1: 15 August 2018
I struggle to think of this as the final Black Spirituals album as a duo, given that I’ve always visualised their music as eschewing the notion of edges. Marshall Trammell’s percussion is a series of clauses separated by commas and semi-colons, with bursts of energy strung together by expectant hesitations. Zachary James Watkins’s guitar is like a perpetual light beam, suspended weightlessly above the slope of decay, immaculate and unrelenting. To reside at the centre of one of this music is to hover without touching anything, without the friction of time underfoot, without the spatial denial of walls on either side. The splutter of snare rolls and ride cymbal orbits the pillar of hum, as the furious urgency of improvisation finds kindship in an overarching sense of meditative eternity. This is the final Black Spirituals album, but Black Spirituals will be here forever.
There’s something akin to circular breathing at work, with deep listening and devoted performance fused into an unbroken loop. Watkins leans into each microtonal guitar harmony, pressing notes together so that they ripple, generating melodies through sharp zig-zags between notes like light rebounding against a sequence of mirrors. Similarly, Trammell’s percussive gestures are responses and refinement of gesture prior, repeating motifs to thicken the sentiment, or rephrasing patterns in a manner that reprograms my understanding. And of course, the pair are listening to eachother constantly, maintaining an awareness of the angles at which they intersect, adjusting the point of contact to accommodate one another’s resonances, observing how distortion bleeds into cymbal wash and how tom drums stud the sides of drones. These tracks prickle with chaos – resonances in disarray, guitar and drums in flail – yet there’s also a scientific scrutiny at work. The physicality of sound funnels back into improvisatory speculation, as Black Spirituals continually press against the possibilities they generate for themselves.
Such experiments lead them out of the guitar-drum symbiosis. “Want” is a duet for roadside field recording and subtle streams of feedback, with amplifiers left leaking over the hiss of passing traffic. And then there’s “Anti-Up”, in which Trammell’s drum solo leaps into the spaces left by Watkins absence, with snare drum resonances skimming over the air. That essential Black Spirituals energy remains present in both cases, spreading beyond the instruments that play humble conduit, spilling over the boundaries of the audible realm, encompassing both horizon-spanning stretches of concentration and that intangible, ever-evaporating entity called the present tense.
I’m no expert on guitar FX, but it seems that Watkins’s guitar signal is often processed in three different ways simultaneously. First is that bright, distorted lead, swerving between notes with only the most subdued expressive inflections – undoubtedly played by a human being, but possessing a geometric grace that suggests an autonomous energy state. Second is the guitar in the distance, where the tone disperses into a mist of reverb and static, notes smeared into a near-forgotten sentiment. Thirdly is pitched-down bass frequency, quivering as it tries to keep pace with the melodic refrain, occasionally straying disobediently in a direction all of its own. Thanks to the volatile desires of the FX processing, there is only the sense that all of these textures originate from the same source. Occasionally I entertain the thought that they’re simply bound by some sort of quantum coincidence, oblivious to eachother, yet ultimately programmed to run upon the same approximate path. Watkins’s attack is minimal, leaving notes to reverberate generously for several seconds at a time, inviting my curious hypotheses to rush into the gaps.
Today, I’m fixated on how drummer Marshall Trammell approaches his interaction with the guitar. Unlike the overt dynamics of so much improvisation, where frenetic the statements of one instrument are met by an equally frenetic response from another, Trammell’s drumming seeks much more subtle points of connection. There is a glorious moment during opening track “Inference”, where one particular guitar note seems to send jolts of electricity through Trammell’s limbs – hi-hat and snares tumble down the side of the drone, as though this note sends the floor into a perilous slant. The duo operate in disparate zones of time. For every guitar string plucked by Watkins, there are 20 flurries of percussive impact from Trammell. Yet as the latter part of the album title implies, Black Access/Black Axes is not about parallel lines but about points of intersection. Watkins and Trammell meet not at the obvious junctures of pitch or speed or cathartic physicality, but upon those incorporeal plains of spirit and ideology. There are, of course, wider lessons to be drawn from hearing such disparate textures finding a form of empathetic harmony.
The track I’ve had the most difficult time with is “Pan”. For the whole 13 minutes, the duo sound throttled back by forces beyond their control: the guitar emaciated and failing, the drums slipping just out of the regimen of a steady rhythm. Where the bass notes on other tracks run deep, on “Pan” they clench around the mid frequencies, moaning lethargically beneath the main melodic refrain. Energy levels are low. The resonances of Watkins’s guitar are always in decay, thinned and frail, covered in the scratches of fingers shuffling along the frets. The snare hits of Trammell punctuate the momentum like bumps in the road, stalling progress momentarily, coated in a dry distortion like sand. Yet Black Spirituals persist. I’ve come to love this piece for how it seems to defy defeat over and over again, slugging forward even as gravity seems to double in strength. Where the rest of the record skims forward on its own regenerative supply, “Pan” is the sound of two musicians wringing out every last drop of their collective charge.