Doug McCombs and David Daniell are two busy people – both members of fully functioning bands (Tortoise and San Agustin), both dabble in numerous side projects (Pullman, Brokeback), not to mention Daniell’s near infinite number of limited releases and collaborations. So it’s probably no real shock that these two met whilst moonlighting in Rhys Chatham’s mighty six-guitar Die Donnergötter band. A point which is all too relevant when you hear the depth and breadth of the guitar music they’ve made on Sycamore – this is the Big Music: room-filling swells of sound, at once obviously made from guitars, yet rising beyond the medium to scrape at something else.
Sycamore has a live sound to it – cavernous and humming; yet the record is actually closer to a cut and paste experiment in that it’s the product of two live sessions (totalling around 7 hours over 5 days) but the results were then chopped and edited with John McEntire at his Soma Studios in Chicago. This is the first of many nods to the pioneering studio work Teo Macero undertook on those glorious collaborations with Miles David that lit-up the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This is very apparent on a track like ‘The Deshabille’ – an eerie spacy track, falling somewhere close to Labradford, where Daniell sounds very like John McLaughlin circa In A Silent Way. The nod is also there on the epic ‘Bursera’ which could be something from the In A Silent Way sessions as conducted by Keith Fullerton Whitman.
‘Bursera’ is probably the centrepiece here – it’s certainly where the simple idea of two intertwined guitars is pushed to its seam-bursting logical limit. Frank Rosaly – a veteran of the Chicago scene – augments Daniell and McCombs here on drums and electronics, adding buried ride and splash touches (that In A Silent Way/Jack Johnson touch again). The track begins with some muted harmonics, the guitar sounding almost like a prepared piano; then Daniell’s huge McLaughlin sound takes the track skyward, with Rosaly adding some subtly layered drones. At around the 7-minute mark something cracks and there is a whiteout: Rosaly’s drums sound near magma-deep in the mix, the guitars a squall of noise. When the calm returns it’s blessed, sacred.
‘Vejer de Frontera’ is similarly epic in form. At fifteen and half minutes, it is an abstract exploration of muted rhythms (provided by John Herndon) and faintly treated guitars that seem to float and sway in some unseen sonic wind. Like ‘Bursera’ the track swells towards its end, the guitars spiralling together – but here there is no whiteout, just a sense of drift. The track falls away into silence.
Percentage scores for records are arbitrary at the best of times, but for stuff like this they become largely pointless as in many ways it’s like trying to score a canvas. But as it stands, Sycamore as a piece of work is a fine addition to the canon of experimental guitar music – and a fine addition to the extensive catalogues of McCombs and Daniell.