New York duo White Out – Tom Surgal (percussion), Lin Culbertson (analogue synth, autoharp) – and Los Angeles guitarist Nels Cline have been occasional associates for over a decade, but Accidental Sky (Northern Spy) is their first joint studio recording. They’ve both been busy meanwhile with other, mostly collaborative projects.
White Out’s first album, Red Shift, was made in cahoots with David Nuss of No-Neck Blues Band. It came out on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label in 1998. They’ve since recorded three albums with Jim O’Rourke. Moore also played on one of them, percussionist William Winant on another.
Cline has also enjoyed a long association with Moore. Elsewhere he’s played with artists as diverse as Julius Hemphill, Mike Watt, Willie Nelson and the ROVA saxophone quartet. He leads the improv/free jazz ensemble The Nels Cline Singers, and plays microtonal improv with the Acoustic Guitar Trio. On top of all this, he’s been a member of Wilco since 2004, ironically being inducted just in time to contribute to 2007’s relatively mellow and conservative Sky Blue Sky, though his creative influence on the group’s sound has since been more evident.
In 2014 Cline collaborated with Medeski Martin & Wood on the all-improvised Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2, a triumph of fluid sonic exploration that hit a few mighty grooves along the way. Like MMW, the less commercially biddable White Out have a very distinctive MO. Their online biography says they seek to engender “a healthy mixture of fear, spatial disorientation, cosmic ennui, and occasional beauty”. I don’t get the fear, but otherwise that sounds about right.
Cline doesn’t seem to have such a definite conception of intent. Albums such as his ambitious Dirty Baby (2010) evidence a pick-and-mix eclecticism alongside boundless invention. Giving himself up to White Out, Cline focuses more than ever on his extensive palette of effects and pure and raw tones and textures of sound: expect no grooves on Accidental Sky, nor even such frippery as chords.
This is music teeming with detail. It seems easy enough, at first, to distinguish Cline’s harmonics and Surgal’s percussive drums and cymbals from the the nebulous swirl of electronics whipped up by Culbertson, but sounds bleed into one another like merging ink blots, increasing abrasion and obfuscation. To power through, Cline grinds out tones as on a lathe. The following “Ragged Mist of Stalled Horizons” is contrastingly luminous, a muzzy whorl of tones and overtones, drones and muted agitation that engenders looping, rhythmic propulsion.
This is no indulgent free-form jam session. Of the seven pieces here, none run much beyond the six minute mark, and each piece is characteristically individuated. “Sirius Is Missing” is skittish, angular and rawly abrasive, “Winter Light” a tension-and-release, surge-and-ebb tide of kit and junkyard percussion and shimmering bell sounds.
Surgal’s kit drumming dominates “Exaltation by Proxy”, with Culbertson running distortion and Cline countering with some lovely, slippery high-wire sonics. It’s stressy, disquieting stuff, a sui generis world of sound in which analogue and electronic inputs blur. “Under A Void Moon” sets more kinetic percussion amid a miasma of electronic flux with heavily fx’d guitar, topped off by fluting and processed vocal sounds.
When Cline chimes out clearly to introduce “Soft, Nameless, Absolute” he’s matched by Culbertson with tremulous analogue synth, and the linearity of their conception here comes as a balm despite the still restive tensions playing out between the trio. Surgal sounds becalmed, sounding a light patter on taut skins, but he’s still twitchy, and, as the music ends, you sense the trio might be just about to catch another spark.
Nels Cline guitar; Lin Culbertson analogue synth, autoharp, voice; Tom Surgal “drums, etc.”
BB&C (Tim Berne, Jim Black & Nels Cline) – The Veil.
Buy Accidental Sky direct from Northern Spy.