)
2. Monument 2

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