The Nels Cline Singers – Initiate (2010)

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Multiple personality disorder is considered an affliction among the mentally disabled, but when it comes to the artistry of that unquenchable, multidimensional guitarist Nels Cline, it’s the very thing that makes him such an unpredictably compelling musician. Each time I’ve audited a new record of his, like his celebration of the music of Andrew Hill or another genre-bending effort by his Nels Cline Singers, it’s always been an intriguing experience. He uses genres interchangeably as a means to an end, avenues of the familiar to create things unfamiliar. His clashing of beauty with abrasion mirrors inner conflicts all people face, giving his music a human element just from its complex demeanor.

That’s Nels Cline for you: always probing, shoving aside musical barricades and regardless of where he trespasses, you always know it’s him.

Last April 13, The Nels Cline Singers unleashed their fourth album, Initiate, and this ambitious trio completed by Devin Hoff (contrabass, bass guitar) and Scott Amendola (drums, percussion, electronic effects), their first in three years and fourth overall. This time, TNCS expanded the already wide boundaries of encompassing the rugged musical terrain they traverse; Cline explicitly pulls from sources of inspiration he’s only hinted at prior to this. All Cline records are an audial trip with surprises lurking in every corner to begin with, but Initiate tries even harder to shock and awe ya’.

The lush, electro-ambient “Into It” lulls listeners into thinking this record is going to be a mood project, not much unlike Cline’s solo work Coward (2008). The daydream abruptly disperses as this song transitions into the hard, angular rock groove of “Floored” (video below). Coming off like a dead-on cross between “Right Off” and “Black Satin,” Amendola and Hoff pump out an aggressive straight ahead bed of a beat that Cline exploits with attitude and a head-shaking array of tricks from his big bag. Hendrix and pre-Mahavishnu McLaughlin might be recalled as Cline works a nifty wah-wah, but he goes further out into the abyss than either of those guys dared to go.

“Divining” is grooved-based, too, but in a completely different way; Hoff’s lyrical contrabass provides the spark for a melodically simple but texturally rich song in which Cline builds on layers of colors one guitar strum at a time as Amendola does the last thing you’d expect the Nels Cline Singers to do: sing (albeit in the form of a wordless background vocal). David Witham‘s electric piano gives the understated suspended “You Noticed” a warm glow, and “Red Line To Greenland” explores the electronic possibilities of “new” music noise for three minutes before launching into a gruff, experimental rock exercise. “Mercy (Supplication)” is about a searching melody in a tip of the hat to the unusual but inspiring compositional style of the recently departed Joe Zawinul. That track is later continued as “Mercy (Procession),” where Amendola gets in some intricate subtleties before the songs build in intensity until it reaches a strained, beautiful frenzy.

“Grow Closer” is nearly all-acoustic performance (Cline lightly supplements his unplugged guitar with a plucked electric), and folk-fueled world fusion vaguely recalling Oregon and Pat Metheny Group. “King Queen” brings back Witham to supply organ for this AfroBeat groove and Cline tops it off with a magnificent, soaring solo in one of his high points of the album. “Zaingiber” and “Into It (Your Turn)” returns to some of the more harmonically sophisticated audioscapes introduced earlier.

At this point, Cline and his singers had already given us a wide-ranging display of their abilities as both performers and song weavers, arguably surpassing anything they’ve done as a group up to now. But like a Ginsu knife commercial, “wait, there’s more.” There’s a whole ‘nother disc, chronicling a live performance from September of last year, consisting of eight more songs, four of which come from prior Cline releases, two are new songs and two are well chosen covers.

The live set, a first for the NCS discography, reveals a band that is unafraid to take chances and rely on instinct in front of audiences. The opener “Forge,” is introduced on record here, a role reversal between guitarist and drummer. As Cline sets the song’s pace by strumming with a gradual buildup of nasty tone, Amendola’s sinuous colorations turns into all-out outbursts. Tempo control is a specialty with Then Singers on record, and here they are shown to be masters of it on stage, too. The next two songs “Fly Fly” and another new tune, the avant-metal “Raze,” are free form jams that are often unhinged, and if that’s not your thing, it can test your patience. But never content to dwell on a style too long, they follow up on a very obscure Carla Bley song “And Now The Queen,” performed in much the subtle understated manner that befits the quirky, brilliant style of Bley.

“Thurston County,” from the aforementioned Coward, is also performed on this set, as this tribute to Sonic Youth leader Thurston Moore starts off with electronic noisemaking and mutates into a hypnotic, circular riff. The show ends with another indication that Zawinul has been in Cline’s thoughts a lot lately, a frisky rendition of Weather Report’s one chord Afro-vamp “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” Cline’s wah-wah and electronic effects passed through his axe mimics the tricks the late Weather Report keyboardist did with his Fender Rhodes and ARP synthesizers.

While becoming more widely known as the lead guitarist for Wilco and already long established for his solo work and associations with Thurston Moore, Geraldine Fibbers and an endless assortment of standout sideman work, Initiate elevate his Nels Cline Singers to the top of his most artistically fulfilling and adventuresome work. There’s a lot of good product in various forms from Nels Cline, but rarely does he let it all hang out like he does here. Now, any exploration of the maddenly contrasting worlds of Cline should start with this double-disc tour de force.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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