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Alastair Galbraith - Radiant

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Artist: Alastair Galbraith

Album: Radiant

Label: Emperor Jones

Review date: Dec. 3, 2003

Alastair Galbraith’s two previous releases for Emperor Jones – 2000’s Cry and 1998’s Mirrorwork – were collections of short and sweet experimental folk. His compositions were like borscht recipes – in that they called for whatever happened to be on hand – but despite their expansive palette the songs were dedicated to form, almost relentlessly so. If anything, his two minutes or less approach was trying to strip away every inessential bridge and solo, every exhaustively drawn-out lyrical analogy; Cry and Mirrorwork showed that the folk song could accommodate both breadth and brevity.

Galbraith’s career is not wholly dedicated to streamlining folk songs. He also plays with Bruce Russell’s A Handful of Dust, and his name was at the top of Russell’s Free Noise Manifesto, which outlined an alternative vision to classical concepts of tonality and harmonics, looking instead for a place between musical styles, a place that “being beyond ‘music,’ it is noise” and “being beyond ‘rules,’ it is free.” Radiant, Galbraith’s latest album recorded with drummer Constantine Karlis, is in this same spirit. It is certainly not as intentionally puzzling as an ordinary noise album – it contains recognizable violin and guitar, and Karlis’ drumming keeps fairly consistent time. But make no mistake: Radiant is an experimental album: it was recorded live, contains only two songs (one an eponymous thirty-five minute opus, the other a mere eight minutes), both of them pretty much formless.

The sound of the album eludes description. I can at best say what it does not sound like. Galbraith plays no recognizable progressions (although your mind can fill in the gaps when he holds a sound for an extended period of time) and largely avoids playing recognizable notes. So none of my usual tired metaphors for sound really apply. The violin does not “spiral,” nor does it “swirl.” It produces neither “lush” nor “spare” nor “textured” sound (odd for a stringed instrument). The music just sort of erupts, and it sounds unrefined, if it sounds like anything at all.

Of course, albums like Radiant are deliberately critic-proof. As an aesthetic and intellectual exercise one has to respect its intentions, even if one does not agree with it. And those intentions, supposedly, are how we make sense of the final product. I would wager, however, that anyone drawn to Radiant has heard better demonstrations of the same general idea. Which remains the album’s true problem – its release is motivated by the idea that “experimental” necessarily equates to “interesting.” That’s never a safe assumption.

By Tom Zimpleman

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