Album Review: The Nels Cline Singers’ Macroscope

The Nels Cline Singers’ Macroscope
Review by Nick Nihil

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On Macroscope, The Nels Cline Singers explore slightly more refined and contemplative territory, continuing to minimize their tendencies to atonality and free-form noise in favor of more melodic, structure-driven pieces and improvisations with greater dynamic control. Continuing to bring in the influences of Indian ragas and Latin music as well as harkening to more canonical fusion styles (which they brought in heavily on their last album, the mammoth Initiate), they don’t really touch on their Coltrane-meets-Sonic Youth chaos until the final piece, “Sacha’s Book of Frogs.” “Seven Zed Heaven” also channels some of the freer-form noise-becoming-beautiful arcs of The Nels Cline Singers’ “Blood Drawing” and “Square King,” and its final movement is the most gorgeous passage on the record, setting Nels’ stunning melodic and chordal movement against backdrop of layers of bowed double bass harmonics and ambient cymbal washes.

Perhaps this greater sense of control and precision is spurred by the presence of Trevor Dunn, bassist extraordinaire (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk, John Zorn’s Moonchild, and experimental jazz group Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant). Previous bassist Devin Hoff, a monster player in his own right (Xiu Xiu, Julia Holter, Carla Bozulich/Evangelista, Mary Halvorson, who also plays in Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant) brought a noisier, freer edge to the music than Dunn does here. I’ve seen both incarnations of the group and when I saw them with Dunn, it was a revelation. He seemed to fit better sonically and dynamically with the band while adding another degree of energy and intensity. His sense of control seems to fit Nels’ mood better as Nels continues to compose in more intricate and less noisy styles. Macroscope is also leaner than the other NCS records, clocking in at 58 minutes instead of the 70+ that’s been the standard. Admittedly, I miss some of the volatility of their previous records, as well as the slowcore and drone-influenced meditative balladry of “Slipped Away” and “Caved-In Heart Blues,” but they’ve already played those songs and made those records. All in all, it’s a rousing success that’s more of a refining than a mellowing for one of rock and jazz’s most distinct and innovative guitarists and the equally able and creative musicians backing him.


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