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Steve Tibbetts - A Man About A Horse

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Artist: Steve Tibbetts

Album: A Man About A Horse

Label: ECM

Review date: Sep. 5, 2002

Murky Beauty Unleashed

At the heart of Thai classical music is the concept of Tang, which expresses the idea that the truth of a melody lies in the pathway between the notes. Thus a master Siamese musician will create a unique journey into and through the music.

While not (as far as I know) directly influenced by Thai classical music, Steve Tibbetts’s work seems to exemplify some of the spirit of Tang. There’s something engagingly indirect in his approach, a tenuous shifting that, paradoxically, paints the music with a vivid aliveness. This is especially evident in his recent release, A Man About A Horse, Tibbetts’s first solo release in 8 years.

From his early self-released LPs of epic acoustic guitar and tape manipulation, through his adventurous ECM releases, to his recent somewhat free-form collaborations with Tibetan and Norwegian artists, Tibbetts has forged a moody, ambigious, and powerful sound-world. He uses guitars both pretty and gnarly, and Afro-Asian percussion grooves, along with found and manipulated sounds, to craft a sonic twilight world of mysterious majesty.

Tibbetts’s music suggests a world of important and powerful memories that seem to hang just below the surface of consciousness; wanting to rise and be grasped, slipping away, leaving memories of memories past.

A Man About A Horse was created under dramatic circumstances: a swarm of wasps attacked Tibbetts, knocking him off a ladder as he worked on his home. A resulting hand injury required a tricky operation. Tibbetts set up guitars and amp and recorded a night of wild, shredding guitar before he went under the knife, the idea being that he would have material to dice, splice, and manipulate in the studio during his recovery period.

There are dense layers in this music: rippling, cascading modal acoustic guitars right out of early Zeppelin, orchestral washes of tape-manipulated sound, the aforementioned shred-metal electric guitar soloing; all laid over percussive structures informed by Indonesian Gamelan: speeding up, slowing down in cycles. (Tibbetts programmed the beats himself, and they are augmented by stellar live percussion from Mark Anderson and Marcus Wise.)

Many of the resultant pieces seem like different views of the same landscape; the disc unfolds in a sort of murky timelessness, offering tranquil and squalling sections that shift with the sudden subtlety of mountain skies. Tibbetts enriches the “lost memory” effect by taking care to stud the music with nearly-hidden little pieces of real life: voices chanting, bird and insect sounds, all captured by accident along with field-recorded gamelan samples. These “ghost” sounds add to the mystery of memory and association that haunt this release.

The last cut, “Koshala”, inhabits a slightly different world. Through swelling, dark-cloud textures, Tibbetts ripples along on acoustic guitar, sounding something like an African Martin Carthy in an altered state.

With its organic flux of noise and melody, storm and calm, A Man About A Horse is a moving, ruminative work; a river with some strange currents well worth surrendering to.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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