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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ben Reynolds Keeps Listeners Guessing

Posted By on 11.24.09 at 01:42 PM

Ben Reynolds
  • Ben Reynolds
British guitarist Ben Reynolds seems to be popping up all over the place lately, in working groups and one-off collaborations as well as solo. Even more impressive than his prolificacy is his natural range. I first heard him earlier this year when Tompkins Square released his solo album How Day Earnt Its Night—I included a track on one of my Post No Bills podcasts—and I assumed, foolishly, that Reynolds was devoted to solo fingerstyle guitar.

Digging a bit deeper I learned that he’s also a key member of the Glasgow-based Trembling Bells, a terrific folk-rock ensemble led by drummer Alex Neilson, who’s boldly heedless of the distinctions between free jazz, psych-rock, and British folk. That group’s wonderful debut album, Carbeth (Honest Jon’s), draws inspiration from the likes of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and Pentangle, but it doesn’t dwell in the past. With its bright, in-your-face production and Neilson’s aggressive percussion, it’s an unmistakably contemporary effort—and thanks in large part to the stunning vocals of Lavinia Blackwall, it’s seething with energy and lyric beauty. In Trembling Bells, though, Reynolds’s technical virtuosity isn’t so apparent; instead he serves the dense and electric ensemble sound.

Reynolds has released a bunch of hard-to-find solo recordings over the past few years. The first few I was able to track down, among them Book of Beyond (Last Visible Dog) and Outmospheric Arts of the Outmosphere (Digitalis), surprised me because they focus on electronic drones—often with no guitar. But before long I could hear a connection to Reynolds’s solo acoustic work: in both settings he patiently elaborates on simple ideas as a steadily shifting stream of activity, from percussive clatter to analog synth swirls, punctuates and dances around floating long tones.

Strictly speaking there are no drones on How Day Earnt Its Night, but many of the pieces do revolve around a central phrase or figure. The album’s unquestionable centerpiece is the three-part title track, where an insistent, rippling two-note pattern chimes on and on and Reynolds creates an ever-morphing fantasia around it; that pattern does eventually drop out, but it seems like it lingers anyway, burned into your memory so that your brain keeps adding it to the action. Elsewhere he reveals his fluency with Baroque melody, rich Fahey-style blues, and some Robbie Basho-worthy raga (replete with gorgeously liquid slide action). The only real misstep is “All Gone Wrong Blues,” a rather stiff and uninteresting take on Delta blues, which compounds its faults with tedious harmonica. Otherwise it’s a knockout.

Reynolds performs Wednesday at 8 PM at Heaven Gallery. Also on the bill are Mike Tamburo and the Cairo Gang. The fact that I can’t predict which of his many musical identities Reynolds will try on only makes me want to recommend the performance more strongly.

Today’s playlist:

Headless Heroes, The Silence of Love (Headless Heroes)
Fly, Sky & Country (ECM)
Matteah Baim, Laughing Boy (DiCristina)
Robin Hayward, Rhodri Davies, and Taku Unami, Valved Strings Calculator (Hibari)
John Patitucci Trio, Remembrance (Concord)

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